CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Al and Joan Santoro farm seven acres in Waialua as part of Poamoho Organic Produce. They are one of 150 certified farms in Hawaii, but with grocer Whole Foods opening in the Kahala Mall next spring, there could be a renewed interest in organic farming. Above, Al Santoro with tangerines on the farm yesterday. CLICK FOR LARGE
The arrival of Whole Foods next year could help boost the number of certified isle farms
With seven acres, Al Santoro of Poamoho Organic Produce in Waialua considers himself the largest certified farm on Oahu. Yet Santoro's farm, nestled between Mount Kaala and Poamoho Gulch, is considered small by mainland standards.
It's really a one-family operation run by Santoro, his wife and two dogs, along with a handful of chickens who clean up fallen fruits, and cats who chase the mice away.
It is one of approximately 150 certified organic farms in the state, which make up less than one percent of 1.3 million acres of farmland in Hawaii.
Santoro, 62, bought the seven acres of former sugarcane land at Poamoho Estate six years ago and started the farm from scratch. Given that he was surrounded by Dole Food Co. farmlands, Santoro decided to go organic to set himself apart from the competition next door.
After five years of hard work, he has maturing trees that provide several varieties of avocados and mangoes, as well as papaya, apple bananas, lychees, longan, jackfruit, starfruit and breadfruit.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Al and Joan Santoro, above with their dogs by a duck pond, farm seven acres in Waialua near the University of Hawaii experimental station. They grow starfruit, mangoes, tangerines, jack fruit and avocados. CLICK FOR LARGE
With natural food grocer Whole Foods Market
as his newest client, Santoro is gearing up to double his production of avocados.
Santoro, also president of the Hawaii Cooperative of Organic Farmers, embraces the Whole Foods opportunity, yet is wary of what it means for the industry.
The impact of Whole Foods on Hawaii's farmers and whether it stays committed to buying local remains to be seen. At the same time, isle farmers will be faced with the challenge of producing a larger quantity with consistent quality.
The majority of organic farmers are also small, and on neighbor islands, where they will have to figure out whether it's worth the additional cost of shipping their products to Whole Foods stores on Oahu.
Whole Foods plans to open a store at Kahala Mall next spring.
Details on prices with local suppliers have not been ironed out yet, although Poamoho farm doesn't expect wholesale rates to be different for Whole Foods than for any other clients, which include local health food stores, military commissaries and chef Alan Wong.
Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods is known for featuring locally grown produce in its stores, and claims that only produce that has traveled less than a day from farm to facility can be labeled as thus.
Whole Foods recorded $5.6 billion in sales in fiscal year 2006. It includes 191 stores in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.
AN EXTRA NUDGE
More farmers may now be feeling the nudge to go the extra step and become certified as organic, according to Franz Weber, president of the Hawaii Organic Farmers Association.
Weber, a representative of United Foods International, one of the largest distributors of natural foods and products, is a proponent of Whole Foods.
"Farmers in the past didn't know how much to produce because they didn't know if they could sell everything they produced," said Weber. "But now farmers can think big, and they can be effective producing large amounts. The increase in production makes it more cost effective, and that's where there will be more switching."
At the same time, he said some smaller farmers may opt to stay small, and keep supplying customers that have been loyal to them all these years.
Weber estimates the current count of organic farmers at about 150 certified by HOFA, with another 25 to 40 certified by mainland organizations.
Michael Besancon, president of Whole Foods' south Pacific region, said though he has been impressed by the variety of produce and farms to choose from in Hawaii, there will not likely be enough to supply all of the grocer's needs.
"But you have to start somewhere," he said, "and if Whole Foods Market provides a venue for local farmers to sell their produce, my hope is the existing farmers will increase the land they farm, and new farmers will see that there is a market and jump in."
Farmers such as Dean Okimoto of Nalo Farms, who has been successful farming with sustainable practices, but never went the extra step of getting certified, said he is now seriously considering it.
"I think we're really close anyways," said Okimoto. "We don't use any chemicals, really. But we just never bothered to get certified."
To get certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a farm must not have used a prohibited pesticide for at least three years. A detailed plan must be submitted to the Department of Agriculture on farming methods, along with record-keeping and regular inspections by an independent party.
Hamakua Springs Country Farms, a 600-acre farm run by three generations of the Ha family on the slopes of Mauna Kea, is not certified organic, although it, too, was chosen as a supplier for Whole Foods.
Richard Ha, president of Hamakua Springs, says hydroponics has been the farm's chosen method of sustainable farming for heirloom tomatoes, cocktail tomatoes, Japanese cucumbers and baby lettuce.
"We are continuously and persistently moving towards organic as much as we can," he said. "In addition, we are third-party food safety certified."
Obstacles include obtaining adequate plant nutrition as well as a way to control insects. Because Hawaii farmers do not have a cold winter to help control insect populations, Ha said they face more of a challenge than mainland farmers.