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Quest for organic

Getting organic on O'ahu is getting easier, but it's not cheap.

‘It’s still difficult for people of moderate or lower income to access organic,’ says Ted Radovich, assistant researcher in natural resources and environmental management department and member of the recently formed Organic Agriculture Working Group at the University of Hawai’i-Manoa.

Radovich believes the key bottlenecks to organic agriculture production in Hawai’i are costs for commercial growers and information availability. ‘Many growers tack an emotional premium onto their product,’ he says. ‘Many are not actually aware of their costs and feel their produce is better, which may or may not be true, but the produce is unique, so they tack on a premium that doesn’t need to be there.’

Even with the cost premium, demand for organic products is growing. Sales of U.S. organic food and non-food items grew by approximately 20 percent during 2003 to reach $10.8 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association’s 2004 Manufacturer Survey.

Organic products are also becoming more available. Although O’ahu has only eight organic farms out of 122 statewide certified by the Hawaii Organic Farmers Association, the island has several specialty markets, such as ‘Umeke Market and Kokua Market. Traditional supermarkets, such as Star Market and Safeway, also carry a selection of organic products, and Costco sells some organic items, such as frozen peas and corn. A few local organic farmers also sell at the Kapi’olani Community College Farmers Market and North Shore Country Market.

O’ahu’s organic farmers usually work on small plots of land. Therese Ko, owner of Ko Farms, cannot produce enough for her clients, ‘Umeke Market and Kokua Market, both of which she believes focus on delivering local product.

‘The small markets have a very loyal customer base,’ she says. ‘You can’t get anything better tasting than local produce, and it’s not always more expensive. In season, local produce can even be comparable [in price] to organic mainland produce.’

Ruth Bolomet, owner of A Lani ‘Ono Herb Company in Hale’iwa, grows herbs, edible flowers, vegetables and fruits on her 1-acre property but only produces enough to sell to a few restaurants and to provide home delivery to people on the North Shore.

‘The land is expensive, and you have to be creative with a small space,’ she says. ‘A lot of state programs are not set up for small farmers. It’s difficult and challenging, and I guess I’m crazy, but I just keep doing it.’

Perhaps the best way to keep costs down, though, is to grow your own. Gordon Bang, a former organic farmer on the Big Island, now lives on O’ahu and grows fruits and vegetables for his family. ‘Home gardening is not that difficult,’ he says. ‘And the food tastes better.’