A New Cash Crop

A New Cash Crop

(page 1 of 3)

Melvin Matsuda was like many farmers,
reluctant to draw daughter Kylie into the family business.
Photo: Rae Huo

Melvin and Momi Matsuda never intended for their oldest daughter to follow in their footsteps. In fact, they discouraged it. As far as they were concerned, they hadn’t sent Kylie to college so that she could come back to pull weeds and drive a tractor on the family farm. Farming is a tough business. Many local growers struggle to make a profit because of Hawaii’s high cost of land, water, electricity, supplies and shipping. The current economic downturn only adds to that pressure.

But a growing number of farmers are discovering they can maintain their core businesses by expanding into agricultural tourism — that is, inviting visitors onto their farms, creating a fun learning adventure and charging them for it. If successful, agtourism diversifies farmers’ incomes and keep their businesses viable, but it requires creative strategies that transcend traditional farming models. That’s where the next generation of farmers may have the most impact: by generating fresh ideas for a changing industry.

But it can be a tough row to hoe: Many farmers complain that state and local governments have dragged them through permitting hell and they have had to pay tens of thousands of dollars to try to establish an agtourism sideline.

In 2001, when Kylie graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in travel industry management, Melvin was convinced that farming could not provide the type of life that he hoped for his daughter. A third-generation farmer who co-owns Matsuda Fukuyama Farms with longtime friend Clyde Fukuyama, Melvin knows the increased challenges that today’s farmers face compared to when he started in the 1960s. Over the years, he’s endured the frustration of performing backbreaking work day in and day out only to have his prices undercut by larger, over-seas growers.

“My dad didn’t want me to come back to be another commodity farmer,” Kylie says. So, she took her father’s advice and found work elsewhere, dabbling in the hotel business and in sales for a few years. About four years ago, after numerous attempts to sidetrack Kylie, Melvin finally had an aha! moment. He realized the ag industry was shifting toward agtourism and that Kylie — with her college education, fresh perspective and 29-year-old energy — represented the future of agriculture in Hawaii. If he wanted to keep his business alive, Melvin knew it would take someone like Kylie to help sustain it. “That’s when I was able to finally stop begging for a job,” Kylie says, laughing. Today, she is the managing director of Kahuku Farms Inc., the company created to develop agtourism for Matsuda Fukuyama Farms.

However, it wasn’t long before Kylie realized that winning over her father would be just one of her many uphill battles. These days, she has bigger problems with the state and the city and county of Honolulu, trying to iron out lease issues and survive what she calls permitting hell.

“I never thought it would be this difficult to get our business up and running,” Kylie says with a sigh. “But, I’ve invested too much time and energy into this to turn back now. All I can do now is hope and pray.”

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