Farmers, chefs rely on food hubs for consistency in supply and demand
The challenges of growing food on Hawai‘i Island are many: land and equipment costs, availability of labor, unpredictability of weather, damaging insects and ever-growing weeds.
In addition, farmers need to market their food and that involves the risk of finding a restaurant, grocer or farm stand customer who will buy all their freshly harvested food in a timely fashion.
Luis Rincon, who has been operating Rincon Family Farms in Waimea for 35 years, is a lifelong farmer, starting out with his family in Mexico. The 70-year-old says the hardships of farming are many, no matter what your age, but for him, it’s hard to bend down and work in the field eight hours a day so availability of labor is important. Rincon farms about 13 acres in the Lālāmino Farm Lots.
“It’s hard to find workers, even more so since the pandemic, so I am growing easier crops—carrots, beets, spinach and kale,” he said. “My main crop was strawberries, but I had to cut back. We do Halloween pumpkins too, and sometimes green beans.”
Rincon and other island farmers rely on Hawai‘i Island’s six food hubs to aggregate, market and deliver their produce to ease the work load of farming. Hubs are located around the island with Adaptations in Kealakekua, Hawaiʻi ‘Ulu Cooperative in Honalo, the Kohala Food Hub in Hāwī and three hubs in Hilo: OK Farms, Ho‘ōla Farms and the Hawaiʻi Food Basket.
“With farming, everything revolves around time and food hubs enable us to grow crops in bulk without finding a customer,” said Matt Drayer of Ancient Valley Growers in Pāhala’s Wood Valley. The former chef, who gave up his 11-year profession in California’s culinary industry, works with three of the island’s food hubs.
“I don’t have time to sell direct to chefs though I miss going into restaurant kitchens to see what’s going on,” said Drayer.
Drayer, wife Andy and their crew of work-for-trade farmhands grow a dozen types of veggies, manage a neighboring māmaki tea farm and sell eggs and poultry. Plans are in the works to put in an apple orchard at their 2,400-foot elevation. He also is thinking about growing some stone fruits: plums, cherries and peaches.
Noting that “selling what you grow is a crazy game,” Seed (Tyler) Levine of Nāhua ‘Āina Farms (originally Seeds of Honua) says that without food hubs, she’d be sitting at the farmers market and driving around to restaurants to sell her produce. At her Āhualoa farm, Levine grows sprouting cauliflower, radishes, baby beets, carrots, salad turnips and cilantro on a quarter of an acre. A graduate of the Go Farm Hawai‘i program, Levine’s veggie operation is new and she estimates she produced 600 pounds of produce from May through August of this year.
Levine sells produce to two island food hubs and likes she can set her price. “This enables me to emphasize the value of my products as I offer quality,” she explains. “Food hubs connect the dots. They tack on a small fee to market and distribute my products while communicating my story to buyers and that changes everything for me as a farmer.”
Besides assuming the duties of marketing food for farmers, food hubs also take away the risk of finding customers.
“Through our food hub connections, we get great forecasting of what they need, how much and then we essentially know what we grow is sold before we put it in the ground,” says Adam Miranda of Makana Farm in Hilo. “It gives us comfort and stability to expand and plant larger volumes. It definitely encourages us to produce more.”
Makana Raw Farms sells a variety of veggies and herbs through several island food hubs. He recently invested in more capacity at his 23-acre farm, which is slowly being carved from the jungle. Miranda has planted a fruit orchard; two, 100-by-120 market plots and seven greenhouses.
Besides helping farmers be successful by ensuring a steady demand for crops, food hubs provide restaurants with a consistent supply of desired ingredients. Soni Pomaski, owner/operator at Moon & Turtle restaurant in Hilo, said food hubs are a win-win for both restaurants and food producers as “farmers, ranchers and fisherman are great at what they do, but not always best at marketing.”
“Adaptations provides us with a beautiful list of available products, which is very helpful, and what we choose is conveniently delivered to our door weekly,” she continued. Pomaski said hubs make it easy for them to get consistent quality and amounts, while invoicing is simplified as it comes from one source.
Pomaski shares the seasonal availability of fresh lychee from OK Farms inspired her to craft the restaurant’s signature cocktail, The Lady Lychee. “I get 20 pounds of lychee, process it and freeze.”
The New Jersey native, who has lived in Hawai‘i for two decades, grew up in a farming area and feels that purchasing local products “keeps the money here.” She says it’s important for us, as islanders, to be able to sustain our community in the case of a shutdown from outside resources.
Dayne Tanabe, who heads a catering and private chef company DYNE by Chefbuddha, is a lifelong Hawai‘i resident with culinary and travel industry degrees; he dazzled diners with his beautifully prepared cuisine at Hilton Waikoloa Village for 17 years. At Chefbuddha, he services local and resort residents, plus corporate clients.
The multiple, award-winning chef says local ingredients inspire his dishes and Chef sources food from both local companies and a food hub.
“Food hubs are important for our island because we need to sustain our community and economy without relying on food shipped from the mainland,” he said, emphasizing we have all the resources and some of the best products in the world right here. “If there is any issue with shipping things from the mainland, I want to be sure our island can supply us with the food we need to survive.”
Dan Robayo is chef de cuisine at the Beach Restaurant at Kona’s Kohanaiki Private Club Community and private chef at his own Pā‘ina Pantry. Moving to Hawai‘i in 2017, the Virginia native served as executive chef to open Magics Beach Grill where Adaptations hooked him up to 75% of the farms needed to stock the beachside restaurant.
Describing his cuisine today as “locally sourced and globally inspired,” Chef likes to take ingredients recognizable to people and prepare them in a playful, innovative way. For example, he uses local jackfruit and dried mango, turning it into a stew-like picadillo, a Cuban dish. He relies on two food hubs for his ingredients along with Kohanaiki’s on-site garden.
Robayo is a big fan of locally produced ‘ulu (breadfruit). He goes through 120 pounds of ‘ulu a week for Kohanaiki’s changing menus, using ‘ulu flour for gluten-free dishes. He likes to feature a new, local product on every menu.
With a family background in ranching, District 4 Hawai‘i Senator H.M. Tim Richards, III, agrees that food hubs play a pivotal role in supporting both farmers and chefs. “By marketing products for growers, increasing food security and providing chefs with a reliable supply chain, food hubs act as a crucial intermediary — effectively marketing products on behalf of farmers and allowing them to focus on cultivation. By doing so, they build essential bridges between producers, chefs and ultimately the consumer, strengthening the entire food ecosystem.”