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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Locally grown and growing

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

NORTH SHORE, O'ahu — A year ago, several food lovers set tables on a windswept dirt track on a Waialua farm, and sat down to a meal. The topic of the day: the O'ahu farming revival.

Susan Matsushima of Alluvion Farms has a hothouse full of plants and flowers.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

The lunch menu included shrimp, corn, tomatoes, new potatoes and watermelon, all grown nearby. Diners took home baskets of warm, ripe-to-splitting tomatoes they had picked.

Against a backdrop of hillsides rising up to the Ko'olau mountain range, an unassuming former teacher named Susan Matsushima used a visual aid to telegraph the story of contemporary North Shore agriculture: a poster showing a pie-shaped wedge with the names of food producers inked in.

From kai (ocean) to kula (open country) to 'uka (uplands), Helemano to Hale'iwa and on to Waialua, it showed koa trees, coffee, pineapples, ranch cattle and hydroponic lettuce in the uplands; fruit, plants, seed corn, taro and macadamia nuts in open country; and flowers, nursery plants, prawns, fish, asparagus and kukui-nut oil close to the sea.

The map, hastily sketched by Matsushima's architect son, Chad, hangs in an office at her family's nursery, Alluvion Inc. Its keiki are on the tables of a half-dozen area restaurants, which use the "North Shore Hawai'i Agriculture map" as place mats.

The first Re-Discover North Shore product fair last fall at Daiei stores featured 10 vendors: Kahuku Farms (watermelons, papayas, Japan eggplants, apple bananas and mangoes); May's Wonder Garden (a specialist in hydroponic produce); Sugarland Farms (bananas); A&V Farm (corn); Hau'ula Farm (hydroponic tomatoes); You Produce (Japan cucumbers, mini-bell peppers, bitter melons, Chinese squash, lu'au leaf); Lum Produce (lotus root); Milner Farm (Tokyo negi, giant green onion); Oils of Aloha (nut oils); and Alluvion (plants, flowers, lei, gift baskets).

Bernadette Lau of May's Wonder Garden farm in Hale'iwa pulls up a lola rosa lettuce grown in a hydroponic environment.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Those are only a few of the food producers in the area. Others between Kahuku and Waialua include: Sooane Farm (Asian vegetables); a small farm operated by the Tongan Corp. (Polynesian staples); Kamananui Orchard (macadamia nuts); HPC Foods (taro); two seed-corn growers; Romy's Kahuku Prawns & Fish; Hawaii Fish Co.; Twin Bridges Farm (which pioneered asparagus-growing on O'ahu) and Kelena Farms (bananas).

These aren't typical family farms, says Matsushima.

Almost all are on land leased from one of the two big landowners in the area, Kamehameha Schools or Castle & Cooke (Dole). Some were established elsewhere before moving or extending their businesses to the North Shore. And most are very entrepreneurial, she said — as concerned with business plans, product development and marketing as with farm practices.

The smallest operations lease just a few acres. Among the largest is a 1,000-acre cattle ranch.

Matsushima and others are seeking the support of the North Shore community. "Keeping land in agriculture will help sustain the lifestyle out here — sustainable agriculture means a more sustainable lifestyle for everyone," she said.

But the challenges are many, says Cal "Doc" Lum of North Shore Cattle Co.

"Agriculture is one of the hardest businesses I've ever experienced," said Lum, state veterinarian for 18 years before retiring.

Ernest Tottori of HPC Foods grows taro below the Joseph P. Leong Highway.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Banks aren't eager to extend credit to farmers, Lum said. The current flap over agricultural tax rates playing out now between the City Council and mayor is a serious issue. And farmers are fighting a wave of thefts — particularly a problem on the North Shore where leased farmland is deserted at night.

Farming is an uncertain business, as Jeannie Vana of North Shore Farms (Big Wave Tomatoes) knows well. While she's having a good summer on her 10 leased acres near Waialua, she's still catching up from losses caused by winter storms.

"We bottomed out. And there are so many ups and downs. it's not a steady state, especially if you have one crop," said Vana, who each Saturday takes the produce of four other farmers to a farmers' market in town.

Marketing is difficult for smaller operations, which often can't work their way into larger distribution channels. Some North Shore farmers make daily deliveries to individual restaurant customers. Many sell their wares at farmers' markets — a labor-intensive strategy.

"The North Shore could actually be the breadbasket of the state. We've got so much land out here, and it's good land, fertile," said Lum.

But the land is also highly desirable for other kinds of development. Highland operations like Lum's Ranch and May's Wonder Garden offer enviable views, cool breezes and country isolation.

Vana says homes and farms might happily co-exist through "ag clusters," in which pie-shaped cul de sacs back up to farms. The farms are a green belt; the houses help keep farm thefts down.

North Shore produce

• Waialua Farmers' Market, 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Saturdays, old Waialua Sugar Mill

• KCC Farmers' Market, 7:30 to 11:30 a.m. Saturdays, Kapi'olani Community College

Matushima says buying local produce means the food is as much as six days fresher than that shipped in. And some farmers are attempting to cultivate in as "green" a manner as possible — if not actually certified organic, they eschew chemicals where possible and try to employ sustainable agriculture methods.

A number of grant projects are under discussion, including a proposed "agricultural incubator" program that would allow UH students to get experience in the farming business, and subsidize the farmers who help them do it; and money for an "ag park," with a coordinated marketing and distribution system for a variety of farm operations, so everyone doesn't have to do their own delivery and sales.

Matushima never forgets that people are sustained by, and sustaining, North Shore agriculture.

"Every farmer has a great story to tell," she says. "I think when people hear these stories, they understand more why agriculture is so important."