Adding value to fruits of Hawaii's farmers
By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Sean Hao
Hawai'i's fertile farmlands may be best-known for growing sugar cane and pineapple. However, Hawai'i's agricultural sector is increasingly turning fresh produce into inventive, higher-value products including lavender pepper jam, macadamia nut butter and coffee-flavored beef marinade.
Processed products give farmers greater ability to sell directly to consumers while putting to use blemished or surplus produce that otherwise might be discarded or sold for less value. This spring, Kahuku Farms started turning mangos and papayas into products such as mango scone mix and mango papaya body soap.
"It's a whole new business for us," said Kylie Matsuda, managing director for the 300-acre Kahuku Farms. "It's another way to generate revenues and get into retail."
Processed products promise a potentially bigger payoff than fresh produce sales. Overall Hawai'i farm-level sales are valued at about $500 million annually. However, sales of value-added, processed agriculture products are estimated at at least twice that amount, according to state agriculture officials.
Historically popular and value-added agriculture products include jams, jellies and cookies. However, new products created by farmers, distributors and others reflect Hawai'i's mix of cultures and varied tastes, said Juanita Kawamoto, president of Fresh from the Farm, which markets fresh and processed local farm products.
These products include lychee sugar, poi mochi mix, liliko'i cream cheese and li-hing mango salad dressing. These products often are sold on the Internet, at farmers markets or at farms that offer agriculture-related tours such as Maui's Surfing Goat Dairy and Ali'i Kula Lavender farm. Kula Lavender, on Waipoli Road, sells, among other things, a lavender pepper jam, which mixes Kula strawberries, Hawaiian chili peppers, jalapenos and lavender.
"There is absolutely a movement to do more value-added products," Kawamoto said. "It just helps to spread the word about why Hawai'i is special and stimulates interest about what we grow."
In addition to generating higher sales, processed agriculture products can help farmers cope with export rules, which, for example, require potential fruit-fly hosts to be irradiated or heat-treated. Processed agricultural goods aren't subject to such fruit-fly control rules.
The creation of value-added agriculture products also can help Hawai'i farmers compete with lower-cost fresh produce from foreign and Mainland growers, said Matthew Loke, administrator for the Agricultural Development Division of the state Agriculture Department.
"If you have a high-enough quality produce, you can do well in the local market," he said. "But if you're trying to compete in the Mainland market, it's really difficult if you're just doing produce. I think we're seeing more and more of that" availability of value-added agriculture products, Loke said.
In some cases, these products are created under a local label, but don't include Hawai'i produce. That will be the case with a new line of salad dressings created by a partnership between local chef and restaurateur Roy Yamaguchi and Dean Okimoto, owner of Nalo Farms in Waimanalo. The dressings, which will be sold under the Roy's brand, formerly were made locally.
However, there were no local facilities large enough to produce the dressings in the amounts needed, Okimoto said.
"We would have loved to have done it here in the Islands rather than go to the Mainland, just the costs are too high and the facilities are not available," he said. "Nobody could do it at the scale it needed to be done.
"It's really a component of agriculture for us where it is really sorely lacking."
The salad dressings are expected to become available locally and in Roy's restaurants on the Mainland early next year. The partnership also plans to launch a line of flavored sea salts.
"I think a lot of companies are starting to look and understand the added-value component to keep you viable in ag," Okimoto said.
It isn't just farmers that are bringing new goods to market. The Maui Culinary Academy has so far created nine new food products at its four-year-old research and development laboratory. These items include a coffee-flavored beef rub, a raspberry wine jelly and a roasted pineapple jam.
"People here are really into food," said Chris Speere, program coordinator for the Maui Culinary Academy. "I think that farmers certainly have a great potential to tap into that interest.
"The commodity products have done well, but if you're really going to be able to compete and make the profits that are required, (farmers) are going to have to find a way to generate additional sales."
Reach Sean Hao at email@example.com.