Hawaiian spirit and hard work on Oahu’s north shore

For Clyde Fukuyama and Melvin Matsuda, aloha, ohana and kuleana are as much a part of farming as sun, soil and water. The third-generation Hawaiian growers, friends since boyhood, took over farms from their parents. Matsuda’s wife, Momi, grew up on her father’s ranch. All three know the rigors of working long days in the hot sun. They also know the challenges of managing 35 workers and about 300 acres of land in several locations on the north shore of Oahu, including farms at Kahuku and Haleiwa. Most land was formerly used for sugar production and is on long-term (65-year) lease from the state of Hawaii.

“I want one, too!” Visitors from a Honolulu Boys and Girls Club tour Kahuku Farms with Judah Lum.

Kahuku Farms (www.kahukufarms.com), jointly owned and operated by the Fukuyama and Matsuda families, specializes in longer-term crops, those that take six or more months to mature. These crops, grown primarily for major Hawaiian wholesalers such as Costco and Foodland, include (in order of importance) papaya, apple banana (a fat, chunky banana that is both tangy and sweet) and eggplant. Kahuku Farms also grows lilikoi (passion fruit), pomelo, oranges, avocados, pineapples and mangoes in smaller quantities, which are sold in their farm cafe and store and at farmers’ markets.

Growing to standards

Kahuku Farms has been Food Safety Certified since 2009. To comply with federal food safety standards, crops are documented throughout their growing cycle. No animals are allowed in the fields where they are grown. If there were any domestic animals, they would have to be tied or fenced. Wild animals are trapped and removed. Workers attend classes and learn food safety basics such as not smoking in the fields or packing facility, and washing their hands following any breaks.

Primarily of Asian or Philippine origin, workers are all residents of Hawaii, but some have limited English, so communication can be challenging. A buddy system is in place, and senior workers help same-language junior workers. Posted signs provide information in seven languages.

Following harvest, produce is packed in a regulated facility; certification standards do not allow field packing. Crops travel to markets in refrigerated trucks. After that, however, Kahuku Farms has no control over the handling and care of the produce.

Managing with aloha

Hawaii is known for its aloha spirit, a pervasive feeling of love and good cheer. Less well-known are the other bases of Hawaiian society, ohana (sense of family) and kuleana (responsibility for self and community). These three principles imbue all of life in the 50th state, including business operations. When asked how it is possible to provide their employees with at least a 40-hour work week, health insurance and 401(k) plans, Fukuyama, acknowledging it is not easy, replies, “Our workers have families and bills, too.”

He adds, “It’s a challenge to compensate employees so they want to stay. We can’t pay the same rates as the large companies who grow Hawaii’s seed corn.” (Seed corn, grown on what were formerly sugar-producing lands, is Hawaii’s largest crop.) What Kahuku Farms does provide is medical insurance to employees after their first month of work. After one year, dental, vision and prescription drug coverage are added. Members of management are fully covered as soon as they begin work. So far, employees have not been asked to contribute to the premium. Some workers choose to take part in the 401(k) program, but others prefer to have cash to send to their families at home.

Employee retention at Kahuku Farms is high. A core group has worked for the two families for more than 20 years. All are full-time, year-round employees. Matsuda and Fukuyama expect most of the core group will remain at the farm until they retire. To help make that happen and to provide for their own families, the Matsuda and Fukuyama families agree, “We have to be good business people so everything is in place for the next generation.” Included in that generation are Kylie Matsuda-Lum, Kahuku Farms’ managing director of agricultural tourism and education, her husband, Judah Lum, and her sister, Kalyn.

Stick a broom in the ground …

The saying goes: Stick a broom in the ground and it will grow. However, growing on Oahu has its challenges. Intended and unintended plants grow well in the moderate year-round temperatures, and insects and diseases come from everywhere. “Just like tourists, bugs love Hawaii,” Momi says.

At Kahuku Farms, the biggest crop, both in size and value, is papaya. Growing to a height of 20 feet, papaya looks like a tree; however, it has a hollow herbaceous stem and is actually a short-lived perennial. From seed to replanting is three years. At three years, papaya plants are cut and removed and new seedlings are planted in different fields. Papaya can be rotated with eggplant, taro, apple banana – with almost every crop grown at Kahuku Farms. Fallow fields are seeded in nitrogen-fixing sun hemp.

Papaya seeds are started in a hoop house. Seedlings are transplanted three seedlings per spot. When the plants first flower at about four months after planting, all but one hermaphroditic plant are removed. Hermaphroditic plants produce fruit of the desired size and pear shape. (Female plants produce fruit of similar texture and quality to hermaphroditic plants, but are less productive and are generally not commercially grown.) First harvest occurs about six months after flower bloom. Hermaphroditic plants of Solo, the variety planted at Kahuku Farms, usually produce fruit weighing 16 to 30 ounces. Papayas are harvested every week, a fruit or two per picking, for two years. A high platform attached to a tractor is driven between rows of the papaya plantation, giving workers easy access to the fruit. At three years, papaya plants are cut down and the plantation is reseeded in another crop.

Jelly, ice cream, smoothies and dried fruit

Kahuku Farms has found a number of different ways to add value to their crops, such as lilikoi jelly, vanilla bean ice cream, apple banana smoothies and dried mangoes. Some of the products, like lilikoi jelly, are made in the farms’ commercial kitchen. Mangoes, vanilla beans and some lilikoi are cut, juiced, and shipped to other companies for processing into five different products. Products finished by other companies, among them dried mangoes, vanilla bean ice cream, lilikoi sorbet, and bath and beauty aids, bear the Kahuku Farms label and are sold at the farm’s cafe store. Other Kahuku Farms products for sale at the cafe are fresh fruit, fresh fruit smoothies and mango iced tea.

Sharing a local farm

Families, school, church, community groups, and senior holoholo (to walk or travel for fun) club members are invited to explore Kahuku Farms. After meeting at the cafe for an orientation by Kylie, visitors board a specially outfitted wagon for a trip to learn about the farm’s people, history and crops, after which they are invited to sample in the farm store. Tours are offered Friday through Monday.

Kylie Matsuda-Lum (front), Clyde Fukuyama, Momi Matsuda and Melvin Matsuda in a Kahuku Farms papaya plantation.

Wagon rides are popular with student groups, including Scouts and Boys and Girls Club members. “Boys and Girls Club participants, up to 20 to a wagon, especially enjoy having our fruit,” says Kylie, whose husband drives the wagon, stopping to gather pomelos and tangerines to toss to the kids. Students also have the opportunity to plant a seed in a cup to take home. At some point, Kahuku Farms plans to host outdoor kids’ birthday parties and business meetings in the cafe.

An enormous farmers’ market

By 5:30 every Saturday morning, Momi sets up at the Kapi’olani Farmers’ Market (http://kapiolani.hawaii.edu/object/farmersmarket.html). Open from 7:30 to 11 a.m. on the grounds of Kapi’olani Community College (KCC), which sits on the mauka (mountainside) slopes of Diamond Head at the edge of Waikiki, Kapi’olani Farmers’ Market is one of the largest farmers’ markets in the U.S. Co-sponsored by the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation and the Culinary Institute of the Pacific at KCC, Kapi’olani Farmers’ Market bills itself as Hawaii’s only farmers’ market featuring all Hawaii-grown and produced foods. Customers say it’s “the happening place on Saturday mornings.” An estimated 7,000 customers generally attend; during Presidents’ Day weekend 2012, some 10,000 people visited the market.

Local customers try to arrive early before busloads of tourists get there. Some vendors are concerned that local buyers have stopped coming because of the many tourists and the reduced parking. A Tuesday evening pilot market was being tested during summer 2012. This considerably smaller market is designed to bring back local shoppers.

Kahuku Farms participates in the Saturday market primarily to keep its name before the public and to promote its agritourism. The farmers’ market is only, as Melvin puts it, “a dimple in our sales.”

In recent years, Momi finds more farmers’ market customers asking whether Kahuku Farms use chemicals. She handles this question by asking customers what chemicals they are concerned about, and then offering to find out whether or not they are used at Kahuku Farms. Generally, customers cannot name chemicals of concern.

Success: Being happy with what you’re doing

Neither family thinks of their success in terms of acreage or gross sales. To Clyde, success is “people who come to us wanting our products. We have markets; therefore, we are profitable. Distributors and retailers support us year in and year out. These people buy, sell and promote our products to their customers for us.”

“Being operational, liking what we’re doing – that is success,” says Melvin.

Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and editor and has been a frequent contributor to Growing since its inception. She lives in Henniker, N.H.