Locally grown produce faces stiff competition

HFM Foodservice on Maui buys 80 percent from outside the state, 20 percent local crops

Kula’s Tommy Watanabe describes some of the challenges farmers face in planting, raising and bringing crops to market at a competitive price Wednesday. Watanabe is operations manager of Watanabe Vegetable Processing LLC. Although there’s strong demand for fresh local produce, island farmers face strong off-island competition, new regulations and high costs. One Maui buyer gets 80 percent from his company’s produce from out-of-state growers and 20 percent from local farmers.
• The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Kula’s Tommy Watanabe describes some of the challenges farmers face in planting, raising and bringing crops to market at a competitive price Wednesday. Watanabe is operations manager of Watanabe Vegetable Processing LLC. Although there’s strong demand for fresh local produce, island farmers face strong off-island competition, new regulations and high costs. One Maui buyer gets 80 percent from his company’s produce from out-of-state growers and 20 percent from local farmers. • The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The trend and movement to buy locally grown Maui produce is strong and will last into the future, but a Maui purchaser said the government should step in to help, especially the small, local producers who have to deal with new regulations and Hawaii’s high costs.

Brandon Shim, a produce purchaser at HFM Foodservice on Maui, said he would like to buy more local items, but he must turn to Mainland businesses because they can generate the volume needed for distribution. But Mainland farmers also have lower land and labor costs than local farmers, he said.

“We do local first, whatever we can do local,” Shim said Wednesday morning. But he said he cannot get enough local produce to meet his customers’ demand.

Currently Shim said he has to import 80 percent of the produce from an out-of-state distribution company, leaving only 20 percent of his produce local, just because of the sheer volume he needs.

Shim grew up on a Kula farm and is a former chef who used local produce. He said he’d rather get produce locally because it only takes several days to get it from the farm to a dinner table. But with Mainland produce, it could take as long as 21 days from harvest to the mouths of Maui’s families.

Watanabe Vegetable Processing LLC workers Samuel Claus (right) and Charlie Navarro plant baby bok choy on Wednesday afternoon in Kula
• The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Watanabe Vegetable Processing LLC workers Samuel Claus (right) and Charlie Navarro plant baby bok choy on Wednesday afternoon in Kula • The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

He called upon the government to help local farmers with things such as tax breaks and for local government to help farmers with water issues.

Another hurdle for local farmers is the federal Food Safety Modernization Act, he said. It sets a new regulatory framework for the food industry. General compliance dates for some companies began in September.

But Shim said that some small farmers may have a hard time complying with some of act’s regulations, which include a requirement for farmers to carry high liability insurance. Meanwhile, Mainland and other businesses have the insurance in place and are up to compliance standards, he said.

Shim, along with Maui farmers, a state agriculture official and a local economist, were part of a program, “The Future of Modern Agriculture in Hawaii,” held Wednesday evening at the University of Hawaii Maui College. The event was sponsored by the Chamber Commerce of Hawaii, Maui Chamber of Commerce, Maui County Farm Bureau, Maui Hotel & Lodging Association and UH-Maui College.

Maui farmer Nathan Haines of Pacific Produce in Kula, another panelist, said that last year’s loss of Hawaii Commercial & Sugar Co. has deprived the state of its biggest agriculture producer and hundreds of jobs.

The tourism industry can only sustain some local employment, but perhaps more can be done to educate and train up-and-coming local farmers, he said.

“How do we get more young people involved in ag here? If all there is is service jobs, there is only a number of them,” he said.

Not only can youngsters be educated in traditional farming, but students also could learn about hydroponics — Haines’ method of farming.

Hydroponics grows crops without soil, using a mineral nutrient solution in a water solvent.

Pacific Produce grows Waipoli Hydroponic Greens, which can be found in some grocery stores and at Costco. Costco carries two bag varieties, which are three heads of butter lettuce and the other bag is of mixed lettuces.

Haines said Pacific Produce would not see many changes because of the Food Safety Modernization Act because it already is certified and complies with the law.

But he agreed with Shim that some small farmers could have a hard time complying with some of the law’s requirements.

Overall, in order for agriculture and the Hawaii food industry to advance and grow, Shim, Haines and Heidi Watanabe, another local farmer, said that everyone must work together, whether it’s a small organic farmer, larger commercial farmer and farmers from all industries along with businesses that work with agriculture.

“I hope ag can come together for the betterment of all the state,” said Watanabe, who was scheduled to speak at the event but was feeling under the weather. “We need all types of ag.”

Watanabe, whose family business is Watanabe Vegetable Processing in Kula, said in an interview Wednesday that the public needs to realize that farming is a business and the government would not give out grants to carry one’s business.

She also added that farming is “hard work.”

Watanabe Vegetable Processing handles the chopping and slicing of produce for island public schools and is the local outlet of Gate Gourmet, which provides food catering to airlines. The Kula company has other clients and farms green onions and bok choy.

Watanabe also believes there will continue to be a market for locally grown produce. She tries to use all the local produce possible, especially for local schools.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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