Pubdate: Fri, 24 Feb 2017
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2017 The New York Times Company
Author: Serena Solomon


VATUKALO, Fiji - Before kava makes its way to a new wave of trendy
bars in places like Brooklyn and Berkeley, Calif., it must be nurtured
and plucked by people like Livai Tavesivesi.

A sun-weathered farmer on the Fijian island of Ovalau, Mr. Tavesivesi,
47, once farmed kava - the main ingredient in a drink long used by
residents to attain a mellow buzz - much the way people here did for
centuries. First, he washed its gnarled roots in a nearby river. Then
he diced them, dried them in the sun and pounded them into powder with
a tabili, a supersize mortar and pestle. Finally, he carried it three
miles into town to be sold. "If we didn't have a horse or car, we had
to carry it," he said.

Those traditional ways have led to bigger problems. Last year, Cyclone
Winston devastated the island's crop, threatening farmers' livelihoods
even as it sent kava prices soaring. More broadly, Fiji's kava
harvests have been inconsistent for years because of outdated
techniques; the casual attitude of small-time farming has led to
poor-quality products that do not pack the same pop.

Pacific Island governments, nonprofits and a new group of
entrepreneurs are trying to solve those problems. They are working to
modernize kava cultivation in the hope that the drink's budding
popularity in the United States and Europe can be sustained. Groups in
Fiji hope new interest could help alleviate the country's rural
poverty, which persists despite healthy economic growth over all.
Continue reading the main story

"Kava," said Rob Erskine-Smith, an Australian associate professor who
works with a nonprofit group that supports kava farmers, "is the
biggest opportunity Fiji has."

More than 15 years ago, sales of kava generated about $200 million a
year for the South Pacific region. The market took a hit after Germany
banned the product in 2002 over worries about liver toxicity. The
United States issued a similar warning but never banned kava. Then a
German court in 2015 overturned that country's ban, leading to hopes
that the market would open again.

There are about 100 American kava bars now, up from about a third of
that in 2012, said Tyler Blythe, a founding board member of the
American Kava Association.

"A lot of these guys own one or two bars, and they are expanding," he

In nations like Fiji and Vanuatu, kava, a species of pepper, has long
been part of a nightly ritual. On late afternoons, young Fijians in
villages take turns pounding the kava, known locally as yaqona, with a
tabili. The powder is wrapped in cloth and sloshed around a communal
bowl full of water, creating a muddy liquid with a bitter, chalky
taste. The payoff: a feeling of relaxed contentedness that Fijians say
aids discussion and conflict resolution.

"It is not as though you are losing the use of your senses," Willy
Annicette, 34, who works in the banking industry, said on a recent
Friday night at a New York City kava bar, Brooklyn Kava in Bushwick,
before making the 30-minute motorbike ride back to his Manhattan
apartment. "No, you are laid back and more aware."

The atmosphere at Brooklyn Kava is not all that different from a
typical Fijian kava session. Conversation takes place in whispers, and
movement is minimal. At one recent sitting on the island of Taveuni, a
circle of people, mostly men, sat on a woven grass mat surrounding a
large wooden kava bowl. Someone strummed a guitar nearby. The drinkers
gulped quickly - even Fijians cringe at the taste - from a coconut

"The more you drink, the more you relax," said Viliame Seru, 53, son
of a village chief, who doled out the kava that evening. "With
alcohol, the more you drink, the noisier you get."

Taki Mai, a Fijian company, wants to do with kava what others have
done for exotic coffee. It sells both kava powder for the traditional
brew and flavored shots for Western taste buds.

But its business depends largely on getting local farmers to change
their ways to ensure steady and high-quality kava. Kava can take three
to five years to grow, which leaves the crop vulnerable to storms.
Farmers can prune leaves of the kava plant during cyclone season to
reduce wind damage, but this is not widely practiced. Some
unscrupulous farmers have been known to mix their kava with sawdust or
other fillers.

"We need to be prepared as an industry this time," said Zane Yoshida,
who began Taki Mai in 2014 as an answer to energy drinks. "There is no
third chance."

Production rates are all over the map. Fiji's kava exports totaled
$4.3 million in 2015, according to government statistics, but the
cyclone last year has left Taki Mai's $600,000 processing factory
idle. Local kava prices recently doubled to about $18 a pound.

Many farmers pull their plants "whenever they need money" rather than
sticking to a rolling schedule of planting and harvesting, said David
Hickes, a coordinator at the Increasing Agricultural Commodity Trade
Project, a nonprofit partly funded by the European Union.

Governments and nonprofits are getting involved. The Fiji Crop and
Livestock Council, an industry organization, is introducing a text
messaging system that can prompt farmers on what to do in case of bad
weather. The Fiji government is developing a bill to regulate the
industry, requiring exporters to have a license and farmers to
register on a national database.

An aid-for-trade program called Pacific Horticultural and Agricultural
Market Access, which is funded by the Australian and New Zealand
governments, is working on a manual to teach farmers what varieties
are best suited to the different markets and products. Some kava is
higher in kavalactones, the property that creates the mellow
sensation, and is ideal for concentrated products, like pills, which
are often marketed as a natural relief for insomnia and anxiety.

For some farmers, the new ways can be a tough sell.

Mr. Tavesivesi, who farms in the village of Vatukalo, said that he was
skeptical when Taki Mai offered a new way of doing things. Instead of
processing their crops, farmers were to bring the undried roots pulled
straight from the ground to Taki Mai. The catch: Taki Mai paid about
$2 a pound compared with the $18 that fully processed kava could get
at the market.

"My first thought: 'It was not fair for the price,'" Mr. Tavesivesi

Then he tried it. Undried kava, which is 80 percent water, weighs much
more than its dried counterpart. Also, Mr. Tavesivesi said, he no
longer needed to spend time or labor on dicing, drying and pounding
the root.

Etuate Draunidalo, 66, a farmer who sells to Taki Mai, estimated his
hillside farm earns $120,000 a year. A decade ago, he made about
$5,000 working at a local governmental office. After prodding from
Taki Mai, he plans to start growing varieties higher in kavalactones
that are preferred by Western drinkers. Farmers who do so, he said,
have a better chance of selling their kava overseas.

"I think the farmers are lucky," he said. "The price might go up."
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