YOUNG FARMERS TAKE ROOT
IN THEIR FAMILIES’ FIELD
BY JILL ENGLEDOW
PHOTO BY STEVE BRINKMAN
Maui’s young farmers like lots of things about their work, from Heidi Watanabe’s love of “the smell of fresh-plowed dirt growing something to nourish other people” to Pomai Weigert’s passion for “getting people reconnected to nature and to where their food comes from.”
Still, for every positive experience that draws young folks back to the farm, there is also a tough reality. That’s why young farmers are so rare. The average age of farmers on Maui is 62.5, even older than the nationwide average of 60. But there’s hope in a list of energetic farmers and ranchers who are part of the Growing Future Farmers initiative of the Maui County Farm Bureau.
In 2009, the bureau launched its Next Generation of Maui Farmers initiative to identify young leaders in agriculture and track their journeys. Charlene Kauhane, a slow-food advocate who works with the bureau, describes them this way: “An eclectic bunch, they derive inspiration from new business models, a new eco-consciousness, sincere ideals, a quest for quality, a longing for culture and a variety of crops.”
To further inspire and support this new generation, the Farm Bureau and six Maui chefs are working together both to increase the use of locally produced food and to award grants to start or enhance ag businesses in Maui County. The Growing Future Farmers project is spearheaded by Scott McGill (TS Restaurants—on Maui, Hula Grill Kā‘anapali and Duke’s Beach House); Mark Ellman (Mala’s Ocean Tavern, Mala’s Wailea and Honu Maui); Jenna Haugaard, (Flatbread Co.); James McDonald (i’o and Pacific‘O); Tylun Pang (The Fairmont Kea Lani) and Isaac Bancaco (Humuhu munukunukuapuaa at the Grand Wailea). They’ve introduced a new twist on the bureau’s Localicious: Dine Out Maui promotion, in which participating restaurants offer a special “Grown on Maui” salad. The idea was twofold: encourage the use of more local produce and raise a little money to help young farmers by donating a dollar for each salad sold to the nonprofit Hawaii Agricultural Foundation to build a fund for grants.
“To keep ag viable in Maui County, we need to increase current market sales while supporting new agricultural operations,” said Warren K. Watanabe, Farm Bureau executive director. Chefs supporting the initiative agree. “We’re well aware of the fact that our restaurants rely on fresh and local ingredients,” said McGill, who estimates that his 13 Hawai‘i-based TS Restaurants use between 75% and 90% local produce.
Chef McDonald also features local produce at i‘o and Pacific‘O, the Feast at Lele luau, Aina Gourmet Market and Aina Gourmet Coffee. Even though the company produces a lot of its produce on its own Kula farm, it still relies on other farmers. McDonald keeps the local input at around 80% to 90% by “building the menu around what’s available. We’re always looking to get something locally produced and of good quality.”
The next-generation farmers who supply this produce are a diverse group. The plantation crops of sugar and pineapple that once dominated the Maui ag scene both have representatives on the “Next Generation” list. One is Rick Volner Jr., plantation general manager of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. Another is Darren Strand, who held on through the trying times when Maui Land & Pineapple Co. stopped planting pineapples and now is president of the new Hali‘imaile Pineapple Co.
Others in the group practice a broad spectrum of farming, from the most traditional kalo and breadfruit cultivation to aquaculture, ranching and biotech. Several are part of multi-generation farm families, like Heidi Watanabe and her brother Tommy of Watanabe Vegetable Processing. Neither of them set out to be farmers, and their parents encouraged them to try other things. Tommy went to work for a produce wholesaler, and Heidi designed granite countertops. But both found themselves drawn back to the farm where their grandparents grew head lettuce and celery. Now they raise everything from green onions and leeks to eggplant and Swiss chard. “I like the challenge of growing things people said I’d never be able to,” says Tommy, who enjoys outdoor work. Heidi takes care of the people side of the business—sales, human resources, public relations—and likes meeting people when she does deliveries.
Chauncy Monden got into farming after earning a finance degree. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t come back to the farm.’ He knew what a hard life it would be,” Chauncy says. But the fourth-generation Kula farmer and his city-bred wife, Teena, wanted to rear their kids on a farm. Now they share their joy in farming with anyone who drives by their Kula Country Farms stand. It’s a lively spot surrounded by gardens, with hens scratching in the dirt. The farm stand is a favorite of school groups, and the Mondens have installed a special garden with a kid-sized shed and tools for visiting youngsters.
The Mondens grow a range of crops that include strawberries, blueberries, onions, corn and tuberose to sell to local stores and wholesalers as well as clients in Kaua‘i, Honolulu and California. They also pack and deliver boxes full of fresh produce to retail customers. And just as they had in mind, their children help out at the farm stand.
Pomai Weigert, who handles marketing and community relations for Ali‘i Kula Lavender, found her way to farming through both a family connection and a commitment to environmental work. Pomai’s mother is Lani Medina Weigert, co-owner and CEO for Ali‘i Kula Lavender. Pomai was working in travel and tourism when she realized that she wanted to do more work for her community and her culture. After looking into various environmental jobs, “I broke down and told my mom, ‘I think I’m ready to work with you.’ It’s really changed and enhanced the quality of my life,” Pomai says. Still, she adds, “You have to be passionate to be in agriculture. People love it, otherwise why are they here? You have to be tenacious.”
Challenges are definitely part of the package, the farmers agree. Besides fighting pests and diseases, praying for good weather and enough rain, and paying for imported fertilizer, irrigation supplies and pretty much everything else they need, farmers face of burgeoning list of regulations. Food safety is a current focus, perhaps because of so many highly publicized problems with food-borne illnesses on the mainland and in Europe. “A lot of things are common sense,” says Heidi Watanabe, but some of the regulations require a lot of bookkeeping—recording certain operations as many as three times per day, for instance.
Heidi and Tommy Watanabe say it’s hard to be as successful as their parents were while dealing with all the new regulations. Even though he sometimes feels discouraged by such obstacles, Tommy says he bounces back after a good night’s sleep. Now the father of a 6-yearold daughter and a new son, he won’t demand that his kids consider a farming career. But like others of the “Next Generation,” it’s likely he’ll plant the seeds of farming in fertile little minds and coax them to flower in the same soil their forbears tilled.