Farm to Table: The New Face of Farming
Meet the people who grew your dinner.
(page 4 of 5)
Alec Sou, Aloun Farms
the big time:
At the business offices of Aloun Farms, nestled deep in Oahu’s central plain, it’s hard to take a step without encountering a good luck charm. Glazed Maneki Neko cats beam down from the filing cabinets. A miniature Asian fish-catching basket dangles near the reception desk, inviting bounty to swim into the net. On the wall of general manager Alec Sou’s office, a picture of Rama V, the revered Thai king whose representation is said to bring good fortune in business, hangs on the wall.
It seems to be working; Dun & Bradstreet’s estimated annual sales for Aloun Farms top $10 million. Even on a quiet day, the 2,700-acre farm hums with activity. Boxes of harvested broccoli get a conveyer-belt flush of crushed ice on their way to the market. Sweet Ewa onions, spring’s big seasonal harvest, are being cleaned, sorted and graded in their own special facility. The farm delivers what produce retailers are looking for—a steady, high-volume supply; careful timing and reliable quality—which means that you can now find Aloun Farms produce everywhere from farmers’ markets to Costco. If you eat fruits and vegetables, you’ve almost certainly had something from Aloun Farms on your table.
Good fortune is something the Sous don’t take for granted. Alec’s father, Aloun, was once a merchant, trading in the borderlands of Thailand and mountainous Laos from the Laotian capital, Vientiane. When Laos fell to communism following the Vietnam War, the Sous and their four children entered a refugee camp. Rice was rationed, and Alec recalls that it was the children’s job to stand in line for water. They waited six months before being allowed to join his uncle in Hawaii, says Alec: “We were lucky. People who decided later to get out of Laos, some of them got stuck for two or three years.”
The Sous, including Alec—then 9 years old—started out farming on five acres on Oahu’s arid West side. “Back then,” says Alec, “there weren’t a lot of Asian vegetables grown, so we just started with green onions, parsley, gai choy, bok choy, daikon, which to this day we still maintain.” They stayed there for years, eventually growing to 12 acres and 20 employees. Aloun’s children, with their newly acquired English-language skills, dealt with the marketing after school and on weekends. Alec left Hawaii for college on the Mainland, with no intention of returning to the farm. In 1994, with an MBA and a job offer from General Motors on the table, he went back to the farm for one last family summer.
By coincidence, that was the year that Oahu Sugar announced its plans to close. Alec recalls: “I said, hey, we’re farming out in Timbuktu. Small lot, flooded all the time, with a lot of rocks—and these [lands farmed by Oahu Sugar] are some good grounds. Sugar had some of the best land in Hawaii.” It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and, like a good entrepreneur, Alec ran with it. The original goal was to try to succeed with 300 acres.
Scaling up a small farm requires a paradigm shift of epic proportions. Even the most basic decision, like deciding what to grow, suddenly requires a major financial commitment. Alec applied his newfound knowledge, analyzing several years’ worth of the state’s weekly agricultural production, crop by crop: “We took all the state’s information. At that time, it wasn’t as well put together as it is now, so we had to read between the lines.” He and a friend from business school charted Hawaii’s agricultural imports vs. exports and found an inbuilt, untapped demand for staple fruits and vegetables; about 80 percent of all the produce we consumed came from out of state.
Then, says Alec, the Sous matched this clear market opportunity with farming knowledge: “Vegetables come in families. If one grows, it only makes sense the other [plants in that family] will grow, too.” From their experience growing related Asian produce, they selected zucchini, romaine lettuce and melons as among the first likely candidates, and business took off. Although no farm has all good years—in 1996, their first big planting season, Aloun Farms lost a huge portion of their crop to flooding—Alec and his brother, Mike, now operate the largest diversified farm in Hawaii, with 160 full-time employees. There’s an employee team for onions, another devoted to sweet corn. “Anything with Ewa sweet’ on it,” says Alec proudly, “anything that says ‘grown locally,’ it’s likely that it’s from us.”
Long Bean Salad
Put about a pound of chopped Asian long beans into a mortar and pestle (or, failing that, a bowl and a wooden spoon). Toss in the juice of two limes, a diced clove of garlic, fish sauce to taste, a quartered ripe tomato, and about a tablespoon of sugar. Start pounding. Keep at it until the beans are bruised, the dressing has soaked in and you feel like eating.