The Yaqona Plant

Welcome to our first kava blog post where we will discuss the various parts of the kava plant from a farming perspective, please understand that we are not focused on the scientific or medicinal aspect of kava and hence will stick to what we know best. 

The first challenge with growing healthy yaqona plants is site selection, ensuring that the soil is fertile, well irrigated but also not too dry and hence in Vanua Levu kava is generally planted within mountains areas. Unless the mountain tops are very high where it’s a bit cooler and kava can be planted near the top of the mountains, we have had better success planting half way down the mountains (still about 300m+ above sea level) where there is better cyclone protection and rain washes nutrients down from above for the plants to grow better. 

Secondly, healthy planting material needs to be sourced. This is best done from your own farm where kasa (yaqona stems) can be selected from specific plant varieties. The issue with buying kasa from other farmers is transportation where the kasa can be scratched or damaged as well as the timeframe between harvesting the kasa and planting which is generally longer and if not stored in the right conditions can dramatically reduce the amount of successfully propagated cuttings. The age of the plant from which the planting material is taken also has an impact on the success and growth rates of the planted kasa. 

We now plant eight cuttings/nodes of kasa per plot to increase the size and success of each yaqona plot as we found that planting only three or four didn't produce the yields that we were after and increased our weeding costs with a higher attrition rate resulting in bigger spaces within the plantation to weed from plots that either died or didn't grow. Depending on our time circumstances we've planted in nursery conditions in both plastic potting bags as well as direct into a nursery bed, however an easier option is often laying the kasa stems in a shaded areas and covering with organic matter with regular watering. Then plant the kasa once the eye's of the cuttings start to sprout. 

When clearing land to plant yaqona, it can be done in a way to maintain nursery like conditions in which majority of the big trees are left with all the shrubs, bush and smaller trees cleared for planting. This gives the yaqona plants the best chance of survival with the appropriate level of shade and protection from wind in the early stages of growth e.g. between planting and three to six months. Once the young plants are growing well they will need exposure to sunlight to continue growing otherwise the growth rates will drop off significantly. Some trees and plants help the soil retain water or provide natural fertilising attributes and therefore should be left, however majority of the remaining big trees will gradually need to be either cut down or ringed (also known as ring-barking or girdling) to restrict further growth and slowly kill the trees. It's also common for some farmers to clear land by cutting all the trees down in a specific area that they plan to plant and leave the trees to rot for a few years to provide a rich level of organic matter to support the yaqona plant growth through the harsh exposure to the hot sun during the dry season. 

It's also beneficial to intercrop to prevent the spread of kava die-back as well as provide shade for young yaqona plants e.g. taro or cassava which is then harvested after 9-months allowing the appropriate space for the plants to continue growing on their own. We also intercrop with sandalwood, pineapples, coconut trees, legumes and vegetables. A major problem we've had with intercropping dalo and cassava is wild pigs and we've had to cease planting those root crops in the back parts of our farms away from the farm camps or houses.

Another issue wth the success of young plants is the damage to yaqona plants done by snails eating the leaves, this can be solved organically through spreading ground coffee beans around the plants or spraying leaves with a garlic repellant solution. 

Yaqona plants are traditionally planted within about a metre apart, as it reduces the amount of weeding required when the plants grow between eighteen-months and two-three years as the leaves and stems grow outwards to a diameter of 1m-2m+. Overgrowing weeds can kill young plants or reduce the growth so it's imperative that weeding is done regularly, especially in the early stages. One solution we have found on some plantations is the use of woodchips, saw-dust and/or coconut husks placed at the base of the plants to suppress weed growth as well as prevents moisture loss.

The yaqona plants should be left to mature to between 3.5 - 4.5 years at a minimum and the growth rates/yields of the plants increase at maturity e.g. the per kilo dried weight within years three to four is higher than the first two years growth. When harvested the below terminology is used locally to describe the various parts of the plant.

  • Civicivi: the skin/outer layer of the plant when peeled off to make white lawena or white kasa. This is normally discarded as it can spoil the taste of the kava and has a low kavalactone percentage.
  • Kasa: is the stem or branches of the plant that is generally used as planting material to grow more kava, however locally the 'kasa matua' which is from mature plants or black kasa is pounded by middlemen and used in kava to reduce the cost to cater to the local market with a more affordable low-quality kava option
  • Cut Piece: is the part of the plant just above the lawena below the kasa which is commonly mixed in to the locally sold kava to reduce the cost without ruining the taste or darkening the colour of the kava as much as black kasa. This is why you see a market vendor selling pounded kava at half the price as they sell the whole roots (waka). 
  • Black Lawena: is the above ground stump/basal root which is cut into chips without removing the skin (hence why the term black is used). 
  • White Lawena: is the above ground stump/basal root with the skin peeled off, generally with a knife but can also be done with a water-blaster, then cut into chips. Majority of the white lawena in our area is exported due to the demand from overseas markets.
  • Bomb: are the small roots which are often purchased at a lower price to the waka 
  • Waka Head: Often when the farmers are processing their waka they leave the head of the roots on as it increases the weight of the waka which is the most expensive part of the plant. However, this increases the sun drying time often by an extra day or two.
  • Waka: The roots of the kava plant is known as the waka and have the highest percentage of kavalactones. In the local markets waka is sold in whole root form while the other parts are generally sold pounded.

There is a still a lot more to the process of farming yaqona to which I haven't gone in-depth with at each stage, but if you have any further questions. Feel free to leave a comment and we can get back to you. 

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