A New Cash Crop

A New Cash Crop

(page 2 of 3)

Alii Chang, co-owner of
Alii Kula Lavendar Farms on Maui,
leads one of the 35 tours a week offered at the farm.
Photo: Courtesy Peter Liu


Don’t put all your papayas in one basket

In 1995, when Melvin and Clyde Fukuyama created Matsuda Fukuyama Farms, they worked about 80 acres. That has grown to more than 300 acres, which are leased from various landowners such as Campbell Estate, Dole Foods Inc., Kamehameha Schools and the state. Under their Kahuku Brand, Matsuda Fukuyama Farms sells papayas, mangoes, long eggplant, luau leaves and apple bananas. Fukuyama says business has been steady, but he suspects that’s about to change.

“Looking toward the future, we have to do more if we want to stay in business,” Fukuyama says. “[2009] is going to be very challenging for us, but that’s even more of a reason we need to start looking at other ways to diversify our income.” Since the ag industry is changing, Matsuda Fukuyama Farms needs to change with it. “We can’t just keep doing business the way we’ve done it all along and think everything will be OK,” he adds.

Ken Kamiya, president of Kamiya Gold Inc., has been growing papayas in Hawaii for over 35 years and understands the struggles of today’s farmers. He says three years ago, one ton of oil-based fertilizer sold for $600. Today, it’s more than $1,300.

“How can we survive with that kind of increase?” he asks. “That’s literally like throwing money on the ground!”

According to the most recent data from the National Agricul-tural Statistics Service, there are about 5,400 farms in Hawaii with a total workforce of about 10,200.

“That’s a lot of people who aren’t going to have jobs if us farmers can’t find a way to pay our bills and our people,” Kamiya adds. “Farming is already a high-risk profession. We have to deal with thieves, invasive species, high costs, unfavorable leases — and the thing that can be the most devastating: Mother Nature.”

Lorie Farrell, executive director of the Big Island Farm Bureau, says because of Hawaii’s high cost of production, growers must be creative to survive. But Farrell cautions that agtourism is not for every farmer and is certainly not a get-rich-quick technique. However, she adds, it can become part of a diversified revenue stream to help ensure the producer’s economic stability.

Lani Weigert, president of the Hawaii Agritourism Association and the co-owner/director of marketing for Alii Kula Lavender Farms in Maui, acknowledges that agtourism is growing, but that its value cannot be measured solely in dollars and cents.

“The bottom line is: Ag is food,” Weigert says. “If we want to continue to eat fresh fruits and vegetables that are grown in Hawaii and preserve our rich agricultural history, we have to make a concerted effort to support ag in Hawaii.”

Weigert says the recent scares about tainted food have made people increasingly interested in where their food comes from. “[Agtourism] also gives visitors a unique Hawaii experience that goes beyond the sun and surf,” she adds.

Fukuyama says the most important thing for farmers to con-sider is whether they have the right person to host tours. Weigert couldn’t agree more.

“This is a niche market,” she explains. “A lot of the farmers, they don’t have the personality or disposition for it. They don’t always want to be happy and pleasant while people are coming through the property. They just want to grow their produce and go home, but a lot of their college-graduate sons and daughters, they understand the whole marketing concept. So then they become the face of the brand — like Kylie did. It ensures the legacy of the family farm.”

Jim Reddekopp, founder of Hawaiian Vanilla Co., located in Paauilo on the Big Island, is one of those growers committed to educating the community about agriculture in Hawaii. Over the years, his tours have become so popular that he estimates 25 percent of his company’s revenues are from tours. But, he says, the real money is made after the tour is over: Hawaiian Vanilla makes the other 75 percent of its income from the sale of its value-added products, such as Hawaiian vanilla extract and home fragrance.

More local farmers are
developing value-added products
to diversify and, for many,
it's paying off big time.
Photo: Courtesy Hawaiian Vanilla Co.

In response to customer demand, Reddekopp’s wife, Tracy, helped develop more than 45 different vanilla products that are now sold in the farm’s 200-square-foot gift shop and gallery. The company hosts about 200 visitors a week, offering educational tours, vanilla tastings and meals prepared on-site, featuring Tracy’s recipes and served by the couple’s five children.

Weigert has had similar success at Alii Kula Lavender Farms, which began giving tours in 2002. With literally no money to invest in agtourism, Weigert tapped one of the most influential groups around: senior citizens.


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