Kapi‘olani Community College’s Farmers Market Celebrates 15 Years on O‘ahu
Over 15 years, the farmers market at Kapi‘olani Community College has promoted local farmers, launched businesses, inspired other markets and cultivated a deep respect for Hawai‘i agriculture.
The farmers market at Kapi‘olani Community College isn’t going to open for another hour, but the parking lot is a blur of activity. Vendors hang banners and secure tents with cement blocks. Workers smooth tablecloths and stack fruits and vegetables in bins. Portable generators rev and propane-powered double burners and gas grills snap on.
Dozens of regulars, armed with empty cardboard boxes, canvas bags and rolling shopping carts, line up at the entrance, plotting their course through the aisles. As soon as the air horn sounds, signaling the opening of the market at 7:30 a.m., they’re off, scrambling to get in line at the Kahuku Farms booth for its coveted papayas or picking from the variety of anthuriums grown by Green Point Nurseries in Hilo.
“It’s like this every Saturday,” says Judah Lum, who manages the 5-acre Kahuku Farms with his wife and sister-in-law. His forehead is beaded with sweat. “It’s crazy.”
This Saturday market, which celebrates its 15th anniversary in September, is the largest on O‘ahu with more than 70 vendors from across the state and up to 10,000 attendees every week. You can find Thai watermelons from Aloun Farms, fresh eggs from Eggs Hawai‘i, hummus made from local ‘ulu, takoyaki using local shrimp, Ka‘ū-grown coffee, honey, fresh lychee and dragon fruit, even sunscreen made with locally sourced ingredients. Not only has the KCC market sparked a farmers market revolution in Hawai‘i, inspiring several dozen others to open in the past decade, this particular market, the first of several launched by the Hawai‘i Farm Bureau Federation statewide, changed the way we thought about farmers markets, connected growers with customers, promoted the need to buy local and served as a testing ground for budding entrepreneurs.
And it couldn’t have had better timing.
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A Ferry Tale
When the market at KCC first opened in 2003, there was nothing quite like it. The city’s People’s Open Market had been around since 1973, created to provide produce to consumers at a lower cost by allowing farmers to sell their off-grade and surplus produce direct. And there were a few ethnic markets, where you could find specialty items not stocked in grocery stores. Whole Foods Market wouldn’t open here for another five years and local retailers were just getting into the local food movement. Even the state’s Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign (now known as Buy Local, It Matters) hadn’t launched yet.
The idea of a market where you could find locally grown fruit and vegetables, specialty items and high-quality products and foods made with local ingredients was revolutionary.
And it happened because Joan Namkoong wanted to eat this stuff.
The esteemed food writer, who had coveted the local products chefs had access to, was tired of running around Chinatown and to separate markets to find these ingredients for herself.
“It was a really selfish reason for doing this,” Namkoong says, laughing. “It was things like local hearts of palm or really good shrimp or these vegetables that people were growing that weren’t available in the supermarket—I wanted to buy them all, and I would run all over Honolulu trying to find this stuff. Why couldn’t we have all these things in one place, please?”
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She had just visited the farmers market at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, which had been opened in 1993 by the nonprofit Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture. This vibrant market, open three days a week, boasts an array of fresh farm products and artisanal foods, with the city’s best-known chefs often spotted cruising the aisles for ingredients. More than 40,000 people visit the farmers market every week, stocking up on specialty items: farmstead cheese from Petaluma, made from milk produced by dairy cows raised on brewers’ grain from nearby breweries; stone fruits grown in Brentwood, made into chutneys and marmalades; and honey harvested from dozens of small beehives from backyards, gardens and parks throughout the Bay Area.
Motivated after her visit, Namkoong went to Dean Okimoto, Waimānalo farmer and then-president of the Hawai‘i Farm Bureau Federation, with her idea of starting something similar on O‘ahu.
Okimoto, who also runs Nalo Farms, went to San Francisco to see this farmers market for himself.
“I looked at it, came back and told Joan, ‘Are you high?’” he says, laughing. “I noticed that the farmers market [in San Francisco] wasn’t where farmers were selling things cheap. It was a farmers market that was selling quality. I told her if she really wanted to do this, I would help her.”
This market had to be different from what was already available on O‘ahu. The produce had to be locally grown, farmers had to staff their booths, and all other food products had to be made with Hawai‘i-grown ingredients.
The two decided on a potential location—KCC, which had lots of space and parking, restrooms nearby and a community likely to support this kind of market—and met with Conrad Nonaka, director of the Culinary Institute of the Pacific who passed away in June, to see if he would be willing to partner. He agreed and, less than a year later, the first market opened on a sunny Saturday morning in September.
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Sold Out From The Start
It was difficult to convince farmers to participate at first. Many hadn’t ever sold directly to customers, so they didn’t see a need for logos or branding. Many didn’t have the staff to lug produce from their farms to KCC and run a booth on a Saturday morning. And many were skeptical that this concept was going to work.
There were only about 20 vendors, including Nalo Farms, on opening day. And, without any advertising except a mention in the newspaper earlier that week, more than 3,000 people showed up. The vendors were sold out of everything they had in less than an hour.
“We were definitely surprised,” Namkoong recalls. “No one really knew what to plan for. Some vendors were sold out in 20 minutes.”
– Joan Namkoong, One of the founders of the KCC Farmers Market
Jeanne Vana, a horticulturist and owner of North Shore Farms, was one of the first vendors at KCC—and one of only a few who have participated in the market every Saturday for 15 years. Wearing a pink cowboy hat and friendly smile, Vana is known for her beautiful tomatoes; she grows 10 different kinds, including stunning heirloom varieties, on her 9-acre farm in Waialua. She uses off-grade tomatoes to make her popular grilled pesto pizzas: The pesto is prepared from scratch every week and she even makes her own mozzarella. She’s now growing soursop, making tea out of the leaves and using the fruit in preserves in her pastries. That’s led to a new outdoor tea service she recently started to offer at KCC in a shady area across from her booth. She also sells roasted Aloun Farms corn.
Namkoong had approached her a year before the market first opened to gauge her interest. “I really gave her the encouragement that this would be successful when no one else believed it,” Vana says.
The market has become Vana’s main revenue source, supplemented by sales to select customers to whom she sells directly and a few home deliveries. She operates three booths at KCC and participates in two other farmers markets.
“I like it because it’s social,” she says. “We don’t have much of a social life when we’re farming 24/7.”
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Within a few months, the KCC market exploded in popularity, with thousands of people visiting the campus in search of local produce, fresh-cut flowers and prepared foods. The Hawai‘i Farm Bureau Federation opened a night market in Kailua, then markets in Mililani, Wai‘anae, Hale‘iwa (closed), at Ala Moana Center (on hiatus because of construction), a second at KCC in the evening and on the lawn at the Blaisdell Center, as well as on other islands. The market quickly became a significant income source for the organization, which had previously relied on membership fees and revenue from the Hawai‘i State Farm Fair.
But the intent was never to make money, says Brian Miyamoto, the bureau’s executive director: “The idea behind it was always to help farmers.”
The success of the KCC market is often credited for the meteoric rise in the number of similar markets, from the biweekly market at Windward Mall with 50 vendors to the quaint open market on Fort Street Mall in Downtown every Tuesday and Friday morning. You’ll find farmers markets in shopping malls, in community centers, on school campuses, in parks, in hotel lobbies, even in warehouses. (Warehouse 3540 is a pop-up-style farmers market on Kaua‘i that’s literally in a warehouse.)
“KCC was the spark,” Miyamoto says. “The success of that market not only led to other markets but an increased awareness of Hawai‘i agriculture. These markets give farmers the opportunity to sell directly to customers, to make money, to interact with customers. There’s no negative in that.”
The largest of these newer groups is the FarmLovers Farmers Markets, which opened its first market in 2009 in Hale‘iwa. Run by veteran market director Pamela Boyar, FarmLovers has four markets on O‘ahu, with dozens of vendors selling locally grown fruits and vegetables, handcrafted products and healthy foods in a space that’s inviting and fun. Every market has live music and a seating area.
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Its first weekly market in Hale‘iwa started with 20 vendors set up along a bypass road; now it’s located in lush Waimea Valley with 65 vendors and thousands of people trekking there from all over the island.
“We created a space for people to gather in a healthy environment,” Boyar says. “It’s comfortable. You can sit, listen to live music. People can get a real taste of what it’s like to live here. We create an experience.”
As the farm bureau does, Boyar personally vets the vendors, making sure they’re selling produce grown in Hawai‘i or using local ingredients. She’ll even work with vendors to help them grow or improve their businesses.
“To me, it’s all about supporting the farmers,” she says. “Seeing local meat, fresh eggs, local produce at the market, that makes my heart sing.”
These farmers markets have not only supported local farmers and food producers but, perhaps unintentionally at first, launched small businesses, too. Dozens of brands—Hawaiian Chip Co., ‘Ono Pops, ‘Ulu Mana, Honolulu Burger Co., Mochi Lab—got their start at a farmers market. Some established companies, including Eggs Hawai‘i and Kukui Sausage, saw these markets as an opportunity to rebrand, test new items, connect with customers or expand.
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But no success story compares to The Pig & The Lady, which opened a booth at KCC in 2011 serving innovative Vietnamese street food. The menu had just five items. (Now, it has 23.) “I remember we served turkey pho and it was brutal for us,” says Alex Le, the restaurant’s general manager who runs the market booth. “We were super unprepared.”
After garnering a devoted following from the market, the Le family decided to move its concept into a brick-and-mortar location in Chinatown in 2013, then a second restaurant, Piggy Smalls, at Ward Village three years later. Since then, chef-owner Andrew Le has been nominated for a James Beard Award and The Pig & The Lady has been featured in magazines and on TV shows around the world.
Despite their huge success, the Le family continues to run booths at three farmers markets a week—prep, for a single market takes up to eight hours—paying homage to where it all started and to the people who helped them get to where they are today.
“People always ask why we do this despite having two restaurants and, quite simply, it’s because of the guests,” Le says. “The farmers market has been nothing but good to us. … We have met so many good people who are now lifelong friends.”
The family vibe is still evident at KCC. Workers exchange bags of veggies and takeout boxes of food. They hug, wave and catch up before the market opens. Many of the hot-food vendors buy directly from the farmers here, proudly promoting their fruits and vegetables to customers.
“I get my onions and greens from Theng’s,” says Kayla Lum, pointing to the tent across from hers. She and her husband, Ryan Lum Jr., run the booth for North Shore Cattle Co. She’s starting to grow Hawaiian chili peppers at home—the starter plant came from a nursery that has a booth here—for another vendor who makes salsa. “We all help each other out.”
Ryan Jr. grew up working in the booth at KCC; his parents were among the original vendors, selling locally grown beef. Now, their four kids—two of whom are helping this morning—work on Saturdays. Wearing plastic gloves, his 8-year-old son, Ryan III, stays close to his dad by the propane grills; 9-year-old Khloe takes orders and gives out change. “She pretty much runs the front,” Kayla says, laughing.
It’s obvious Khloe enjoys spending her Saturday mornings here, handling the crowd of people like a veteran. She even helps to make the meatloaf. This is her future, and she’s not complaining.
“This one,” Kayla says, nodding over to Khloe. “She already wants to do all the cooking.”