Background: When I started drinking kava 16 years ago, the availability was very limited in the US, and I was often confused by the fact that buying the same exact product would produce different effects from one order to another. I loved the kava when it was good and I was convinced there had to be factors influencing kava quality that I didn’t yet understand, which could help me get those good effects each time. I was determined to learn as much as I could which eventually led me to go straight to the source, my first trip to Fiji in 2011.
As soon as I hit the ground and started asking around, I realized this was going to be more complicated than initially imagined. Kava was widely known across the South Pacific Islands and it seemed everyone I asked about kava had a friend or cousin growing it. Even the taxi driver who picked me up from the airport had kava plants growing, and they all had the same response: “It’s the best kava available”. It turned out many of these people had a small kava patch in their backyard or 5-10 plants among other crops they grew. I decided it was time to try to find bigger farms, as well as to get a little technical on kava quality.
Through the KavaForums, I began speaking with Garry Stoner of True Kava who had the same ideas as me, there had to be more to the whole equation for consistently good kava. He had an experienced analytical background with various forms of testing and was already speaking to Dr. Lebot, the leading kava researcher in the world, and others on testing methods pertaining to kava quality. I began sending him samples from every kava I could get my hands on – from small farms, large distributors, and every online shop whether in the US or overseas.
As test results rolled in, we were shocked to learn a large majority of the kava available online and from large distributors contained significant amounts of Tudei kava varieties, with their known less than favorable effects, mixed in. Other tests showed aerial parts such as leaves and stems ground in with the kava. As we learned more about the life of a kava plant and kava farming it was easy to see what was happening and what would lead to kavas of varying quality and effects.
Interestingly, the results also showed that the kava coming from small farms, that I’d talked to and been able to directly convey my wishes for the freshest, cleanest, root & stump only kava product, as opposed to the kava from wholesale distributors, tested great. This was another important finding and one that was to influence how I source kava going forward.
The Life of a Kava Plant
Since Kava doesn’t reproduce naturally, each plant has to be specifically cultivated from nodes on the stalk. These can be put directly in the ground or more common now, started in a nursery until they are healthy enough to be left on their own.
They are then cared for over the course of at least three years hoping to not experience drought, flooding, infestation, or tropical cyclones – all of which could destroy an entire crop – so kava farmers take a lot of risk with this endeavor not to mention theft of kava plants which has been on the rise.
After the plant has matured, it is time to dig it up being careful not to leave behind any of the valuable lateral roots which contain the highest concentration of kavalactones. The stalks are chopped away from the stump which will provide nodes for many more kava plants in the future. The stump and roots are then washed thoroughly to remove the dirt. Domestically in Vanuatu, the kava will then be transported to a local Nakamal to be enjoyed by patrons over the next 1-3 days. In Fiji and Tonga (or for export in Vanuatu) the kava will then be dried either by direct sunlight or with drying houses. Following good drying, the kava is then pounded or ground into a powder and ready for consumption or export.
There are many factors along this stage though that can easily affect quality. Firstly is the kava variety – as discussed Tudei varieties are commonly not desirable in the domestic market and can often be mixed in with Noble varieties to bulk up the weight of an export. Large wholesalers have been known to encourage farmers to plant Tudei because it is so cheap, making the efforts of finding Noble only kava even harder. Additionally, if less trustworthy farmers/wholesalers want to add weight to the export they can forgo washing the roots and include lots of dirt with the shipment, or they can avoid drying the kava enough, which will add water weight that in turn can make the kava mold. People have been commonly known to add stalks and leaves to be ground up in the kava. There have even been stories of exporters mixing in sawdust or flour with the kava to bulk up the weight.
This is where testing comes in. Importers need to be able to detect all of these factors with extensive testing on a shipment so they know exactly what they’re selling. Personally at KWK, we will meet with farmers and convey our requirements as well as try to help them figure out the logistics to provide great kava. Even then though, only a very small amount of kava samples we bring in end up going to market. Less than 1 out of 10 samples we try will live up to what we desire to sell.
Kava Farming in the Pacific – The Importance of Small Scale Kava Farmers
Early testing results confirmed to me the importance of building relationships with small-scale kava farmers. I knew the only way I would be comfortable supplying kava to others, would be to continually meet directly with small farms, clearly convey our requirements, and work with them to figure out the logistics for providing great kava. Most importantly, we are willing to pay them a premium price to be strict on quality. This is of great benefit to them and to our customers.
Many people new to kava will be shocked to learn the plant isn’t a commercial crop grown how we normally think of crops in the US. Kava is often grown among other crops and since a large portion of South Pacific communities are subsistence-based, it isn’t grown solely for revenue. Kava has many important
cultural aspects from island to island and is often used for ceremonies including funerals, weddings, and to welcome important guests. In addition, it is drunk at normal social gatherings in the same way we might consume alcohol. There are a few large kava plantations out there, but they are almost always owned by a village, a single farmer, or through a cooperative, not a large corporation. Most often though, kava comes from small family farms that may have a couple of acres planted and these acres serve as a bank savings account. If someone in the family needs costly medical treatment, kava plants are sold to pay for this. Many times, kava plants are sold to pay for education costs of their children.
One of our personal favorite stories, about the direct impact of monies earned from the sale of kava, comes from a village we buy from in Vanuatu. By dealing directly with the village and paying a premium to guarantee high-quality kava, the village was able to install running water and electricity throughout the homes there and just recently finished building the first medical operating facility on the island. These are the things I most wanted to convey to kava consumers, the proceeds don’t go to some nondescript corporation – they go to families and villages who are proud to hear feedback that people in the US enjoy their hard work of growing good kava.
We hope this has helped you to understand all that goes into growing, harvesting, and sourcing quality kava and getting it into a bag/jar for your enjoyment. And I hope you enjoy our kava as much as I do.
Kalm with Kava