Farm to Table: The New Face of Farming
Meet the people who grew your dinner.
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.
Those imperfect but still succulent tomatoes work their way into her pizza. French beans become “dilly beans,” a Mason jar full of crunchy pickled treats. Since tomato harvests come in waves (hence the name of her booth, Big Wave Tomatoes), another way of evening out production was to use green, unripe tomatoes as well—fried, for instance.
Vana loves the individualized nature of what she does. Everything she grows has its own story. A tomato is not just a tomato; it’s a Striped Roman, a Green Zebra or a Costolucco Genovese. She raises pale heirloom beans that came over on the Mayflower (they’re creamily spectacular in soup), as well as Cherokee Trail of Tears beans, glossy black seeds that the Cherokee took with them to plant at the end of their long march into the unknown.
Vana’s diverse products also help even out the inevitable ups and downs of farming life. The pizza may have started as a way to use up all the produce on her farm, but it has become so popular that it is, she says, “taking on its own life.” This past winter’s tomato crop was bad—“the flowers just fell off; I think it was all the vog.” Most of the tomatoes weren’t retail-ready, but they were good enough to roast: “It helped pull me through the winter so I could keep planting.”
This year, the vog has blown away and the tomatoes are looking plump and perky. As Vana walks the rows of healthy plants—youngest to oldest, to avoid giving pests an unwitting free ride—she brims over with new projects. Look for her Mobile Market van on the North Shore, selling her signature pizzas and organic shave ice. As early as this summer, the van will also become part of her new brainchild, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) venture with the Waialua Farmers’ Co-operative that will bring weekly boxes of fresh, varied, ultra-local produce to residents of the North Shore.
Fresh, ground, locally grown coffee in a CSA box? You heard it here first.
Open-Faced Radish Sandwiches
Hawaii may not yet have black radishes, but we do have red ones. Something close to alchemy happens when these homely ingredients come together in a combination enjoyed across continental Europe. Cut into a good, crusty baguette and give it a schmear of the best unsalted butter you can find. Top with crunchy, thin slices of radish; sprinkle with sea salt and perhaps pepper. Voilà.
Eddie Domingo, D&E Farm Produce
the cultural connection:
Farming is a family affair for Eddie Domingo, whose parents emigrated from the Philippines and began to farm in the mid-1970s, growing Southeast Asian greens such as sweet potato tops, and the new shoots of Moringa oleifera (horseradish tree), as well as edible flowers. On their 11-acre farm in Maili, the near-constant sun means that winter, when other farmers must scale back production because of the rains, has become their prime season.
As we arrive, an Armstrong Produce truck is backing carefully into the dirt driveway, and boxes of fresh Asian greens, neatly sorted and bundled by hand, stand at the ready. D&E Farm and Produce deals with Oahu’s larger distributors, but everyone who works at the farm is a relative, so every day is also a family gathering. In a corner of the packing facility, a litter of newborn kittens plays in a cardboard box, while a small flock of geese, kept as watchdogs against agricultural theft, honk and rustle nearby.
Domingo, 30, was born and raised on Oahu. He doesn’t speak a lot of Ilocano, and he trained as a paralegal, not a farmer. But of the second generation of Domingos, he’s the one who’s made a commitment to the farming life. “I have three kids,” says his mother, family matriarch Vicky Domingo. “All of them were working on the farm. One went to the service [in the Navy]. One went to a regular job. And then there’s Eddie.”
Eddie Domingo runs the business side of things, keeping the books, tracking the orders and liaising with the farm’s buyers. He has helped develop relationships with distributors in California, where heat-loving Southeast Asian vegetables don’t grow well but there is a high demand from the population.
Both Eddie and Vicky, a former teacher, emphasize their family’s responsibility not just as farmers, but as educators and ambassadors for the food ways and plants of their culture. The Domingos have been featured on PBS and the Discovery Channel, talking about growing and using their specialty vegetables, many of which are popular throughout Asia but are relatively unknown in America—but national exposure doesn’t necessarily improve the bottom line.
Right now, things are tough for the farming side of D&E Farm and Produce. Until a few years ago, the Domingos owned their entire farm, but were forced to sell the majority of the land following a series of crop losses. Now they lease the same land from its new owners (which shaves profits razor-thin even in a good year) and wait for affordable agricultural land to open up in the planned Kunia agricultural park. Right now, Eddie Domingo is hoping for 10 acres, but he says the local and Mainland demand is such that he could fill almost any amount of acreage.
Domingo has big plans for his produce. He says he wants to “take these vegetables beyond the Filipino community” and hook into the surge of interest in local farming, introducing his products to a general market that’s primed to expand its vegetable vocabulary and shrink its food miles. His own concerns with encouraging local agriculture center around practicalities, like our vulnerability to the price of oil: “Remember last year, when gas cost almost as much as milk? Food prices went up, too. It could happen again, easily.”
For now, you’ll find him at the People’s Open Markets on Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, expertly splitting a wing bean for an interested customer or offering a host of preparation suggestions: “I really like getting the new people in, the ones who don’t already know how to cook these vegetables. I like introducing them to a new vegetable, teaching them how to use it.”
For Domingo, the farm isn’t just a source of income. Growing and sharing Southeast Asian produce helps keep his family’s connection to their former homeland strong. When you ask him why he wants to farm, he says simply, “We get to hold onto our culture.”
Chicken Soup with Moringa Leaves
A savory, warming soup with an antioxidant boost from the delicate new leaves of the horseradish tree, known across Eurasia as a healing plant (at the farmers’ market, ask for moringa or marunggay).
Brown a couple of pounds of chicken pieces. Add crushed ginger root, a chopped onion, and a tablespoon of patis (Filipino fish paste). Cover with water (about six cups) and simmer till chicken is tender. Toss in four cups of moringa leaves, cover and remove from heat.
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.
Walter Evonuk, Evonuk Farms
a sustainable life:
A delicious, familiar scent wafts over the 30 acres of Evonuk Farms in Kula, on the slopes of Haleakala–. “Aromatherapy is a fringe benefit to working here,” agrees farmer Walter Evonuk, reeling off a list of just a few of the things he and his father, Edward, grow: mint, rosemary, parsley, three kinds of chives, thyme, savory, sorrel, tarragon, marjoram, oregano, fennel, sage, lemongrass.
Each crop has its own unique fragrance, which varies in intensity and relates directly to the work you are doing in that area,” says Evonuk. “[It’s] strong while weeding, stronger yet while harvesting, and really powerful when mowing or plowing a field.”
His intimate knowledge of the farm’s sensory rhythms comes from the better part of a lifetime spent on this patch of ground. Evonuk’s parents came from Oregon, the proverbial couple who came to Maui for their honeymoon and never left. They found teaching jobs at Lahainaluna School and, in 1975, the year Walter was born, they purchased four acres and began to farm. Over the years, says Evonuk, they tried everything before settling on culinary herbs as a niche market that allowed them to avoid intensive pesticide regimens.
Evonuk grew up on Maui and left the Islands to earn an architecture degree in the Bay Area. His architectural thesis project brought him back to the farm to see what he could do “to make it more sustainable—economically, environmentally, socially.” Broad-based sustainability has since become one of the farm’s governing principles, manifesting itself in everything from farm procedures to hiring practices; Evonuk Farms employs local workers, which strengthens the community, as well as interns from two international farm education programs that promote the exchange of agricultural knowledge.
“I’m very concerned with doing things in an Earth-friendly way,” says Evonuk. The Evonuks plant their winter fields with “green manure” crops such as sun hemp, which holds onto the soil during the punishing winter rains and then gets plowed back into the earth, depositing nitrogen naturally. They also installed a major solar array in December 2008, to help power the farm and reduce reliance on petroleum. The results have been promising, says Evonuk. In the winter months, their power bill was reduced by more than half, “and we have big expectations for the summer.”
Evonuk is now a partner in Evonuk Farms. Returning to Maui three years ago was something of a leap of faith, he says: “It is a hard, hard job.” Farm work doesn’t break for weekends and vacations, and an unexpected rain or dry spell can ruin months of effort. “It’s frustrating when you have a beautiful crop and you can’t harvest because you have to wait till it dries, or it gets destroyed and you lose out big time,” he says. “Catastrophes aside, I do like working with the weather because every day is different. Most of the population doesn’t have that connection [to the elements].”
Today, fragrant herbs and salad greens from Evonuk Farms wind up in restaurant dishes and home cooking across the state. Walter’s ambition for the future is a practical one: to run a sustainable farm that allows the farmers to sustain a 21st-century lifestyle—with an occasional holiday. “Yeah, it would be nice to take vacations,” he says wistfully. “I’ve seen my parents struggle over the years to make the farm the success it is. We would like to get the farm to the point where it can actually run for weeks without us.” Another goal: “To retire, period, would be nice. A lot of farmers, they just go until they can’t go anymore.”
But when he’s asked why he farms at all, he laughs. His answer: “Well, because I just like doing it.”
Chinese Garlic Chives with Egg
Walter Evonuk’s favorite herb is garlic chives—a product of which he sells very little. “Americans only think of chives as something you chop up real fine and sprinkle over the top [of a dish],” he says, “but in Asia, they use it as a vegetable.” His wife, Terry Chang, who is from Taiwan, makes what he calls “the most unexpected side dish I’ve ever had.”
In a hot pan glazed with vegetable oil, lightly scramble four eggs with a splash of soy sauce until they’re 80 percent done. Set the eggs aside, clean the pan, heat and oil it, and quickly stir-fry a half-pound bunch of roughly chopped garlic chives (use the green part). When they’re wilted, add the eggs; give them a stir; add a generous pinch of salt. Cook until the eggs are done but still moist; serve hot.
|See the 2008 edition of Farm to Table.|