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Buy Fresh, Buy Local

It's a simple concept, but supporting Hawai'i's farmers is not as easy as you might think. Here's how you can help.

Farmers provide fresh products, represent locally owned family businesses and maintain an agricultural tradition in our Islands that preserves green spaces and enhances our environment. Whether you're supporting sustainability, looking to eat healthier or just want to serve tasty food, buying local is a good idea.

In fact, "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" is the theme of a new campaign instigated by the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawai'i, the Department of Agriculture and the Hawai'i Farm Bureau Federation [HFBF]. The campaign is similar to programs used in other states, including Alabama, California, Iowa and Pennsylvania, and is intended to encourage people to buy locally grown, seasonal food. Sounds great, but when we go to the supermarket and look at the produce, dairy and meat sections, how can we tell what was grown in Hawai'i, versus what was brought in from the Mainland, Mexico or New Zealand?

Shoppers in Hawai‘i inevitably will have to buy food grown elsewhere. This is not an entirely bad thing; in fact, it can be more economical to buy products shipped in than those grown or raised here. The economies of scale on large farms and the lower cost of land and labor in other parts of the world lead to lower prices, even when you add in the cost of shipping.

And, let's face it: There are some foods we just don t produce in Hawai i. Chicken is imported from the Mainland; beef, lamb and pork are produced only on a very limited scale.

Of the produce grown here, only about a dozen fruits and vegetables come close to meeting Hawai'i's needs. So supermarkets have no alternative but to turn to other sources when stocking their aisles.

But we do pay a price for those lower food costs and greater product availability. It takes four days, for example, for a container ship to make its way from the West Coast to Hawai'i. Add at least a day of delivery time on either side to and from the dock and that "fresh" lettuce, carton of eggs or rib eye steak is already a week old. And in terms of nutrition and flavor, freshness truly counts.

In the Supermarket Aisles

Supermarkets like to tout their support of local farmers and a survey of major supermarkets indicates strong support for buying local produce. "As long as there is a stable supply and the quality is good, we prefer to buy local," said Times Supermarket produce buyer Floyd Mikasa. "We can order as we need it rather than two weeks out."

Some local farmers make it easier by labeling their produce. Take, for example, those plastic packs of Kamuela Tomatoes and Hamakua Springs Tomatoes, both from the Big Island. Melons are sometimes labeled with a sticker showing their origins at Aloun Farm or Sugarland, the state's two largest farmers. (Both farms grow watermelons, cantaloupes and honeydews, among many other crops.) Sumida Farm in 'Aiea, the state's largest grower of watercress, uses a wire tie to identify its watercress bunches.

But stickers on the millions of unpackaged tomatoes produced in Hawai'i annually is not realistic, nor would labeling each sweet potato, zucchini, eggplant, ear of corn or bunches of leaf lettuces and Asian greens be easy. So supermarkets could help us shoppers by identifying the locally grown products. Some markets have made attempts, but overall, they're inconsistent. If supermarkets really supported local farmers, couldn't they set aside a special space for these products? Organic produce, virtually all from the Mainland and often bearing signs of wilt because of the long journey, is automatically displayed separately or identified with signs.

To help our farmers, we need to be discriminating shoppers: ask questions of origin, choose carefully and read labels. At Foodland, an attractively packaged line of herbs, "North Shore Living Herbs," sounds like a great local product, but a careful inspection of the label reveals it comes from California. We may perceive Dole to be a local brand, but its bananas and packaged salad mixes are imported; only the pineapple is grown in Hawai'i. Armstong Produce, one of the largest produce wholesalers in Hawai'i, packages produce. However, "Packed by Armstrong Produce" does not always mean the contents were locally grown. For dairy and egg products, consumers need to search out the "Island Fresh" logo. If in doubt, ask.

Buying fresh and local is not always easy, but it's worthwhile to our community, our health and our natural resources. Here are some tips as you maneuver your shopping cart through the store:

Milk

Two dairy farmers on O'ahu and four on the Big Island produce about 44 percent of the state's supply of fluid milk, according to Randy Kamiya, of the state's Milk Control Section. All of the Big Island milk stays on that island, fulfilling the needs of residents there. O'ahu milk goes into cartons and jugs bearing the state's "Island Fresh" logo, the only distinguishing mark for Hawai'i-produced milk. But the supply in supermarkets is limited, because, according to Kamiya, most of that milk goes to the state's school-lunch program or other institutions, to satisfy the state's procurement laws.

All other milk comes from the Mainland–56 percent of the market supply–from a single source in California, shipped to Hawai'i and packaged at the Meadow Gold plant on Sheridan Street. So, the brands you find in supermarkets, including Lucerne, Dairy Glen, Best Buy, Daiei, Viva and Meadow Gold, are all from the same source and plant. Most non-fluid milk products, such as cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, sour cream, whipping cream and butter, are from the Mainland.

What's interesting–and a bit alarming–is that Hawai'i-bound milk is pasteurized in California before shipment, then placed in insulated (but not refrigerated) containers for shipment to the Islands, according to Chin Lee, dairy extension specialist at the University of Hawai'i's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. Once the milk arrives at Meadow Gold, a minimum of four to five days after pasteurization, it is pasteurized again before it is bottled.

Hawai'i is the only state that allows repasteurization of milk, says Lee, which can pose a food safety issue. "Mainland milk sometimes turns sour soon after the pull date," Lee explains. (The sell-by date on the milk carton is reflective of the date of the repasteurization.) Lee continues, "Young children who consume [sour milk] may not be able to communicate that it is sour and could become ill." Look for the Island Fresh logo when it's available.

Eggs

There are eight commercial egg farms in the state: four on O'ahu, three on the Big Island and one on Maui. There are some smaller egg producers on every island, but the eight larger farms supply about 50 percent of our egg market. Those farms have each been in business for 20 years or more, says Phyllis Shimabukuro, president of Mikiula Poultry Farm, which sells eggs under the Ka Lei brand. "There are enough consumers in the state that don't treat eggs as a commodity. They have a high standard when it comes to eggs and they like to buy local."

When it comes to finding fresh, local eggs, just remember one thing: Look for eggs without a mark. Mainland eggs have a pink or purple "U.S." stamp inside a circle on every one, mandated by a federal statute adopted by Hawai'i. Mainland eggs are not bad–they're just a week old by the time they arrive at the supermarket.

You can also find useful information on the egg carton. Every carton must tell you the origin, whether it's a brand name identifying the island or the location of a farm, as well as who packed and distributed the eggs. Island Fresh logos also appear on egg cartons if they are locally produced. But even familiar brand names like Cackle Fresh or Rocky Road might pack local or Mainland eggs, depending on availability. Store brands like Best Yet and Times can be local; Ka Lei and Hawaiian Maid are local.

While Hawai'i's egg farmers are consistent in production and price, they are affected by Mainland egg production levels. "When there's a surplus on the Mainland, prices drop and eggs from the Midwest move west," explains Shimabukuro. Island egg producers find it tough to compete on price; their eggs are always a little higher in price to begin with, because the cost of bringing in chicken feed continues to rise with each increase in fuel and freight costs. Still, says Shimabukuro, "Prices here are stable; they don't change on a weekly basis like on the Mainland."

In the plus column, Hawai'i's egg producers don't have to contend with as many poultry disease issues as do their peers in the contiguous U.S. "Our island environment is a natural buffer," says Shimabukuro. "But sanitation is very important." Controlling predators, such as feral dogs, cats and mongooses, is also a priority at egg farms.

Beef

Hawai'i cattlemen shipped out 44,000 head of cattle in 2003, making beef cattle the ninth-largest diversified agriculture product in the Islands. But why don't we have local beef on our dinner plates?

According to state statistics, 10,800 head of cattle were slaughtered that year in the Islands for local consumption. That's about 6 million pounds dressed weight, before it is processed into cuts–not much for a state with more than a million people. Rising real estate prices, the need for large, open spaces and increased shipping charges have squeezed ranchers, and many now choose to be more profitable by shipping their young calves to feedlots on the Mainland rather than raising the cattle to maturity here.

Habein Ranch on the Big Island, for example, which a few years ago developed the Kamuela Pride label for hormone-free, grass-fed beef from its ranch and several other Big Island ranches, now ships its calves to Country Natural Beef Co-op in Oregon. The calves are raised in a natural environment, without the use of hormones or antibiotics. When they are mature, there is a ready market for them through chains such as Whole Foods. Pono von Holt, of Pono Holo Ranch, ships 4,000 calves a year to the same co-op, as well as to Rancher's Renaissance, which produces the Ranchers Reserve label for Safeway Stores.

"We're limited here by processing capacity," says Jessica Habein, of Habein Ranch, referring to the two small slaughterhouses on the Big Island. "It's not just capacity, it's the quality and consistency of processing, too. You can raise fabulous animals, deliver them stress-free for best results, but if they are not processed properly, two years of work is ruined."

There is an initiative on the Big Island to reopen a large slaughterhouse. But large is a relative term: Hawai'i's annual cattle slaughter would probably represent only a day's worth at a Mainland facility, says Alan Gottlieb, of the Hawai'i Beef Industry Council. The ranchers, says Gottlieb, would "like to keep their cattle here if they could make money at it. Their hearts are here." The economies of scale of producing beef in the Islands simply make it difficult to keep beef here.

Maui Cattle Co., which represents five ranchers on Maui and one on Kaua'i, is attempting to provide another option for farmers. It ships cattle to O'ahu for processing; then the finished beef returns to Maui markets, except for prime cuts that go to Alan Wong's Restaurant.

"The beef is antibiotic- and growth-stimulant free," says rancher Alex Franco. [The cattle are] raised on pasture most of their lives and then fed a high-forage diet using local byproducts from pineapple and sugar cane production. We'd like to leave the beef industry for the next generation."

"We use Maui Cattle Co. beef because it's a great product and it's locally grown," says chef Alan Wong, of Alan Wong's Restaurant. "Our goal is to give our guests a true slice of Hawai'i, what we call Hawaii Regional Cuisine. To eat locally raised produce and product is to taste what is happening in Hawai'i."

The Lum family, owners of North Shore Cattle Co. on O'ahu, maintains 300 head of cattle grazing on the lush grass overlooking Hale'iwa town. About six head are slaughtered each week; most of the weekly production of 3,600 pounds of grass-fed, hormone-free beef is sold to restaurants as hamburger.

Vegetables

According to state Department of Agriculture statistics for 2003, Hawai'i grows 40 percent of the total market supply of vegetables. Some crops fare quite well: 100 percent of the daikon and Mänoa lettuce is grown here in Hawai'i, as is close to 90 percent of won bok, head cabbage, mustard cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, green onions, pumpkins and Oriental squash, and 60 percent or more of snap beans, corn, eggplant, green pepper, sweet potatoes, zucchini and watercress. The Islands do not produce much head lettuce, onions, carrots, cauliflower or garlic, and only limited amounts of celery, broccoli, leaf lettuce and romaine.

You can ask your supermarket's produce manager to identify the origin of the fruit and vegetables you're shopping for, but it's important to note that Mainland and local produce can be mixed in a supermarket display. Another way you can help ensure that you're buying fresh, local produce: Think about what's in season and purchase accordingly. Enjoy, for example, local corn and mangoes in the summer, delicate leaf lettuces and cabbage during the winter months.


Farmers' Markets

Just two years ago, the Saturday Farmers' Market at Kapi'olani Community College made its debut, featuring all locally grown fruits, vegetables, flowers, beef and other products. Since then the Hawai'i Farm Bureau Federation (HFBR) has opened two more markets designed to showcase our Islands agricultural producers. For more information, call 848-2074.

Here's a schedule of the HFBF markets:

• The Saturday Farmers' Market, 7:30 to 11 a.m. every Saturday at Kapi'olani Community College, 4303 Diamond Head Road.

• The Kailua Thursday Night Market, 5 to 7:30 p.m. every Thursday at Kailua Town Center Parking Garage (behind Macys/Longs).

• The Mililani Farmers' Market, 8 a.m. to noon every Sunday at Mililani High School, 95-1200 Meheula Parkway.

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