A Watery Crop
Three generations of Sumidas have nurtured watercress.
In one of the last little green spots among the urban sprawl along Kamehameha Highway in Aiea grows a crop that Islanders relish: watercress.
Once surrounded by sugar cane fields, and now surrounded by Pearlridge Center and strip malls, Sumida Farm continues to produce some of the finest watercress in Hawaii. In fact, the farm is 76 years old, surviving into the third generation of the Sumida family.
The entrepreneurial first generation of Sumidas, Moriichi and Makiyo, grew taro, rice, bananas, watercress and ong choi back in the late 1920s, when 2 acres constituted the entire farm. That acreage grew to 10, and by the time the second generation, Masaru and Norma, took over in 1950, watercress became the sole crop due to its synergy with the location and its popularity on the table.
The third generation, Barbara and David Sumida, are sister and brother. They slipped into the family business in 1982, setting aside interests in music and art. “It wasn’t a big plan to take over; our parents were getting older and we could see they needed help,” says Barbara, president of the company. She has a degree in agriculture from the University of Hawaii.
David serves as operations manager, but both Sumidas do everything, including deliveries. “Dave conducts the tours; he’s in contact with the public,” says Barbara. The Sumidas host more than 2,000 visitors a year, mostly schoolchildren on field trips.
What is there to see on a watercress farm? After all, watercress grows in water, not dirt. The watercress is produced in shallow, gravel-bottomed patches with flowing water. “Natural spring water bubbles up from the ground,” explains David. “There are many springs on the farm, and the land is graded so that water reaches every patch. Water has to be flowing all the time for the watercress to get the nutrients.”
Each piece of watercress is a runner. The stems are laid in the water horizontally in rows. After eight weeks of cool water and abundant sunshine, the crop is ready to hand harvest. One-pound bunches are formed in the field, washed, bundled, then chilled to preserve their crispness and increase shelf life.
Peppery bunches of Sumida watercress—600 tons of it a week—are delivered to Safeway stores and produce wholesalers, bound by a white tie with red lettering. You’ve probably seen it, as 75 percent of all watercress grown in Hawaii comes from this Aiea farm.
“I love doing this,” says David (who doubles as “Beano Shots,” the lead guitarist in the vintage surf band Tiki Taboo). The Sumidas employ several full-time workers, most of them over 60 years of age and all of them immigrants from the Philippines. “We’re a family farm. We get a lot of help from members of the Aiea Boat Club and we get a lot of support from our two older siblings, who live away and phone in their support, so we know we’re not doing this by ourselves. My sister and I are keepers of the flame here, carrying on the family business.”
The Sumidas will face lease negotiations with Kamehameha Schools in 2005 for their precious plot of land. “Hopefully we’re an asset to the community and the estate,” says Barbara. “We’re one big ohana and one of the last family farms carrying on the agricultural tradition in Aiea.”
WONDERING ABOUT WATERCRESS?
Watercress is a rich source of vitamins A, B-1 and C, and has iron, potassium, phosphorus, calcium and fiber. Valued as a food and medicine since ancient times, watercress soup is a favorite cleansing tonic in South China and it is considered to have cooling properties. It is best eaten raw to get the full nutritional value, according to David Sumida. Use watercress in salads and sandwiches or as a vegetable in stir fries and soups.