Susan Matsushima is dressed for success at the
Alluvion nursery, where stevia, inset, is being raised for
use as a noncaloric sweetener.
Photos ByGeorge F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
Matsushima is vice-president and general manager of Alluvion, a commercial nursery in Haleiwa, and she believes that marketing is a big part of the business. And she thinks that customers deserve seeing a business woman dressed for success rather than in the more traditional grubby gardening attire.
It also may have something to do with the fact that Matsushima has spent more of her life teaching school than growing plants. Born and raised on Oahu, Matsushima earned a teaching degree and professional certificate from the University of Hawaii. She married and is the mother of a 26-year-old daughter and 24-year-old twin sons.
She and her husband moved to Seattle where she taught for eight years, then returned to Honolulu in 1978. "But I couldn't find a job teaching, and a friend of mine who worked for AmFac said, 'Why not work with us?' I didn't know anything about plants, but I figured that teaching is about selling ideas, and now I'd be selling a commodity."
In 1990, she left AmFac and started a nursery business in Kaaawa with a Taiwanese investor, and in January moved the operation to Haleiwa. Anyone who was in school here during the 1960s will remember field trips to visit the cow Lani Moo and her bovine chums. Alluvion is on that property.
On those 20 acres, Matsushima and her crew of 13 raise landscape plants, ornamentals and vegetables, and are cultivating 150,000 coffee plants to be planted on some of the former sugar land of Waialua Plantation.
Her newest introduction is stevia, a plant discovered in Paraguay in 1918 whose leaves are 400 times sweeter than sugar. They are noncaloric and can be safely used as a sweetener by diabetics, Matsushima said. She plucks a handful of the leaves, steeps them in about 3 cups of boiling water and uses the liquid to sweeten cold drinks.
"I got the seeds from China. In Japan they are using stevia as a sweetener for canned sodas. It has a commercial potential, and has been approved for human consumption by the U.S. Department of Agriculture."
The plants are available at most local garden shops. She advises planting into the ground in a loose, sandy soil. Stevia needs to be cut back regularly to keep it bushy rather than weedy. Matsushima uses a slow release 14-14-14 fertilizer, and because it doesn't attract insects or fungi it doesn't need insecticidal sprays.
Alluvion appears to be enjoying commercial success, and Matsushima is sharing the wealth. This is how she got started. "Six years ago my niece graduated from UH. In her class there were 500 education majors, 500 business majors and five tropical agriculture majors.
"The university is not marketing tropical ag to entering students, maybe because of the failure of the sugar and pineapple industries here. We need to get young people into the field, and there is a federal program trying to do just that."
The School to Work program has been in effect on the Mainland for some time, she added, but is just getting established here - and she has done much of the work. Every school is mandated to involve its students in some basic business enterprise.
"I got started with Waipahu (High School) and its principal Milton Shishido. He's a risk taker and was willing to go into partnership with Alluvion. We talked to the teachers, the parents, the Neighborhood Board and the school board. Not everybody was for it, but enough were."
Matsushima provides the pots, the planting media and the tiny plants to the school, and the students water, fertilize and cultivate them in a greenhouse on the campus. When the plants are of marketing size, Matsushima buys them back and sells them to her wholesale customers.
"The kids are learning how to grow plants, of course, but they are also learning how to run a small business. They keep the records, invoices and the budget. We don't pay them individually, but the profits are banked for field trips. If you give them a hat or a T-shirt, it doesn't mean anything. But 45 years from now they'll remember the trip to Molokai and the Future Farmers convention in Honolulu."
She has since included McKinley, Campbell, Waipahu and Waianae high schools and the Olomana Correctional School in the program. Three of the schools have been certified to ship their plants out of the state - a major financial plus, and they are now cultivating large numbers of poinsettia plants for holiday export.
Because of the high cost of land and the scarcity of water on Oahu, commercial nurseries are now high-tech operations, Matsushima said. "We need high levels of education to make a success of these places, and we need more tropical ag majors at the university. Maybe we'll only get 2 or 3 kids a year from the program, but it's a start."