Roughly half of Hawaii's farms are on the Big Island (which is officially named - though seldom referred to as - "Hawaii"), so with my boyfriend, Noah, I began my tour with a 45-minute flight from Honolulu to Kailua-Kona, the island's center of commerce on the western coast. Kona coffee is the island's best-known crop, renowned for its $20- to $30-a-pound pricetag, but when I realized what else grows there - cacao, tropical fruit, tea - I planned a road trip that would expose us to the full range of small farms on the Big Island.
It isn't far to the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory (originalhawaiianchocolatefactory.com). In our rented car, we drive 15 minutes from Kailua-Kona up the slopes of Hualalai Mountain - an active volcano that last erupted in 1801 - to Bob and Pam Cooper's six-acre farm, where they do everything from growing cacao beans to wrapping their finished chocolate bars. Cacao grows only within 20 degrees of the equator - the majority of the world's cacao is grown in Ivory Coast, Ghana and Indonesia - making the Coopers' product the only American chocolate grown and processed in one location.
The Coopers moved to Hawaii in 1997 from Raleigh, where he managed a country club and she worked in a jewelry store. Both 50, they decided to buy a home overlooking the Kona coast and find work in Hawaii. The property's previous owner had planted cacao, but just as a hobby. Because Hawaii had no chocolate-processing facility, cacao beans had to be shipped to the mainland, making it an unprofitable crop. "Nobody was growing cacao commercially in Hawaii because there was no market," says Bob. With his tiny jury-rigged processing facility, he has changed that. Since they started the business in 2000, the Coopers have sold cacao trees to other Big Island growers, of whom ten to 15 now sell back their harvest.