Farm to Table: The New Face of Farming
Meet the people who grew your dinner.
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It wasn’t long ago that you couldn’t buy a Hawaii-grown zucchini to save your life. Today, venues from farmers’ markets to big-box retailers are brim-full of produce grown in-state. Where pineapple and sugar cane once stretched as far as the eye could see, diversified farms and crops form a delectable patchwork of fresh edibles. Ever wonder who’s been growing your Ewa sweet corn, or what goes into nurturing the ripe tomato and basil that make your Caprese salad shine? It’s farmers like these, each with a different story, all farming under the same sun.
Jeanne Vana, North Shore Farms
the boutique grower:
The article takes a look at why one box of salad greens lasts for two weeks, while another collapses in 48 hours.
If you’ve stopped in at the farmers’ markets at Kailua and Kapiolani Community College, you’ve probably seen Jeanne Vana: a one-woman whirlwind who will whip up a farm-fresh pizza, pop some peppers in the drum grill and discourse knowledgeably on traditional food ways without missing a beat. She’s known far and wide as the Fried Green Tomato lady, the island’s only commercial producer (as far as we know) of those delectable Southern morsels.
Green is just the beginning. On her sunny, 8.5-acre Waialua farm, the tomatoes may start out green, but then most of them go a little crazy. There are fat, red beefsteaks, like you won’t taste anywhere except from your own garden; there are also orange ones, striped ones, nearly black ones, tomatoes shaped like pumpkins and colored like harlequins—heirloom tomatoes that existed before the supermarket standard led us to expect red and round. “I grow about a hundred varieties,” Vana says.
Not all will make it to the market; Jeanne devotes a lot of time and acreage to serving as a research farm for heirloom and unusual varieties. North Shore Farms is diversified agriculture at its extreme, where almost every row is a different variety of plant: not only tomatoes, but heirloom carrots and leeks, and exotic salad greens like colorful amaranth and spicy, edible chrysanthemum.
Today, she’s looking at her radishes. She pulls a pale pink root out of the ground and regards it thoughtfully. Not scarlet enough? Nope, they’re an heirloom variety: “With these, I wanted black,” she says, describing how Germans like a plateful of black radishes, sliced, buttered and salted, with their tankard of beer. “I think the climate is too warm here.”
A black radish? Very Teutonic, but will it play in Honolulu? “A lot of the farmers here are encouraged to grow varieties that [are known to] do well in Hawaii, and that’s good,” says Vana, “but I’m finding that everybody grows the same. I step out of the box and find new [crops] and introduce them.”
Overseeing the exploration of new agricultural directions was part of Vana’s job when she worked at Dole in the 1980s and early 1990s, a time when pineapple was still ascendant but the company was looking for alternative ways to use the land. “North Shore crops on Dole land were my babies,” says Vana. She and her team tried everything from mangoes to chocolate, and Dole spun off many of those crops to employees-turned-small-farmers to help the Waialua community make the transition away from big agriculture.
Now she herself is one of those small farmers. It’s a lot more work than monocropping (sticking with a single, high-acreage crop like pineapple), and successful cultivation is only the beginning of Vana’s labor. Introducing an unfamiliar product also means teaching the public how to use and enjoy it—hence the cornucopia of prepared-food products she offers, all of which have been made by Vana’s own hand. But she loves it: “It’s fun. That’s where the passion comes in.”
Although Vana’s farm isn’t technically organic, she relies on organic methods such as integrated pest management and cover cropping. She also tries to sell 100 percent of what she grows, cosmetically perfect or not. “I believe knives were created to trim off [produce] blemishes,” she says. Since she’s not employing an intensive program of pesticides, “I might lose the upper third of a tomato, but why should I waste that food? I roast those tomatoes, and I flash freeze them. I’m preserving my summer harvest,” says Vana. It’s all much as your grandmother might have done in order to make sure a bumper crop, which might give forth for a few short weeks, could be enjoyed all year round.