Hawaii-grown noni poised to grow with the industry

For centuries, residents of the South Pacific have used the noni plant to treat a host of ills, from joint to breathing problems or just plain pain. Now some farmers and business developers are looking to this traditional healing plant to expand Hawaii's agricultural market.

What sounds like an obscure niche market is actually big business.

In just eight years, Utah-based Tahitian Noni International has expanded to sell noni products across the globe, reporting $500 million in sales last year alone.

"We've also spawned an industry. There are probably 250 companies around the world that make noni products," said Andre Peterson, spokesman for the company, which exclusively uses noni plants grown in French Polynesia.

Just about every part of the noni plant has some claimed medicinal properties. But the most popular form is the distinctive-tasting -- some fans even say "nasty" -- juice of the noni plant's odd-looking, whitish fruit.

The noni industry in Hawaii is just beginning to take off, said Spencer Kamauoha, vice president of the Kamauoha Foundation, which works with economic development, including small farmers, on Oahu.

In 2003 the foundation was awarded a $1.5 million grant from the Administration for Native Americans to develop an 80-acre noni farm in Waialua and fruit-processing plant at Wahiawa. Those funds just began to flow this fall.

And the foundation was notified last month it would be receiving another $84,000 from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and $75,000 from Honolulu's community investment fund, he said.

"It's one of those indigenous things of Hawaii that the market is sitting there. It's being developed all over the Pacific," Kamauoha said.

The project has quickly become a major player in the local noni market after discovering 22 small farmers on the Big Island who were growing the plants and needed a processor.

Kamauoha Farms now receives 16,000 pounds of the fruit from Hilo each week, and will be opening up a collection warehouse in Kona for local farmers this weekend.

While it ships most of its product to a distributor on the mainland, the company plans to put its own brand of noni fruit juice on shelves next month, labeling it North Shore Noni.

"So what I think needs to be developed, too, is the Hawaii brand and the Hawaii source as a source of noni in its own right," Kamauoha said.

That idea has caught the attention of House Speaker Calvin Say (D, St. Louis Heights-Wilhelmina Rise) and Rep. Helene Hale (D, Pahoa-Kalapana), who co-sponsored a resolution this session in support of the local noni industry and small-scale noni growers.

"The problem is that we need some help with this industry to really show people what it really can do," Hale told the House Agriculture Committee during a hearing on the resolution Wednesday.

Hale also offered her own testimonial. After a recent fall, she found herself with a black eye, which a native Hawaiian friend suggested could be cured with a heated noni leaf.

After applying the leaf, the eye cleared up in a day, Hale said.

While most of the support behind the noni plant's medicinal value is similarly anecdotal, there are some scientific studies under way.

The University of Hawaii Cancer Research Center has been conducting human trials using capsules of powdered noni extract since 2001.

While there have been no adverse effects on patients, there also has not been anything positive attributable to the plant, said Dr. Brian Issell, director of clinical trials at the center.

Originally funded by the National Institutes of Health, the center is looking for local funding to continue the work, "because I think we need some answers on it. I would hate to not get some answers about noni," Issell said.

Patrick Walsh, founder of the Big Island company Estate Noni and the constituent of Hale's who inspired the House resolution, said he hopes an approved measure will mean more support from the state for his industry.

Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Janelle Saneishi said she was not aware of any state agriculture programs targeting noni cultivation.

Murphy said he would like to see the formation of a state noni council to help bolster and maintain quality in the industry -- a sentiment shared by other farmers.

David Backstrom, president and chief executive officer of Noni Maui in Kula, said he would also like to see state-funded research on the benefits of the noni plant, which could reap the economic benefits of greater agricultural diversity.

"The potential is there. ... It'd be good to organize and work as an ohana, a Hawaiian family," Backstrom said.