Some farmers fear the shadows cast by their famous neighbor with the deep pockets
As media mogul Oprah Winfrey goes public in her magazine about her thriving Upcountry organic farm, some Maui farmers expressed mixed feelings about her farm’s vision and whether they will have to compete with Winfrey’s fame and fortune for a place in an already tough agricultural market.
Some local farmers wondered about how they could survive in a market with Winfrey and her large financial holdings while others worried about how Winfrey’s farm on Maui could drive up land prices and prevent small farmers from buying more land to expand.
Winfrey’s longtime friend and health and fitness expert Bob Greene, who helped her start her farm in Kula, said he can understand local farmers’ concerns. At the same time, he said, Winfrey could be an asset, bringing attention to organic farming and enhancing the local industry.
“The last thing she wants to do is put pressure on a business struggling,” he said. “We want more of these farms to thrive.”
In an phone interview Wednesday, Greene also tried to address concerns about Winfrey using the farm as a base for a more extensive business venture. Last year, Winfrey filed for trademark applications for “Oprah’s Organics,” which would cover body products, along with salad dressings, soups, snack dips and other foods. Greene explained that the trademarks were filed pre-emptively, to preclude others from using Winfrey’s name on commercial goods and services.
He said she is looking only at producing fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs at the moment. However, he did not rule out the possibility in the distant future of Winfrey producing nonfood items from crops grown in her fields, noting that Winfrey likes bath products.
In the June issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, Winfrey shared that her farmland on Maui has been able to turn out 145 pounds of food a week.
Crops include leafy greens, beans and potatoes that she reports have been growing “five times as big as you’d expect.”
Winfrey was able to turn her land into a thriving farm in Kula with the help of Bio-Logical Capital, a natural resource management group with offices in Honolulu.
The crops are currently being grown on a 1-acre parcel with room for maybe 19 more acres available for farming, said Greene, who is on the June cover of the magazine with Winfrey.
In 2004, Winfrey bought about 1,000 acres of Haleakala Ranch land, which included an 11-room bed-and-breakfast on 17 acres in Kula. She also bought more than 200 acres of coastal land in Hana between 2002 and 2005.
Currently, crops are being planted to see what grows best in the soil, Greene said, adding that he is thrilled at how well the produce is growing.
Winfrey said in the magazine that she shares her harvest with her neighbors. Greene said the produce also is offered to nonprofit groups and restaurants.
In the future, Winfrey’s produce could be marketed on Maui and possibly the other islands – with the overall goal of having more food grown locally, he said. In the magazine and in the phone interview, Greene noted that 90 percent of the food on Maui is flown or shipped in, which increases the cost at the market.
Winfrey and Greene began work on the farm last summer with the idea of growing food to share in an effort to give back to the land and Maui, according to the magazine.
Some Maui farmers are looking with a skeptical eye at Winfrey’s venture.
Chuck Boerner of Ono Organic Farms in Kipahulu said he’s “torn both ways” in his feelings about Winfrey’s farm. On one hand, the farm could educate more people in the farming of organics, which he supports.
“It’s good she is growing organic,” he said. “The more organic this island becomes the better.”
On the other hand, her farm could take away business from local mom-and-pop growers, he said. Boerner will likely not face competition in the market from Winfrey because he grows tropical fruit and coffee, but he is worried for his fellow farmers in the produce market.
He said Winfrey should do some outreach to the public to discuss her plans for her farm.
Janet Simpson, who owns Kupa’a Farms in Kula with her husband, Gerry Ross, said she’s happy Winfrey is “going organic” like their farm, which produces organic fruits, vegetables and coffee.
She said Winfrey’s name will raise the profile of organic farming, but the TV star will have to do it well.
“You can grow organic but that doesn’t mean you’re good at it,” Simpson said, alluding to the possibility of people not buying Winfrey’s produce if the product is not up to par.
Simpson also hopes that small businesses will not be put out of the market if Winfrey-named produce hits the stands and markets. She said she is not worried about the competition; Simpson said she sells out of whatever is harvested in her fields in a week.
Her bigger concern is about high-profile people buying farmlands that will drive up land prices. She said it’s difficult for smaller farms like hers to expand, because local farmers do not have the deep pockets of Winfrey, who can pay top dollar for acreage.
Winfrey’s ability to test the waters to see what crops thrive sets her apart from other Maui growers. Winfrey can afford to have the crops fail, while farmers on Maui don’t have that luxury, Simpson said.
“They are making it harder for small farmers,” she said.
Greene chose to focus on Winfrey’s name shining more attention on consuming organic produce, which in turn will make residents more willing to buy produce from all local farms. In addition, they are keeping the land in agriculture.
Greene, who also owns land near Winfrey, said they both “have a commitment to conserve the land” on the slopes of Haleakala.
“We don’t want a development up there,” he said.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.