Profitable Peach Palms

A delicacy from the heart

Lesley Hill shows off fresh hearts
of palm at the KCC Farmers Market.

Photo: kent s. hwang

Hawaii’s tropical climate is unique, affording farmers the opportunity to grow crops unlikely to flourish in other parts of the United States: coffee, chocolate, vanilla, a host of tropical fruits and pejibaye (Bactris gasipaes), the peach palm.

The heart of the peach palm is a unique delicacy in the food world. It’s ivory white in color, with a soft, but crunchy, texture and a delicate flavor reminiscent of artichoke heart. It is a crop well suited to the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island where large tracts of dormant sugar land have become available in recent years to enterprising farmers like Lesley Hill and Michael Crowell.

Hill and Crowell are partners in Wailea Agricultural Group (WAG), which has more than 20 acres devoted to the peach palm and many more to a variety of tropical flowers and fruits.

According to Hill, geneticist Charles Clement did the pioneering work on the peach palm in the early 1990s as part of his University of Hawaii PhD program. One of Clement’s experimental fields was just down the road at his friend John Mood’s farm at Ninole. They often enjoyed a glass of wine or two along with edible peach palm from the fields.

“Then we started looking at the numbers and figured this might be a viable crop for us,” remembers Hill. “We stuck our necks out and bought 30,000 seeds and got started.”

The peach palm takes about two years to grow from seed to harvestable size. Seedlings are started and then transferred to one-gallon cans that ultimately are transplanted into the field. Approximately 1,200 trees are planted per acre, each one throwing off new shoots right away. To harvest the heart of the palm, the entire tree is cut down and stripped of its outer layers.

Hill and Crowell have 20-plus producing acres, with new fields added each year. “We have lots of product right now, but we can also bank a crop,” explained Hill, “even if a tree gets to be 75 feet tall.”

In addition to the crop growing well along the Hamakua Coast, an important reason for considering it was that it was not a host for the fruit fly. “We knew we could ship it out of Hawaii without any treatment,” said Hill.

More than 50 upscale restaurants on the Mainland and in Hawaii buy about 500 pounds a week from WAG. “Hawaii has a niche market for fresh hearts of palm; we can’t compete with the canned hearts of palm industry in Costa Rica,” says Hill.

Hill points out that the crop she likes to eat is an extremely sustainable one; all the fronds and outer layers of the tree go back into the beds as compost, enriching the soil and controlling the weeds. New shoots keep sprouting, too.

Hill and Crowell are trying to establish a hearts of palm industry in Hawaii. “We have a few more farmers coming on here in Hawaii, and we have an acre growing in Bali,” says Hill, who returned recently from Singapore to market their product. “We want to get into the high-end Asian market.” ꆱ