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.
Photos: Elyse Butler Mallams
A composter who grows portabella mushrooms; a fourth-generation farmer turning less-than-perfect fruit into farm café fare; and a could-be-retired engineer using aquaponics in Lualualei to grow greens are just a few of the faces of the next generation of Hawai‘i farmers.
The past few decades have been challenging for Island farming. With the exit of large plantations, the demand for housing on undeveloped farmland and the high cost of doing business in Hawai‘i, the number of acres devoted to agriculture between 1980 and 2015 has dramatically dropped. A recent report from the state Department of Agriculture showed a decline of 200,000 acres of cropland and 340,000 acres of pastureland, representing drops of 57 percent and 31 percent, respectively.
With the limited data available, experts estimate the Islands import about 90 percent of our food and export 80 percent of our agricultural production.
But there’s hope. That dependence on imports has created an opportunity for entrepreneurs to contribute to the state’s agricultural industry even on land-scarce O‘ahu. Farmer training programs are filling up. Farmers markets are expanding, offering a venue for small farmers and entrepreneurs to sell their products. The Whitmore Project is revitalizing agriculture in Wahiawā by converting at least 1,200 acres of fallow pineapple land into farms, an agribusiness-technology hub, packaging and processing facilities, and workforce housing. It’s just one of three recent land agreements designed to keep local farmers on farmland. And chefs are showcasing local ingredients, creating further demand for locally grown fruits, vegetables, meats and products.
“Young farmers face huge barriers to securing agricultural land,” says Lea Hong, executive director of the Trust for Public Land, adding that ag land can sell for $100,000 or more per acre. “No regular farmer can afford to buy land at that price. That’s why preserving ag land is so important, through conservation easements … or by getting ag land into the hands of organizations that farm the land and create opportunities for the next generation of farmers and community leaders.”
Here’s what that next generation of O‘ahu farmers looks like—and why it’s so passionate about growing food and this industry in Hawai‘i.
THE GOAT FARMER
Sweet Land Farm
After a summer job working at a goat dairy farm, Emma Bello swapped a career in the kitchen for one raising goats on her own farm, Sweet Land Farm, in Wahiawā.
Photo: Elyse Butler Mallams
Bello feeding one of her baby goats.
When Emma Bello was a student in the culinary program at Leeward Community College a few years ago, she got a summer job working at the Surfing Goat Dairy in Kula, Maui.
That’s when it became clear: “I loved goats,” she says. “I realized I didn’t want to be in a kitchen all day. I knew I wanted to pursue this.”
This year, at 25, Bello started Sweet Land Farm, the only certified goat dairy on O‘ahu, which sprawls across 86 acres of old pineapple land in Waialua. Right now, she has more than 115 goats of various breeds, including Alpine, La Mancha, Kiko and Nubian. While most are dairy goats, she does raise a few for meat.
Bello produces handmade farmstead goat cheese, called chèvre, aged feta and goat-milk products. She sells various flavors of her spreadable chèvre, including sun-dried tomato, roasted garlic, olive and, the most popular, green onion, at two farmers markets on O‘ahu and at Whole Foods Market in Kāhala and Kailua. Chefs Alan Wong and Ed Kenney buy her plain chèvre for their restaurants.
Bello recently started making tomme (a type of cheese), with 13 wheels aging at the farm for 12 weeks. Her mom, Mary, is perfecting her caramel sauce, and farm tours are starting next year.
In the meantime, Bello manages a hectic schedule, caring for her goats and milking them twice a day. Right now, she milks about 30 goats in a high-tech milking parlor, which can milk up to 16 goats in just a couple of minutes. (On average, each goat produces between one and two gallons of milk a day.) She’d like to be milking 300.
Her parents, Eric and Mary Bello, run an architectural woodwork company but have agricultural backgrounds. (Both majored in poultry science in college and worked at chicken farms. Mary is part of the Petersons’ Upland Farm family.) So, when Bello expressed an interest in farming, they understood the realities but were happy to support her dream. Her parents and her brother, Austin, all work on the farm.
“This is really my dream come true,” Bello says.
THE MUSHROOM FARMER
Small Kine Farm
Left: While running a recycling company, Fung Yang realized he could use the organic waste from the trash he was collecting as fertilizer for mushrooms. Right: Certified organic portabella mushrooms from Small Kine Farm.
Fung Yang was running O‘ahu Community Recycling—picking up green waste around the island and recycling it—when he had an idea. Turns out the bulk of the trash he was collecting was organic waste which could be turned into fertilizer. And that waste creates a nutrient-rich, heat-pasteurized compost ideal for growing mushrooms.
In 2008, Yang leased less than an acre of land in the back of Waimānalo and started Small Kine Farm, the first certified organic portabella mushroom farm on O‘ahu. His crimini mushrooms, which he calls keiki portabella, have a lighter flavor and crisper texture. The larger ones—or tūtū portabella—are at least four inches in diameter and robust in flavor. He grows a few thousand pounds of mushrooms a month, supplying specialty grocers, local restaurants such as Alan Wong’s and Town, and farmers markets. Keiki portabella cost $80 for a 10-pound case; tūtū portabella are $45 for a five-pound case.
This summer, he started running tours and hosting farm dinners.
Business is going so well, he’s planning to expand his operations on some vacant land next door. But his goal has never changed: to replace all imported mushrooms with locally grown ones. (Hawai‘i brings in roughly 2 million pounds of button mushrooms a year.)
“When you see our mushrooms, they were probably picked that day or the day before,” says Yang, 47. “They’re super fresh and certified organic. You can’t get better than that.”
THE HIGH-TECH FARMER
Greens growing hydroponically at MetroGrow Hawai‘i.
Kerry Kakazu left his job at the UH Cancer Center to grow specialty greens in an indoor, vertical aeroponic farm in Kaka‘ako.
Kerry Kakazu, 58, wanted a lifestyle change.
So, in 2014, he leased a 400-square-foot space in a small warehouse in Kaka‘ako and converted it into a vertically integrated aeroponic and hydroponic operation. MetroGrow Hawai‘i is a one-man farm, with Kakazu doing everything from research to harvesting to delivering crops to nearby restaurants on his bike.
“I really enjoy the technical part [of this kind of farming],” says Kakazu, who previously worked as a special projects manager at the University of Hawai‘i Cancer Center and holds degrees in biology and plant physiology. “I’m a techie nerd, so I enjoy trying to optimize everything … But it’s still a biological system. You think you can control it, but no.”
His small, second-story warehouse space is crammed with floor-to-ceiling racks. On these shelves sit plastic tubs filled with neat rows of specialty lettuces, microgreens and other crops growing hydroponically under multicolored LED lights.
Demand for his specialty products is growing, and Kakazu is already looking for a bigger space for his urban operation, refining his business plan, talking with investors and hiring interns to help out.
Right now, he regularly supplies greens to Stage Restaurant, Tango Contemporary Café, Vino Italian Tapas and Wine Bar, Yohei Sushi and Teppanyaki Ginza Onodera. Chef Ed Kenney has used his green onions and micro scallions in his restaurants, and chef Chris Kajioka has ordered pea tendrils, chervil, microgreens and micro sorrel for some pop-up events. Kakazu is now working with a local herbology store to grow medicinal plants such as gotu kola, which has been used to treat varicose veins, heal wounds and ease anxiety.
His most popular crop lately is the ice plant, or glacier lettuce, which tastes a bit like salty sea asparagus. And he’s been experimenting with other crops, such as cold-weather mâche, miner’s lettuce and wasabi.
“I believe that there will be a need for urban, indoor farming to supplement traditional growing,” Kakazu says. “If renewable-energy sources can be utilized, it can be a practical adjunct to more traditional farming. It will also conserve water, reduce pesticide usage, pollute less and prevent soil degradation. It can only help better Hawai‘i’s food production self-sufficiency.”
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.”
THE PROBIOTIC FARMER
Counter Culture Food + Ferment
Rob Barreca harvests green onions in Waialua. The co-owner of Counter Culture Food + Ferments got free use of 5 acres of farmland by winning second place in the Mahi‘ai Match-Up Agricultural Business Plan Contest sponsored by Kamehameha Schools.
Rob Barreca pulls up in a beater Toyota topped with surf racks. He’s on his iPhone, Facetiming his partner, Daniel Leas, who’s harvesting dry beans at a nearby plot of land in Waialua.
“Should I pick ’em?” Leas asks Barreca.
“I’d wait until the majority of beans are dry,” he replies.
He owns Counter Culture Food + Ferments, a seed-to-countertop fermented foods company based in Waialua that started in 2013, and operates it with Leas. Barreca, a graduate of the GoFarm Hawai‘i Program, turns local produce into probiotic, fermented goods that include kim chee, sauerkraut and tempeh sold at farmers markets, at the Waimānalo Market Co-op and in CSA boxes. Last year, he won second place in the annual Mahi‘ai Match-Up Agricultural Business Plan Contest sponsored by Kamehameha Schools and the Pauahi Foundation. He was awarded $15,000 and the free use of a 5-acre parcel in Waialua for five years to grow the ingredients they ferment.
He only received the parcel this year and haven’t been able to grow anything yet. But he is leasing a half-acre plot nearby, where they are growing onions, beans, tomatoes, flint corn (a variant of maize), fennel, cabbage, kohlrabi and cassava. The plan was never to sell fresh produce but to use what he grows for fermented foods.
“I’ve always been interested in the culinary side of [farming],” says Barreca, 34, a web designer who originally moved to Hawai‘i in 2007 to be part of a crowd-funded internet startup. “It’s fun to make something interesting out of what you grow.”
The goal is to get the farm running, then expand the fermented offerings and maybe start a ferment-of-the-month club for regular customers.
Barreca credits his year with the GoFarm program for helping him navigate this career change. The intensive program is offered on O‘ahu and Maui through community colleges and on Hawai‘i Island through The Kohala Center. It gives prospective farmers the chance to see if they have what it takes to become commercial food producers.
Not only did he gain practical, hands-on experience, he met Bost and other budding farmers, which led him to launch Farm Link Hawai‘i, a web platform created to connect small farms with buyers. These farmers post their available crops with prices every week on the site and wholesale customers such as restaurants and small stores can order and have the products delivered.
“Being an ex-tech guy, this made sense,” he says. “The internet is great at solving issues like these.”
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