Fruitful Business

The value of Hawaii’s exotic fruits is up 35 percent

March, 2004

Rambutan, longan, carambola, jaboticaba – the names alone are exotic. But add to them familiar island favorites, such as mango, lychee, poha and starfruit, and you have the makings of Hawaii’s $1.8 million tropical specialty fruit industry.

It’s a growing industry. Top sellers rambutan, mango and lychee in 2002 had combined sales of $1.3 million, equal to all of 2001 sales. Overall, the 2002 farm value of tropical specialty fruits was up a spectacular 35 percent over 2001. More acreage and maturing plantings helped boost the 2002 output. And there’s more of the same ahead.

“We’ve seen more farmers here on the Big Island putting acreage in specialty fruits,” says Susan Hamilton, vice president of Hula Brothers Inc., the state’s largest producer of Hawaii’s tropical specialty fruits, located in Kurtistown in East Hawaii. Headed by Susan’s husband Bob, Hula Brothers is also a founding member of the Hawaii Tropical Fruit Cooperative. The group consists of seven exotic fruit growers on the Big Island and one on Kauai and was the recipient of the Governor’s 2002 Exporter of the Year Award.

The current Mainland rage for exotic fruits has been driving the boom in the local industry. For Hula Brothers, a Gourmet magazine article last summer featuring their produce brought “a flood of orders” from all over the Mainland, says Hamilton. The cooperative exports 85 percent of its fruits to the U.S. Mainland – a large part of which goes to Asian-American communities in big cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston – and supplies the rest to the local market.

The cooperative also does a brisk mail-order business with rambutans and longans which are picked, packed, treated with Sure Beam electronic pasteurization to meet federal export requirements and shipped the same day to ensure fresh Hawaiian fruit. Hawaii Pride, run by Susan’s brother Eric Weinert, handles the pasteurization, an environmentally friendly process that leaves taste, nutrition and vitamins intact.

On Maui, organic-fruit farmer Chuck Boener has initiated a sampling tour of the exotic fruits grown on his Kipahulu farm, Ono Organic Farms Inc., on the Hana coast. After his fruits were featured on the Travel Channel and Chef Wolfgang Puck’s show, phone calls from tourists wanting to visit his organic farm prompted Boener to begin the twice-a-week agritourist venture, which charges $25 per adult (kids are free). On the tour, visitors are treated to a fresh-brewed cup of the farm’s organic-grown coffee, followed by a sampling of the farm’s organic exotic fruits, including mountain apples, sweet sop, starfruit, breadfruit and gourmet guavas.

A farmer for more than 25 years, Boener was certified as an organic farmer more than a decade ago and today is one of the state’s largest diversified ag organic farmers in exotic fruits. Unlike the Hamiltons and except for a small order of organic apple bananas to a Honolulu health store, Boener keeps all of his farm’s produce for the Maui market, even hand-delivering by truck his organic specialty fruits to the Valley Isle’s upscale hotels and restaurants in Wailea. He takes the shortcut through Kaupo Gap.

With a high-end niche market for his fruits, Boener thinks 2004 will be a good year for his business, with more tourists projected to visit the islands. He also has plans to start raising organic beef on his family-owned acreage.

Hula Brothers is casting a more cautious eye on 2004, which should continue the company’s sustained growth since it began in 1987. Susan Hamilton expresses concern over increased competition locally and from international growers from Mexico and South America, who, as of July 1, 2003, can now bring their fruits into the Mainland without restrictions.

“The Hawaii name on specialty fruits means quality and our growers need to work together to ensure that,” she says. “And Hawaii agriculture needs everyone’s support to keep the competitive edge for produce with the Hawaii label.”

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