KOKUA MARKET / On Kokua Market’s inaugural farm tour last Saturday morning, a six-car caravan of 30 people, ranging from a 3-year-old toddler on up, made its way out to the West side. On the agenda: Rocky’s Farm, Kahumana Farms and Ailani Gardens. None of these farms are commercial farms, where the farmer’s livelihood depends on farm sales. They’re part-time ventures, or in the case of Kahumana Farms, part of a nonprofit organization. Even so, these small-scale hobby farms offer a different perspective from city life–as Rockwell Rogers of Rocky’s Farm says, “A lot of people in town probably don’t see this too often.”
The reasons to join a farm tour are as varied as Oahu’s agricultural landscape. For some, it’s an opportunity to see where their food comes from; for others it’s because of agrarian nostalgia; still others use the tours as a unique way to discover Oahu–an off-the-beaten-path excursion that breaks from the usual beach trips and ridge hikes. But based on an informal poll, on Saturday it was mostly because customers had tasted Rocky’s mangoes, and like addicts in need of a fix, were drawn to the supplier.
Kokua Market’s Waianae farm tour is one of many ways to visit a farm. Other options include farm work days, individual farm tours organized by Slow Food Oahu, and Haleiwa Farmers Market’s sleek new North Shore farm tour, complete with air-conditioned buses. Kokua Market’s tour, born of a desire to bring Kokua Market shoppers face-to-face with some of their suppliers, is unique in that it’s free and allows participants to see a few farms in a day without getting too sweaty.
Rogers’ 2.5 acre farm is a stress-relief from his full-time job in the construction industry.
“I talk to my goats, water my mango trees and I’m completely happy,” Rogers says. He picks his mangoes ripe, unlike some other operations, but only one in three make it to market due to pests and mildew. Still, it’s a volume that works well for small Kokua Market, his exclusive retailer. Less-than-perfect mangoes are dried and sold as a sweet snack.
Though Rogers’ mangoes are one of the main draws for Kokua Market’s tour, it’s Rocky’s collection of livestock and goats born just a week ago that captures everyone’s attention (well, that and it’s not mango season). A pair of wild pigs in a cage greet the tour. Despite thick, black bristles and vicious-looking teeth, the pigs are friendly enough to subject themselves to petting and photo-ops. They’re not a fixture on the farm like the sheep, geese and chickens; rather, they’re destined to become smoked meat or kalua pig.
It turns out the geese, with their loud honking and penchant for limb-pecking, are the fierce ones. Rogers uses them as “watch-geese,” a nifty solution to one of Hawaii’s many agricultural pests: thieves. Whereas people have figured out how to get around dogs, they “don’t know what to do with geese,” Rogers explains.
Roger’s farm, a narrow parcel of land that was once a railroad right-of-way for Waianae plantations, is built into a steep hillside above the valley road. It isn’t an orderly grove of mango trees. Rather, 30 or so trees are scattered along the length of the property and goats graze willy-nilly along the hillside, trimming the grass and mango trees while providing fertilizer. Rogers raises the goats as breeders for a market that wants them as pets or meat (possibly even both). And from the looks of things, he may find a new market of townies smitten by his baby goats.
Kahumana Farms is part of Kahumana Community, a nonprofit that serves people with developmental disabilities. With the new transitional housing adjacent to Kahumana, the organization hopes to become a hub of training programs that teach skills on the certified-organic farm and in Kahumana’s new café. On the 14-acre property, about 7 acres are designated for farming fruits and vegetables such eggplant, beets, kale, chard, various citrus and chico, a fruit with the texture of a pear and the taste of brown sugar. Most of the produce goes to the onsite café and is sold to the public via a weekly pick-up-only subscription service.
“We want to keep the vegetables in Waianae because we’re farming here,” says newly minted farm manager Andrea Bertoli. “We don’t need to send everything back to town…It also gives people an opportunity to come to the farm, to talk to the farmers.”
They do, however, make an exception for Kokua Market; shoppers on the tour express their gratitude for Kahumana’s lacinato kale and white and orange carrots.
Kahumana’s light-filled café is a pleasant spot for lunch. While there, tour members discuss community gardens, pest control, concerns about industrialized agriculture and favorite restaurants in town. The café is overwhelmed by the tour group of 30, but when food eventually arrive, it’s fresh and vibrant.
Jason Leue, who sells his vegetables via a community-supported agriculture program (CSA) views farming more as “a service than a product, to educate people on eating better and different things.”
He’s acutely aware of the diabetes epidemic in Waianae, and to that end, he offers weekly cooking classes at Ailani Gardens. People can come to the farm and learn to cook some of the farm’s produce.
With the help of friends and interns from the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) program, he cultivates produce primarily on raised beds; he grows sweet potato greens, mustard greens, chicory, the more recognizable dryland taro, eggplant and lettuce. Leue, a full-time animator, began his serendipitous entry into farming when a friend proposed planting vegetables on an acre of Leue’s land. Soon, Leue had more vegetables than he, his friends and his neighbors could eat. This led to a stand at the farmers market and then the CSA.
As the caravan made its way back to town, it passed a number of other farms–small Asian vegetable plots; MAO Organic Farms, a farm and social enterprise; Aloun Farms, one of the state’s largest diversified fruit and vegetable farms, whose owners recently pleaded guilty to forced labor charges; Sumida Farm, known for its watercreess, hemmed in by a shopping mall.
The farms not included on the tour said as much about Oahu’s agricultural future as the farms visited. But Kokua’s inaugural farm tour was only a starting point–tour organizer Brad Chun hopes to coordinate additional tours whose goals are as large as inspiring people to learn where our produce comes from to as simple as making a new friend on the tour.