A New Crop of Farmers Are Growing Fresh Local Food Through Innovative Methods
A new crop of farmers looks to grow fresh local food by trying new agricultural methods. The result? Mushrooms, goat cheese, microgreens and more.
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THE ENTREPRENEUR FARMER
The café at Kahuku Farms.
Fourth-generation farmer Kylie Matsuda-Lum, 37, had an idea.
Her great-grandparents had been farming in Kahuku since the early 1900s, and her father, Melvin Matsuda, and his partner, Clyde Fukuyama, run Kahuku Farms Inc. and Matsuda-Fukuyama Farms Inc.
Her family of farmers urged her to find a different career.
“When I told [my parents] I wanted to work here, they told me, ‘You’re crazy,’” Matsuda-Lum says, laughing. “They didn’t want the lifestyle for me. It’s too risky. It took years for them to agree to let me come back.”
The family’s commercial farm spans 125 acres adjacent to the smaller visitor-focused farm and specializes in Brazilian dwarf bananas, Lā‘ie Gold papaya, Japanese eggplant and lū‘au leaf.
Left: Papaya growing at Kahuku Farms. Certified organic portabella mushrooms from Small Kine Farm. Right: Judah Lum, Kylie Matsuda-Lum and Kalyn Matsuda, managers of Kahuku Farms.
Matsuda-Lum, who earned her degree in travel industry management from UH, thought that using less-than-perfect papayas and bananas that couldn’t be sold in supermarkets to make smoothies or other products would be a smart and sustainable idea. It would be a way for the larger commercial farm to diversify revenue.
The plan was to build a working farm on 5 acres adjacent to Kamehameha Highway. Then, set up a roadside café that sells sandwiches, soups and farm-made products (including liliko‘i balsamic salad dressing)—and give farm tours through groves of apple-banana, starfruit and tangerine trees; rows of pineapples; and fields of eggplant and asparagus. This gave her an opportunity to educate the public about the importance of agriculture and the challenges local farmers face today.
Over the past six years, Kahuku Farms has grown from a friendly roadside stand en route to O‘ahu’s North Shore to a successful ag-tourism business with farm tours, tractor-pulled wagon rides and a café serving fresh fruit smoothies and grilled veggie paninis using ingredients grown right there.
“There’s a lot of history where we are today,” says Judah Lum, Kylie’s husband, tour guide and partner in the small farm. “This is a way for us to stay in business for another generation.”
THE RETIRED FARMER
Mei and Dan Ching decided to grow lettuce and other crops using aquaponics at their farm, Ili‘ili Farms in Wai‘anae, after retirement.
Mei Ching harvesting mint at Ili‘ili Farms in Wai‘anae.
Corn shoots growing at MetroGrow Hawai‘i.
When Dan Ching retired a few years ago from being a structural engineer and general contractor, he wanted something to keep him busy.
Instead of golfing or traveling, he decided to farm. In 2012, he and his wife, Mei, leased 2 acres of ag land in Wai‘anae’s Lualualei Valley and began growing vegetables with aquaponics, a method that uses fish effluent water to provide nutrients to plants without using soil. He liked that this nontraditional farming approach used less water than soil-based agriculture and offered a way to grow produce organically. And he was essentially growing two crops: vegetables and fish.
In just a couple of years, Ili‘ili Farms (named after the road where the farm is located) started growing and selling USDA organic-certified Mānoa lettuce, Shanghai bok choy, watercress, green onions and mint to Whole Foods Market, Foodland and Down to Earth stores on O‘ahu. His greens and herbs are also on the menus at MW Restaurant, Artizen by MW, BLT Steak and Fête.
Ching, 67, shrugs off his relatively quick success.
“We’re not here to make money,” he says, sitting in his office, where he watches a few of his workers process bins of freshly harvested greens. “This was just something to keep us busy.”
His “retirement” has turned into a second career. Ching and his wife are at the farm just about every day, doing everything from planting to harvesting to packaging. (They finally hired someone to deliver their produce, which they were doing themselves, too.)
We walk through his farm, a former orchid house in this arid area surrounded by the Wai‘anae Range. Just outside the enclosed processing area—really a certified commercial kitchen—is a refrigerated container in which the produce is stored before delivery. Beyond that are three 5,000-gallon tanks with about 5,000 tilapia swimming inside. Pumps filter the nutrient-rich water to a nearby shadehouse with 30 96-foot-long grow beds of lettuce, bok choy, watercress and herbs.
Only half of this 2-acre farm is in production right now. Ching plans to expand the farm sometime soon. But don’t bug him about it. “People ask me to grow this, grow that,” Ching says. “I tell them I’m retired. I don’t need the headache.”