Food Matters – Hawaiian ‘Vacation’

Don APWWhen my colleagues at All Points West found out I was headed to Hawaii for a little vacation this week, they were a little jealous. So they decided to make me do some work. But it’s the kind of work I love, touring farms and meeting the people growing food in a sustainable fashion. I joined Jo-Ann Roberts on the phone this afternoon from Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii.

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Kona is on the west side of the big island of Hawaii, the largest Hawaiian island, where there is lots of lava, but also lots of sun and lots of land that is very suitable for ranching and for farming. It’s the third time in as many years I’ve come here, and I have to say that in a weird sense this island reminds me of Vancouver Island. No, it’s not the temperature!
BUT, there is farmland close to the ocean, mountains in the middle of the island, just like we have, and a lot of potential to feed more island residents with local food, same as us. I spent yesterday afternoon with farmer Greg Smith of Ocean View, Hawaii, about an hour’s drive south of Kona. Greg’s Earth Matters company acts on behalf of other farmers in the area, gathering and selling their produce at farmers’ markets and today I went to a market Greg and his wife Gail run at the Sheraton resort just south of Kona.

DSC 0842Earth Matters

It’s very similar in its set-up to our own BC farmers’ markets. Although they could use a few more farmers, my wife and I picked up fresh Romaine lettuce, arugula, tomatoes, corn, leeks, lemons, limes and more, namely some delicious macadamia nuts, some just roasted with sea salt, others with chili pepper and some with sweet cinnamon. Of course there were a number of Kona coffee vendors selling their world-renowned coffee as well.

DSC 0899Ester’s Farm

Here on the Big Island a lot of the sugar cane industry closed up in the 1990’s as employers sought cheaper labour elsewhere in the world. That was a big hit to the local workforce, but there has been an expansion of export crops like coffee, macadamia nuts and now chocolate to provide some more employment. Greg Smith is more concerned about food security for Hawaii, though. Just like Vancouver Island, Hawaii is very dependent on imported food and he’d like to see that change, and just like Vancouver Island, getting enough younger farmers to grow that food is a problem. I talked with Greg as he was helping pick green beans at Ellis and Socha Ester’s farm yesterday. This is a large farm that supplies a wide variety of produce to farmers markets and natural food stores. But the farmers are both in their 70’s, and have a hard time finding good workers for the farm.

DSC 0894Loading the Truck

Greg says the state government is trying to help, providing incentives like access to cheap land and agricultural education programs, but he’s not sure if those are working just yet. He thinks what it takes to get more young people involved is to show them that although farming is hard work, you can make a decent living at it. To do that, Greg says consumers need to get used to the idea of paying more money for their food and appreciating the amount of work that goes into making a high quality product.

DSC 0841‘Here be good beef!’

There is also fairly large cattle industry on the island since there is ample grassland and at the farmers market I met Sara Moore, who works at the Kealia Ranch in South Kona, it’s about 12 thousand acres in size. About three-quarters of the calves produced there are sent to Oregon for grass finishing and processing, and the other quarter stay here on the Big Island to be processed and sold locally. Again, some similarities with problems that BC ranchers face; a lack of slaughterhouse facilities, but the state government has stepped up to build an abattoir that it leased to a private company; and a lack of understanding on the part of consumers on the island that grass-fed and finished beef is healthier for you and actually tastes better. Tenderness is the issue; grass finished beef can be a little less tender than corn-fed beef. So for some of the cattle, Sara says they leave them in a pasture, but also offer a feed supplement of oats, barley, molasses and some corn for about 90 days to help increase the tenderness.

The Hawaiian grass-fed beef is wonderful, even something as simple as a hamburger tastes so much better because of the beefy flavour. We’re renting a condo with a kitchen here, so I’ve been lucky enough to grill some steaks I bought from Sara and they were fantastic, not tough at all when you cook them to medium-rare.  Tomorrow I’m looking forward to a visit to Greenwell Farms, which has been producing Kona coffee since 1850…and then maybe a cacao plantation, as Hawaiian-produced chocolate is gaining a foothold in the specialty chocolate market. I’ll see what I can do about bringing back some samples for the gang at All Points West!

To listen to my chat with Jo-Ann Roberts on All Points West, go to this page on the APW website.

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