VATUKALO, Fiji — Before kava makes its way to a new wave of trendy bars in places like Brooklyn and Berkeley, Calif., it must be nurtured and plucked by people like Livai Tavesivesi.
A sun-weathered farmer on the Fijian island of Ovalau, Mr. Tavesivesi, 47, once farmed kava — the main ingredient in a drink long used by residents to attain a mellow buzz — much the way people here did for centuries. First, he washed its gnarled roots in a nearby river. Then he diced them, dried them in the sun and pounded them into powder with a tabili, a supersize mortar and pestle. Finally, he carried it three miles into town to be sold. “If we didn’t have a horse or car, we had to carry it,” he said.
Those traditional ways have led to bigger problems. Last year, Cyclone Winston devastated the island’s crop, threatening farmers’ livelihoods even as it sent kava prices soaring. More broadly, Fiji’s kava harvests have been inconsistent for years because of outdated techniques; the casual attitude of small-time farming has led to poor-quality products that do not pack the same pop.
Pacific Island governments, nonprofits and a new group of entrepreneurs are trying to solve those problems. They are working to modernize kava cultivation in the hope that the drink’s budding popularity in the United States and Europe can be sustained. Groups in Fiji hope new interest could help alleviate the country’s rural poverty, which persists despite healthy economic growth over all.
“Kava,” said Rob Erskine-Smith, an Australian associate professor who works with a nonprofit group that supports kava farmers, “is the biggest opportunity Fiji has.”
More than 15 years ago, sales of kava generated about $200 million a year for the South Pacific region. The market took a hit after Germany banned the product in 2002 over worries about liver toxicity. The United States issued a similar warning but never banned kava. Then a German court in 2015 overturned that country’s ban, leading to hopes that the market would open again.
There are about 100 American kava bars now, up from about a third of that in 2012, said Tyler Blythe, a founding board member of the American Kava Association.
“A lot of these guys own one or two bars, and they are expanding,” he said.
In nations like Fiji and Vanuatu, kava, a species of pepper, has long been part of a nightly ritual. On late afternoons, young Fijians in villages take turns pounding the kava, known locally as yaqona, with a tabili. The powder is wrapped in cloth and sloshed around a communal bowl full of water, creating a muddy liquid with a bitter, chalky taste. The payoff: a feeling of relaxed contentedness that Fijians say aids discussion and conflict resolution.
“It is not as though you are losing the use of your senses,” Willy Annicette, 34, who works in the banking industry, said on a recent Friday night at a New York City kava bar, Brooklyn Kava in Bushwick, before making the 30-minute motorbike ride back to his Manhattan apartment. “No, you are laid back and more aware.”
The atmosphere at Brooklyn Kava is not all that different from a typical Fijian kava session. Conversation takes place in whispers, and movement is minimal. At one recent sitting on the island of Taveuni, a circle of people, mostly men, sat on a woven grass mat surrounding a large wooden kava bowl. Someone strummed a guitar nearby. The drinkers gulped quickly — even Fijians cringe at the taste — from a coconut shell.
“The more you drink, the more you relax,” said Viliame Seru, 53, son of a village chief, who doled out the kava that evening. “With alcohol, the more you drink, the noisier you get.”
Taki Mai, a Fijian company, wants to do with kava what others have done for exotic coffee. It sells both kava powder for the traditional brew and flavored shots for Western taste buds.
But its business depends largely on getting local farmers to change their ways to ensure steady and high-quality kava. Kava can take three to five years to grow, which leaves the crop vulnerable to storms. Farmers can prune leaves of the kava plant during cyclone season to reduce wind damage, but this is not widely practiced. Some unscrupulous farmers have been known to mix their kava with sawdust or other fillers.
“We need to be prepared as an industry this time,” said Zane Yoshida, who began Taki Mai in 2014 as an answer to energy drinks. “There is no third chance.”
Production rates are all over the map. Fiji’s kava exports totaled $4.3 million in 2015, according to government statistics, but the cyclone last year has left Taki Mai’s $600,000 processing factory idle. Local kava prices recently doubled to about $18 a pound.
Many farmers pull their plants “whenever they need money” rather than sticking to a rolling schedule of planting and harvesting, said David Hickes, a coordinator at the Increasing Agricultural Commodity Trade Project, a nonprofit partly funded by the European Union.
Governments and nonprofits are getting involved. The Fiji Crop and Livestock Council, an industry organization, is introducing a text messaging system that can prompt farmers on what to do in case of bad weather. The Fiji government is developing a bill to regulate the industry, requiring exporters to have a license and farmers to register on a national database.
An aid-for-trade program called Pacific Horticultural and Agricultural Market Access, which is funded by the Australian and New Zealand governments, is working on a manual to teach farmers what varieties are best suited to the different markets and products. Some kava is higher in kavalactones, the property that creates the mellow sensation, and is ideal for concentrated products, like pills, which are often marketed as a natural relief for insomnia and anxiety.
For some farmers, the new ways can be a tough sell.
Mr. Tavesivesi, who farms in the village of Vatukalo, said that he was skeptical when Taki Mai offered a new way of doing things. Instead of processing their crops, farmers were to bring the undried roots pulled straight from the ground to Taki Mai. The catch: Taki Mai paid about $2 a pound compared with the $18 that fully processed kava could get at the market.
“My first thought: ‘It was not fair for the price,’” Mr. Tavesivesi said.
Then he tried it. Undried kava, which is 80 percent water, weighs much more than its dried counterpart. Also, Mr. Tavesivesi said, he no longer needed to spend time or labor on dicing, drying and pounding the root.
Etuate Draunidalo, 66, a farmer who sells to Taki Mai, estimated his hillside farm earns $120,000 a year. A decade ago, he made about $5,000 working at a local governmental office. After prodding from Taki Mai, he plans to start growing varieties higher in kavalactones that are preferred by Western drinkers. Farmers who do so, he said, have a better chance of selling their kava overseas.
“I think the farmers are lucky,” he said. “The price might go up.”