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Upcountry lavender farm hauls in a bumper crop . . . of olives

Growers to reopen in January with lines of homegrown lavender, olives, coffee, tea items

Maui Lavender owner Cathy Toda looks at some of her farm’s apples. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

HALEAKALA — A little-known lavender farm more than 4,000 feet up the slopes of Haleakala is quickly becoming the most productive olive farm on the island and possibly the only commercial tea farm early next year.

Maui Lavender LLC on Crater Road started in 1997 and closed for the first time about a year ago after continual breakdowns of its generator due to cold weather and high elevation. The farm plans to reopen in January with a new generator and a line of homegrown lavender, olives, coffee and tea products.

“We have the biggest and most olives out of anybody on the entire island,” owner Cathy Toda said on her farm earlier this month. “It can get down into the 30s (degrees) up here, which is fantastic for lavender, and why the olives have done so well too.”

In its first harvest last month, the farm produced 1.2 tons of olives — a huge success for the small Upcountry farm. The success came as a surprise to Toda after she planted the olives about seven years ago and “kind of walked away.”

“Basically, we were coming in and taking care of it, but not as much as we should have,” she said. “But when we turned around this year, it was loaded with olives.”

Maui Lavender harvested 1.2 tons of olives last month in its first olive harvest. Maui Lavender photo

Born and raised on the island, she moved to California to get her master’s in real estate development. When she returned to the island, she saw an opportunity to grow lavender Upcountry and now leases about 7 acres of Haleakala Ranch land next to her home.

“Nobody really had lavender going, so it was a real trial to see if we could,” she said.

That trial came to a standstill over the years as the company began focusing on its cafe that served breakfast and lunch to tourists visiting Haleakala National Park. The park attracts more than a million visitors a year.

“In the first couple years, we were cooking more than we did the tours because there’s a demand up here,” she said. “We were doing bacon and eggs. We were totally going in the wrong direction.”

Although the cafe was routinely busy, the generator could not keep up with its two refrigerators, two freezers, espresso machine, coffee cart, stove, microwave and other appliances. The residential generator suffered two major outages last year, but by the end of the year it was shutting down constantly, Toda said.

Maui Lavender is located between 4,200- and 4,300-foot elevation on Crater Road. It plans to reopen in January with a line of farm-grown lavender, olives, coffee and tea products. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

“We would put on the blender and something would die,” she said. “They say farming is tough; try to farm off-grid. People don’t understand when they say, ‘Why are you closed?’ I couldn’t even tell you I’m so tired.”

Toda clarified that she is not eliminating food service and believes it’s a necessity for visitors unfamiliar with the cold weather, high altitude and winding road. She recalled two bikers traveling down the mountain after hours in the rain and at the point of hypothermia.

“They were ready to go to the hospital,” she said. “We had to open up for them because we were ready to go home. They came and we gave them hot water and coffee and gave them some warm clothes and towels.

Visitors regularly thanked her for being open and some were shaking — likely a result of Haleakala’s 10,000-foot elevation. Toda said her own grandson cannot travel up the mountain because of asthma and noted that some families stay at the farm while others go to the top.

Like the Halfway to Hana stand, the farm is like a Halfway to Haleakala.

Maui Lavender has about six varieties of Japanese, Chinese and Indian teas. The farm is harvesting more than 600 tea plants and in the process of planting more. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

“I had people come in, and they were puking,” she said. “It’s a needed thing up here. It’s more than just a place where you can make money. From here down to Kula Lodge is still a ways.”

Toda also recalled Crater Road closing down a couple years ago after a tree fell down due to a storm. She said more than a hundred people were stuck at the farm, including a busload of visitors.

“We were packed,” she said. “We were running out of food. People were hungry. They were tired, but they were happy to be out of the car.”

A commercial generator that operates in higher elevations and the cold has been delivered to the farm, Toda said. She plans to have a marketplace, rather than a cafe, and serve coffee, tea, sandwiches, energy bars and other small snacks to tide visitors over. She added that Maui Pasta Co. will be making the food.

Crops grown at the farm will be sold at stores and used to make specialty foods such as lavender ice cream and smoothies. The farm has a small production of lemons, apples and other crops that are still being perfected.

Toda, though, is turning her attention to the farm’s big four of lavender, olives, coffee and tea. The company has more than 10,000 lavender plants and has patented its own varietal that is recognizable by its pink tip color.

The farm has a couple hundred coffee plants, but it plans to have about 500 by the beginning of the year. Workers are currently harvesting more than 600 tea plants and are in the process of planting more. The company has about six varieties of Japanese, Chinese and Indian teas.

“I’m excited about the tea,” she said. “No one is growing tea on the island.”

The company is rebranding its products under a new name yet to be determined and will be sold at its newly renovated farmhouse store. The store was expanded to 1,000 square feet and will include a small manufacturing area.

The lavender will be sold as oils, aromatherapy, shampoo, lotion and sprays. Toda plans to move cautiously with the olives, selling them at farmers markets and using them in products.

“We’re coming back to where we should be, which is to farm and doing what Mother Nature is giving us,” she said.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

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