Sea-salt farm spices up Molokai’s dull economy
Nancy Gove felt there was something special about the water when she first went swimming along the southern shore of Molokai. "We have the most pristine water because we don't have a lot of agriculture and industry," said Gove, who thinks the clean water leads to high-quality salt.
She decided to explore developing a solar salt-producing business in 1999 after finding out that the southern shore near Kaunakakai had once been the site of a 26-acre salt pond and produced salt until the 1940s. And she also learned that table salt does not have the healthy trace minerals contained in ocean salt. Some six years later, Gove's gourmet salt-producing venture has attracted major investors and now is known as Hawaii Kai Corp., this on an island with unemployment at 9.3 percent in August -- the highest in the state.
The firm, which has six employees, has gone international with sales in Europe and Canada in addition to the United States.
Hawaii Kai Corp. provides gourmet salt for some well-known businesses, including Williams Sonoma, Sur La Table and Hilo Hattie, and has recently reached an agreement with ABC stores to carry a separate line of salt products.
"This stuff has just an incredible flavor that rolls the tongue with different complexities," she said.
Gove said it is also healthier, with only 84 percent sodium chloride and the remainder trace minerals, including calcium, magnesium and potassium.
Gove, as well as a number of Molokai residents, said one of the most gratifying aspects of the venture has been the moneymaking and entrepreneurial opportunity it has given to some Hawaiian homesteaders.
The expertise is provided to the farmers by Hawaii Kai to produce the products known under the brand names Soul of the Sea and Palm Island Gourmet.
Through a patent-pending process, the farmers produce the salt under solar-heating conditions in a hermetically sealed environment to avoid airborne impurities, Gove said. She said the ocean water is filtered and tested to pass bottled-water standards.
Gove said she came to Molokai about 23 years ago and fell in love with the island.
"Tucson (Ariz.) was an absolutely beautiful place but had no ocean. I just wanted a new and different kind of start," she said.
She took care of a quadriplegic while living on Molokai and later became a taro farmer and woodworker.
Gove said her world changed when she applied and was the first on Molokai to achieve a Phase I grant for Small Business and Innovative Research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The $70,000 grant, plus $25,000 in matching funds from the Hawaii High Technology Development Corp., helped her to develop a feasibility study and start the research and development phase to move toward selling the product.
Gove said a separate SBIR federal grant for $300,000 helped continue research and development of the product toward commercialization, including marketing.
Hawaii Kai Corp. has been awarded a $350,000 grant through the state Economic Development Alliance of Hawaii to help farmers establish salt farms.
Cameron Hiro, the firm's operations manager and first Hawaiian homesteader to begin salt farming, said the venture is working with two other Hawaiian homesteaders to establish salt-producing businesses on their lots.
"It's been going well for us," he said.
Hiro, whose salt farm occupies a quarter-acre on his 35-acre homestead, said he does not see the venture replacing regular agriculture, but it does add to the mix needed to diversify use of agricultural land.
He said a key feature in the farming is that Hawaii Kai Salt takes care of the marketing.
This year, the business was incorporated with investors and Kent Clampitt as the chief executive officer.
Gove, who now owns a minority share in the firm, said her main focus has been developing new products.
"There's almost an endless list of potential products."