Sunday, January 11, 2004

Visiting farmers Howard Lahlum, left, and Ron and Connie Greer from North Dakota taste of Kahuku sweet corn at Dean Okimoto's farm in Waimanolo. They are in Hawaii for the American Farm Bureau Federations' annual convention taking place at the convention center through Wednesday.

Hawaii’s ag community
hosts 7,500 U.S. farmers

Around 7,500 of the nation's farmers have been transplanted to the Hawaii Convention Center for the American Farm Bureau Federation's 85th annual convention.

During the five-day event, which began yesterday and runs through Wednesday, Farm Bureau representatives from all 50 states will be setting policy and discussing a variety of agriculture-related topics.

But the convention, which hasn't taken place in Hawaii since 1986, isn't all business.

Mainland farmers are getting to kick over some dirt and talk story with local farmers while they're here. The Farm Bureau organized a series of local farm tours on Oahu and the Neighbor Islands.

A group of farmers from North Dakota spent Friday morning touring Dean Okimoto's Nalo Farms in Waimanolo. Okimoto supplies a number of Hawaii restaurant chefs including chef Roy Yamamoto.

The group of about 17 farmers and their families got to sample a variety of Okimoto's salad greens, as well as try local tomatoes, asparagus, corn and sprouts.

The farmers, who had already toured Maui, Kauai and Molokai farming operations last week, said they were shocked to see such a wide variety of crops being produced in the state. Most said they had thought of Hawaii only in terms of sugar and pineapple.

"Everything has been an eye opener," said Sandy Toepke who's family farms 1,100 acres in N. Dakota.

The efforts of Hawaii's farmers also impressed the group.

"We've met some wonderful Hawaii farmers, they've very much entrepreneurs," said Lenore Scheresky, who's family farm is about an hour from the Canadian border in North Dakota.

As the group surveyed Okimoto's fields, they questioned him on a variety of topics ranging from fertilizer and pests to marketing efforts. The North Dakota farmers found they had plenty in common with local farmers, despite the difference in farm size in the two states and the types of crops grown.

"They have the same problems as we do from foreign competition, to prices and markets," Scheresky said.

During the next few days at the convention, there will be trade show exhibits of new agricultural products and educational seminars on topics such as using soy biodiesal fuel on the farm, U.S.-Canada trade and value-added business activities. One seminar -- "Where's the beef, pork, lamb and poultry?" -- will include perspectives on consumer trends from an executive from Safeway Inc. supermarkets.

Hawaii agricultural products and Pacific Rim cuisine also will be featured when two local chefs -- Jackie Lau, executive chef of Roy's restaurant at Waikoloa; and Hiroshi Fukui, executive chef at Oahu's L'Uraku restaurant -- conduct cooking demonstrations at the convention center tomorrow using all local ingredients. Nalo Farms' Okimoto also will be speaking at the event on how Hawaii's chefs have developed successful business relationships with local farmers.

Alan Takemoto, government affairs representative for the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, said he sees the convention as a great opportunity to build awareness about Hawaii agriculture.

"The main benefit is that Hawaii is here; we do have agriculture. So often we are looked upon as only a visitor destination or are known just for sugar and pineapple. But we do have a growing diversified agriculture industry," he said.

With more than 5 million members, the American Farm Bureau Federation is the most powerful agricultural lobby in the nation, said Diane Ley, deputy director for the state Department of Agriculture.

"(The convention is) a big thing for us because it's an opportunity to showcase our agriculture and our guys get an opportunity to interact with farmers from across the country, witness leadership and policy decision making first hand," she said.


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