In search of Kava on the Islands of Vanuatu – A Father & Son Adventure

At Gaia Herbs, we are firm believers that the quality of an herbal product can only be as good as the quality of the herbs that go into it. That’s why many of the herbs in our products are grown on our 250-acre organic farm in Brevard, North Carolina, where we can cultivate them exactly the way we want to. 

Kava roots from VanuatuBut you can’t grow all the herbs. There are some plants that do best in their own native bioregion, where the conditions are just right to produce the highest-possible level of medicinal compounds. Kava is one such plant. It absolutely thrives in the rich volcanic soil of Vanuatu, a nation of islands studding the South Pacific Ocean.

Last July, our Vice President of Global Sourcing, Bill Chioffi, traveled with his 19-year-old son Cameron to Vanuatu. A string of cyclones had destroyed the farms Gaia Herbs had depended upon for years to provide us with our beloved Kava. It was time to find another source that could provide us with the exact variety of Kava we prefer, and only an in-person visit could make sure these new farms met our high standards for quality, sustainability and ethical business practices. Certificates of Analysis and Specifications are required as well but when meeting new farmers even with a trusted agent of 20 years, going in person allows you to develop the relationship and see the bigger picture.

Notes from the field: Bill Chioffi

January 2018: It’s nine degrees Fahrenheit outside my door in Brevard, North Carolina at the moment. When I left the islands of Vanuatu back in July during their winter season it was 75 — a cool day there.

Bill Chioffi eating Pawpaw fruit for lunch in VanuatuI have written before about the effects of Global Climate Change on medicinal herb crops. Extreme weather patterns prevail in much of the world today, and provide many challenges for the people farming and collecting plants all over the globe, but especially in this area.

Vanuatu is home to about 280,000 people and is prone to natural disasters, with a half-dozen active volcanoes, as well as regular cyclones and earthquakes. It sits on the Pacific’s “ring of fire,” the arc of seismic faults around the Pacific Ocean where earthquakes and volcanoes are common. This is where Gaia Herbs sources its Kava, and not just any Kava — the type of Kava we prefer and are native to the islands we’ve been buying from: Borogu & Borogu Temit.

Unfortunately, several cyclones have hit these islands over the last few years, destroying Kava farms on Pentecost Island that were in their last four to five years of growth before harvest. This kind of destructionhas caused a shortage of Kava in general but particularly of the Borogu and Borogu Temit variety. So it was time to search for a new source.
Bill Chioffi and supplier Frank holding Kava

Our longtime island agent and supplier Frank brought us to an Island with two active volcanoes but with very well-established three-year-old Borogu plants. Travel there included a short flight from Efate Island, during which my son Cameron got a chance to sit co-pilot in the bush plane that landed between these two volcanoes on a field lined with palms and bananas. Cam’s a sophomore at Colorado State University studying Natural Resource Recreation management and Sustainability. I asked him to write a few words in between school projects about his experience.

Notes from the field:
Cameron Chioffi

The ride through the thick jungle road brought us all close together, as eight of us climbed into the two-seat pickup truck and set off down the “road.” As the truck came to a slow halt, I noticed a small clearing in the brush. After stretching out our stiff legs, we set off through the clearing to seek a vast farm of Borogu Temit. The hike there was fairly easy on the body and eyes. The lush jungle around us was teeming with life, all connected by the dark volcanic soil under our feet.

Bill Chioffi and son Cameron in the lush Vanuatu forestsFrank pointed out different strains of wild Kava that were apparently not fit for consumption, even though they resembled the good stuff. The plants have a bamboo-like stock that is segmented by different rings, leading up to plumes of big heart-shaped leaves.

The best part of the plant lay under the soil, and as we gazed upon the forest of Kava plants, Frank explained how much effort goes into harvesting just one of these plants. The roots are dug up using a pointed walking stick, which is prodded around the soft soil to loosen the roots from their grasp on the earth. Then the plant is wiggled free from the dirt and hoisted up out of the ground. (Not as easy as it sounds, since the average Kava plant grows up to six feet in height, and the roots alone typically weigh over 100 pounds.)

As he described the process, my eyes gazed upon the myriad of plants and I thought of how much human effort it takes to harvest enough of this root so that it eventually ends up on the shelves of health food stores.

Thanks Bill and Cam, for ensuring Gaia Herbs continues to have a steady supply of Kava grown by farmers who are as passionate about quality, sustainability and ethical business practices as we are.