The first local-grown-only, Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation-sponsored farmers market opened in a Kapi’olani Community College parking lot at 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday in June, 1993.
“There were 6,000 people here by 8 o’clock,” recalls co-founder, farmer and HFBF president Dean Okimoto. “We sold out by 8:30.” Nobody had to teach local home cooks that they needed a source of fresh, homegrown goods.
KCC’s success, and the dreams of entrepeneurs around the Island, have given birth to so many farmers markets that you can find one somewhere every day, in some cases several in a day. Today, however, despite many tough lessons learned in the intervening nine years, there may be some education needed.
There’s a low-grade battle going on between those who’d like to see Hawaii farmers markets sell nothing but fresh, raw ingredients and those who think it’s okay to resell imported foods. Some would like to hang out a sign that says, “Ingredients only, No prepared foods, cameras, sun-burned knees or splashy alohawear allowed.”
KCC farmers market is widely spoken of as too crowded, too tourist-driven. “Is this a farmers market . . . or Disney-kiki?,” asked Leonard Miyaki, a KCC Saturday stalwart, arriving before dawn with a flashlight to reserve his stuff, leaving within minutes of the 7:30 a.m. “sales open” air horn.
At KCC on a Saturday, said chef and market customer Mark Noguchi, “I’m standing there with 45 pounds of produce in my arms and there’s somebody not moving in front of me! Put down the camera and get out of my way!” Jeanne Vana, a founding farmer at KCC, has a ready answer to those who think prepared food vendors are pushing farmers out. On the contrary, she said, adding a tomato-pesto pizza to her line has allowed her to make use of off-grade product (not pretty enough for supermarkets or fresh sale) that would otherwise be farm feed or compost.
The prominence of prepared foods in farmers markets, “reflects how agriculture is fully integrated into everyone’s life and the important role that agriculture plays,” she said. Selling the entire crop–the pretty-faced stars as well as the soft or scabby or slightly brown–allows the farmer to make more from less land, Vana said.
The Farm Bureau-sponsored markets, and the three in the Haleiwa Farmers Market ‘ohana (Waimea Valley, Hawaii Kai and Ala Moana; Haleiwa is in hiatus after a land dispute) limit their inventory to locally grown products.
But farmers markets range from a few tables set up in a mall or lobby for an hour, to sprawling parking lots full of pop-tents busy all day or evening. Some sell everything from repackaged Mainland onions to pseudo-Hawaiian crafts.
The City & County People’s Open Markets, which predate the Farm Bureau effort, are among the lowest priced and most widely spread, from ‘Ewa Beach to Waimanalo (see list, next page). They aren’t required to sell only locally grown products, but they are valued by elders for their proximity, and by those in lower-income neighborhoods where inexpensive fresh food options may be few. (Another effort to make fresh produce more readily available to low-income shoppers is the recent move by Wahiawa Farmers Market–operated by a local community board–to accept EBT cards, a project of the GreenWheel Food Hub.)
Much of what People’s Open Markets offer is from the equivalent of backyard gardens, often first-generation immigrants selling foods best-known among their ethnicity.
The original idea for farmers markets of all kinds was to preserve family-size farms–farms that don’t produce enough for the larger distribution channels, or are run by farmers like Jeanne Vana, who want to remain small.
“Akamai customers seek out authentic farmers. They want to buy from the real producer; they feel a need to have that connection to the farm . . . They feel it almost their patriotic duty to invest their time and their money in helping these farmers. They want the green space. They want to see Oahu self-reliant,” Vanna said.
Others worry, however, that the idea has worked too well. “There are only so many farms, there’s only so much product,” said Noguchi.
“The farmers are making money,” said Okimoto. “But they are first and foremost farmers. They have to have time to raise the crops!” In many cases, it’s the farmer’s family that is absorbing the burden of packing, schlepping, pricing, selling and repacking again.
Sharon Kobayashi of Akamai Oatcakes, who has been with HFBF since Day One, rolled her eyes when a customer approached her about selling at yet another farmers market. Without farmers markets,” she said, “it would have been very difficult to find a place where I could reach a lot of people without the cost of a permanent shop. But it makes me sad. There are so many markets now you’re competing with yourself.”
Vana said produce wholesalers have moved into the farmers markets that don’t have a local-grown-only requirement, selling imports such as Mainland onions and carrots to “resellers” who essentially pose as farmers. “The pie is shrinking; they’re taking a piece,” she complained.
HFBF Farmers Market Manager Kacey Robello works closely with the farmers and vendors at Farm Bureau markets, receiving and scrutinizing their applications, managing the mix so that there isn’t too much of any one thing and direct competitors aren’t placed side by side. Robello gathers the specifics about what’s to be sold and how it’s sourced. She has capped the KCC market at 65 vendors, 70 in a pinch; there’s a waiting list to be considered.
Robello said that the farmers market model makes for strong, intimate relationships: between farm market management and farmers, between farmers and vendors (who are also their customers), between sellers and consumers. Everyone gets direct, and fairly immediate feedback in contrast to the conventional supermarket system.
For example, when a farmer runs into a bad patch–rain ruins the corn or a blight hits the tomatoes–Robello places a substitute temporarily in the farm’s space, but moves them back in as soon as they’re producing again. Market managers agreed that, if a vendor moves, customers complain and business falls off; people want to go right to the spot where “their” farm operates.
If a farm suddenly has a glut of some product, Robello may slot them in temporarily at another market that fits their harvest schedule, so they can refill the coffers and get back on their feet.
In late summer, HFBF launched a trial Tuesday evening KCC market in response to local folks’ complaints about Saturday mob scenes. There is also a quiet Wednesday night sale fronting the Blaisdell Center. Okimoto said everything depends on the vendors attracting enough business but they’ll continue the Tuesday and Wednesday markets for now.
Back up the truck. Who was the genius who figured out that the Islands were ripe for a high-quality, local-only “true” farmers markets?
Joan Namkoong, raise your hand. Namkoong, who served as food editor of The Honolulu Advertiser from 1994 to 2001, was frustrated. Chefs had access to Hawaii-grown delicacies that she wanted for her own kitchen, but most weren’t available at retail.
Then Namkoong took a fated trip to San Francisco, where she saw the newly refurbished Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. She came home and began working on Okimoto to start a similar effort here.
He was skeptical. Farmers–he is one himself, owner of ‘Nalo Farms–are notorious for wanting to be left alone to farm. They especially hate marketing and distribution. Could they be talked into believing that it would be worth their financial while to pack up their goods and come all the way into Honolulu?
Namkoong and Okimoto cajoled 15 or 20 farmers and food producers into trying the first go-round. Conrad Nonaka, director of the Culinary Institute of the Pacific, rented them space on Kapiolani Community College’s campus.
They rounded up a chef a week to make a simple takeout breakfast, to showcase uses for local foods and so people would have something to nosh as they shopped.
This last was Namkoong’s idea and became subject to the law of unintended consequences: Prepared food did so well that markets became more than half food courts.
Okimoto hastens to point out that farmers make money from prepared foods, too. Although most products necessarily use offshore ingredients (we don’t mill flour in Hawaii anymore), vendors are strongly encouraged to buy local, too.
Market “police” can readily identify an out-of-season fruit or a vegetable from overseas, but who can say a vendor really used local apple bananas without a kitchen inspection?
Robello said “inspection” begins with the vendor application. “If someone says they’re using Shinsato Pork, for example, we’ll ask to see a receipt,” Robello said. Applications for prepared food vendors require ingredient lists. Ono Pops was a vendor who impressed her: “It was very specific, not only what but where they were getting everything.”
Preference is given to vendors who use the largest number or quantity of locally sourced products. However, there is no quantum requirement.
Okimoto points out one advantage of farmers markets for any seller: “It’s kind of a workshop, a place to try out things, especially when you’re starting a new business or a new line. You find out very quickly and very directly what sells, or what’s wrong with the thing you’re trying to sell. People tell you, they’re right in your face,” she said.
Another plus: “value-added” products in which farmers use up their own “seconds” or “imperfects” by making, say, jam or juice or–as in the case of Jeanne Vana’s North Shore Farms wildly popular fresh grilled pizza made from their Big Wave Tomatoes. These lush, juicy heirloom varieties have a short, perilous shelf life but work beautifully broiled on pizza crust with Vana’s housemade mozzarella.
Molly Ibis, who shops the Kailua Farm Bureau Market most weeks, says she’s not too concerned about the prepared vs. ingredients mix, or requiring some sort of local quantum.
“Look,” she said, “these are local businesses. Nobody would be complaining if they were selling the same stuff from a takeout window on the street. Yes, I think buying local and being honest is important, but on the whole, the farmers market movement here has really improved life.” She glances around her at the Kailua parking lot that, on Thursday evenings, becomes a date destination as much as a foodie mecca. “The markets are a Good Thing,” she said, a la Martha Stewart.
For Pam Boyer and Annie Suite of Haleiwa Farmers Market (the business name for a family of markets), the best thing about farmers markets is when they become a gathering place for a community. “Like in the old days, it was the plaza. People would bring their wares but they would also talk and sit and eat and meet,” said Suite.
In founding four farmers markets on Oahu, they’ve found that each has ‘a distinct personality and that the mix of products and the “feel” of the market is customer-driven. In Haleiwa (where they lost a state lease but still hope to relaunch a market soon), the “artsy” community meant that crafts and artistic creations were welcomed and embraced. People wanted to see what their neighbors were making.
In contrast, Hawaii Kai is a shop-and-go market, with moms between soccer games grabbing the week’s produce. Ala Moana, with vendors ringing the perimeter and tables set up at the center, is very urban, like a city center plaza. Waimea Valley, their latest venture, is still in development — “each week, it’s morphing,” Boyer said.
Robello said she’s seen the same thing with Farm Bureau markets: “It’s funny how it just falls into place. Farmers evaluate very carefully what is the best market for them, when they’ll have product, whether they can be away from the farm during the day or would rather work in the evening.”
For example, the Wednesday Farm Bureau market is often rich in Hawaii island products, because that’s the day the Big Island barge lands. “Every market is so different,” she said. The KCC crowd is younger, more urban. In Mililani, she sees more older customers, “who really NEED what the market has to offer, they’re buying their fruits and vegetables for the week — they’re buying ripe for today, half-ripe for tomorrow.”
Each market has its own character. “Within six months,” Boyer said, “the people claim their market. It’s no longer ours. I love that day when our vision meets their vision.”
It happens when vendors begin to recognize customers by name and a trust builds. People ask vendors to plant things they want to buy. Vendors begin giving customers samples of new crops to see how they react. “They tell each other their stories,” Suite said.
Boyer and Suite also believe in helping farmers beyond providing a selling venue, particularly with branding and marketing. There was, for example, the Vietnamese vegetable grower whose business doubled after Boyer helped her coin a name and make a banner to go over her booth. “A simple thing like that can make all the difference,” said Boyer.
But Boyer and Suite also believe farmers market organizers must be willing to step up in helping farmers face other challenges, political and economic.
Access to water and land, not a lack of customers or too many tourists or food booths, are the big challenges, they said.