One of the first questions that we get is, "What kind of yield can I expect growing Kava in California?" We will save you the time with a succinct answer: Anywhere from 2-4lbs fresh green weight per plant at 18 months. For those of you who would like a more in depth answer, the rest of this post is for you. As many Kava growers know, there are numerous factors that go into the quality and yield of Kava plants. Let's start with the basics: Genetics, Terroir, and Nutrients.
Genetics are an important factor in yields because they ultimate determine the upper limit for the potential of a plant. When we talk about genetics we mean both the hard-coded DNA of the plant, as well as the mRNA, which are genetic expressions. Kali-Kava™ plants share common genetics with all other kava plants from the Pacific, but have altered gene expression. Some of the 138 altered genes have unregulated and expressed 24X their original forms. With these genes being unregulated and down regulated in response to alterations in their environment, comes dramatic changes in the plants morphology, chemical makeup, nutrient and sunlight requirements, and ultimately the quality and yield of the Kava. We have adapted high yielding, fast growing varieties with excellent chemotypes for both drinking kava and medicinal markets.
Terroir is the microclimate of a region which includes numerous factors such as altitude, soil type and quality, the temperature, humidity, rainfall and the amount of sunshine hours per year. Terroir is a French word coming from the root word "terre" meaning land, and is often used to describe the land as it pertains to its suitability for growing wine grapes, but can also be used to describe land for Coffee, and Kava. Terroir is the reason why a wine grape grown in France, won't taste the same as one grown in Chile. Its the reason why the same Guatemalan variety of coffee that was brought to Hawaii in the 1800's. tastes different than the same variety grown in Guatemala. The same goes for Kava that originates in Vanuatu and grown in the Solomon Islands. Changes in a plants growing environment can signal to the plant to adapt which will present in differences in chemotype, morphology, and even genetic mutations. We have adapted our Kava varieties to grow in the unique terroir of Northern and Southern California with the proper soil amendments and irrigation.
Kava grows well in the sandy-loam soil commonly found throughout Northern and Southern California with adequate soil amendments, fertilization and drip irrigation. When our varieties are grown in coastal areas of Southern California with moderate temperatures (40-80F) and high humidity such as Santa Barbara, coastal Los Angeles, Oceanside, Vista and San Diego, plants require less irrigation and less nutrients.
Northern California's more extreme climate ranges from 30F to 105F. Our Kali Kava™ varieties grow best when pruned to small bushes. We found early on in the process that plants that survive temperature extremes often regenerate as dwarfs. The taller stalks almost always show chilling damage in the leaves and will wilt and droop in the heat. If the plant survived at all, it would proliferate new shoots at the base and stay close to the ground. This helpful adaptation that was adopted from the few surviving plants is what allows our Kali Kava™ plants to say short and bushy at the base, providing insulation for the corm and conserving water and humidity in dry heat. Long, lanky stalks and large leaves present a respiration problem for plants growing in temperature extremes as they increase the surface area for the plant to lose water and heat, without much insulation around them for retention.
Nutrients play a pivotal role in the quality and yields of kava since the plant was not exactly designed to grow in the soils of Northern and Southern California. When we first began growing kava here, we made the mistake of feeding the plants a primarily nitrogen rich fertilizer which lead to adequate aerial growth, but failed to provide the roots with the valuable phosphorus and potassium needed for optimum root growth. Since Kava plants grown here experience more annual sunlight hours than the Pacific (3,000 hours versus 2,000), the nutrient requirements are much different than their native growing regions. We've found that its best to custom tailor the nutrient schedule to the genetics of the plant and the sunny, dry, terroir. In general, we've found that sulphur or lime amendments significantly aids in proper nutrient uptake in these types of soils, when heavily irrigated. We prefer to top feed the plants and allow the irrigation to leach the nutrients through the well draining soil.
Yield Of a Kali-Kava™ Kava Plant
Back to the question of yields. In Northern California, kava plants are put out into the ground in Early April. We choose 2' X 2' for those on the metric system that's 0.6M X 0.6M. Those who farm kava will notice that this is extremely dense plantings - Equating to 25,000 plants per hectare or roughly 10,750 plants per acre. Some may ask, "Why would you plant so many plants per acre? Wont they compete for nutrients and overgrow one another, not to mention pest problems?" Kali Kava™ isn't growing 5 year old plants for harvest, we're growing 18 month old plants. From our field work, we've found that densely planted plots yielded more weight per acre than traditional spacing. In fact, 2 - 18 month old plants at double density produced 4.1 lbs of green material whereas 1 - 18 month old plant at single density only produced 3.6lbs. So while more space DOES equate to more yield per plant, double density produces more weight per field area. The economics are a simple equation - Given an unlimited supply of planting material, if the yield per plant produces more profit than the cost of the cutting, its worth planting.
Economic Feasibility of Growing Kava In California
The above scenario of 25,000 plants per hectare considering a conservative estimate of 2lb fresh green weight yield, produces 50,000lbs (22,727KG) of fresh green kava per hectare. This is the dry weight equivalent of 10,000lbs (4545KG) per hectare. Considering that Kali Kava™ varieties produce plants consisting of 60% high potency lateral roots, this is a a ton of high quality, very potent Kava in a very short period of time. Given the current average market value of Kava @ $60 per KG and the average export potency of 5-7% Kavalactones, Kali Kava™ can produce a minimum 9% Kavalactone mix of lateral and stump material in record time, without the long lead times, quality concerns, and importation headaches. The quality of Kali Kava™ would fetch a market premium, especially when grown using USDA Certified Organic methods.
Our next post will go over the potency of Kali Kava™ varieties and how its possible to achieve high potency harvests in record times.