Story and photos by Britt Yap
In the business of growing food, four Hawai’i farmers tell us soil and toil is just the start.
For centuries, farmers have been thought of as people who work long hours outdoors each day tending to their field crops, poultry or livestock. Yet, the reality of a modern day farmer is much different.
Successful, 21st century farming requires knowledge not only of the latest techniques for raising crops and farm animals, but also of how to operate a successful business. Farmers are now being stretched to embrace creative business models that include diverse product sales, social media, branding, marketing, teaching, and agri-tourism.
Edible takes at look at four different farms to get a better understanding (and respect) for the workload of a modern day farmer. Sustainability, diversity, and niche markets are common themes among these farms. Another is the push to create and sell value-added products. (Hey, if life gives you a surplus of tomatoes, take it to market as marinara.)
Surfing Goat Dairy
In upcountry Maui, Thomas Kafsack and his wife Eva run a very successful goat dairy farm. In fact, it’s the only one on the island and one of two in Hawai‘i. The couple moved to Maui from Germany 15 years ago with the intention of creating a much smaller farm. Because of demand over the years, they now have 22 employees and the farm generated $1.25 million in revenue last year.
“We are growing every year and we are by far the biggest goat dairy in the state,” says Thomas Kafsack. “We are producing to our limits. There are even hotels on the wait list for our products.”
Surfing Goat Dairy produces 30 different gourmet goat cheeses, truffles, soaps, and gift baskets. Two-thirds of the company’s revenue comes from retail product sales and farm tours. The other third comes from sales to wholesale accounts: hotels, restaurants, and grocery stores.
Kafsack says that the major hotels on Maui and in Honolulu continually source Surfing Goat Dairy. Most recently, the MGM Resorts International in Las Vegas placed orders for Kafsack’s truffles and gourmet cheeses to use as amenities.
“We sold 70,000 truffles last year. People are hooked after they try them,” laughs Kafsack. The flavor is so much better, he explains, because regular truffles contain a lot of heavy cream and butter. The Kafsacks use goat cheese instead, which carries the flavor much better.
The Kafsacks have really found their niche. Not only that, they’ve figured out a way to capitalize on Maui’s agri-tourism industry by offering daily farm tours. Tourists and locals alike visit the Kula dairy farm and pay $7-$25 depending on the tour they choose. At the end of each tour, guests are offered samples of some of the truffles and cheeses. The majority of the time this leads to a purchase. The YELP reviews for Surfing Goat Dairy—which have awarded the company an impressive four stars—say that guests cannot resist making a purchase after sampling the products.
Some of the challenges the company faces are drought and shipping costs. “If you buy a 50-pound hay bale in Washington, you’re paying around $5. We are paying $33.75,” says Kafsack.
Meanwhile, the Surfing Goat Dairy website has been a huge asset. Most of the sales are made online and the Kafsacks ship to all parts of the world. They have turned to social media to help get the word out about their tours and products. “In one day, we had 90,000 clicks on our Facebook page,” he says.
Hawaiian Fresh Farms
Hawaiian Fresh Farms faces a similar challenge to Surfing Goat Dairy with keeping up with the demand for their products. The small farm in Hale‘iwa, O‘ahu is owned and operated by Tristan Reynolds and several employees that he likes to refer to as “agripreneurs.” He employs a group of young, motivated individuals who want to learn the business and one day start their own company.
“Diversity and niche marketing is the key to being a successful modern day farmer,” says Reynolds.
The farm grows organic produce, similar to a chef’s garden concept, producing the 15 most-used vegetables and herbs. Reynolds says he sells primarily to local chefs who use the produce in their restaurants.
With the sustainable mindset, Reynolds has come up with several value-added products, such as his tomato-basil goat cheese pie, which he sells at farmers’ markets and out of his company’s food truck. That’s right, food truck. Some items sold from the truck are fish and chips, grilled goat-cheese sandwiches, local grass-fed beef burgers, and the farm’s trademark dish—the loco moco ball. It’s essentially a grass-fed burger wrapped around a hard boiled egg, coated in rice, dusted in panko and deep fried.
The food truck can be booked to cater special events (with options for different menus) and can be found around town at HNL Market, Eat the Street, Spartan Race at Kualoa, Pinch of Salt, and the First Responders Fair.
Dean Okimoto of Nalo Farms says his focus this year is creating more value-added products. Restaurant orders and produce sales at farmers’ markets have been his main income.
“We cannot survive on restaurants and supermarkets alone. We have to focus on value-added products moving forward,” he says. For instance, he intends to develop some pesto with fresh herbs that Safeway might be interested in carrying. “Also we have three dressings that are ready to go on the market.”
The Waimanlo farm has been extremely successful at branding its Nalo Greens. Most foodies have seen “Nalo Greens” on restaurant menus across the state, thanks in large part to Chef Roy Yamaguchi of Roy’s Restaurants.
Today, Nalo Farms supplies approximately 130 restaurants with over 3,000 pounds of greens every week. If restaurant owners print “Nalo Greens” on their menu, they get a discount on the produce. Okimoto also sells his signature greens, fresh herbs, and micro-greens at weekly farmers markets.
One of Okimoto’s concerns as a farmer is the survival of neighbor island agriculture. “The costs are so high to transport produce inter-island. Fuel costs and keeping the produce at the right temperature during transport are obstacles for neighbor island farmers. It becomes so uncompetitive for them. The Superferry helped with that at one time, but now that’s not an option.”
This year, Okimoto has plans to expand to 100 beehives. Not only does he want to produce and sell honey, but also cosmetics such as hand lotion and sun tan oil.
Ma‘o Organic Farms
The 24-acre organic farm in Wai‘anae has one of the most unique business models to date.
“Our workforce is not paid by the farm; it’s an internship program. The 35 interns receive an education instead. It’s a win-win for everybody,” says Ma‘o Organic Farms’ manager Cheryse Sana.
How it works: students get their associates degree at Leeward Community College paid for in exchange for working on the farm. The interns work 20 hours per week over the course of 3-4 days. They are also given a monthly education stipend.
“We want young adults who can do the work while at the same time learning life lessons on how to survive and thrive in society. A lot of them leave the program wanting to become teachers in the community,” says Sana. “Farms all over the country are asking us how we do this and make this program happen.”
The farm grosses about $4 million a year, says Sana. One-third is from produce they sell to grocery stores and restaurants, one-third is from Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes, and the last third is income they make at weekly farmers’ markets and other events.
Ma‘o Organic Farms charges $32 for a CSA box that contains salad greens, cooking greens, herbs, and sometimes fruit. It just depends on what the farm is growing that month. People can either choose to purchase on a weekly or bi-monthly basis. The farm currently has more than 150 subscribers. Nalo Farms and Hawaiian Fresh Farms have plans to start selling CSA boxes this year.
Sana says that in the future, Ma‘o Organic Farms would like to expand their operations to the North Shore. They hope to one day be able to offer upwards of 250 internships for students to work on their farms.
Time to Grow
For the modern day farmer, it’s more than just growing food or a business; it’s also about growing relationships and the next generation of farmers. The folks we interviewed all agree that nowadays farmer also means teacher. They have willingly taken on the responsibility to teach the next generation how to perpetuate ancient farming practices, while being sustainable and futuristic thinking.
“There is a lot of income potential for farms, especially right now because the market is shifting toward healthier life choices,” says Reynolds. Increasingly, people care more about what they eat, where their food comes from, and supporting local businesses. Many are also investing time and money into creating their own backyard garden with fresh fruit, vegetables, and cooking herbs, he adds.
Reynolds currently teaches monthly gardening classes to the public in Hale‘iwa and hopes to offer classes in Honolulu where most of the island’s population resides.
“We want to create the kind of culture of where we have less reliance on foreign products and more sustainable options for people in Hawai‘i,” he says. “We show people that growing their own food is not as difficult as they think and the rewards are great. The goal is to have people be part of the solution.”