JAPANESE TRUCK FARMERS OF WAIMEA, BIG ISLAND

Date: 
Friday, September 4, 2020 - 16:26
Author: 
Hawaii Herald

Dan Nakasone
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Past, Present and Post-Pandemic

Truck farmers work on small farms, growing vegetables and fruits for the market. Cultivating “Grade A” produce 365 days a year, they turn a fair profit in a highly competitive market and become a jack-of-all-trades out of necessity. That broad skill set, a strong work ethic and backbone are what make a farmer.

My conversations with Japanese truck farmers in Waimea — including a few sansei and a yonsei of Lälämilo — go to the heart of why they farm; they feel a sense of kuleana to provide safe and nutritious food for their community as their forebears did. Family, community and place are integral to a farmer’s life.

They are down-to-earth and straight shooters — what you would expect from real farmers. They love what they do for a living. Not many of us can honestly make that claim.

The pandemic raised a red flag on Hawai‘i’s over-dependence on imported food. A study by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawai‘i stated that just 11.6% of the food consumed in Hawai‘i in 2010 was locally sourced. This reliance on outside sources caused anxiety levels to rise, when we saw supermarket shelves go bare due to the hoarding of certain food items at the start of the pandemic.

And to make the situation even more precarious, COVID-19’s economic fallout has taken a heavy toll on farmers who rely directly or indirectly on restaurant and visitor industry sales. In 2019, on any given day, the islands had averaged 249,021 visitors, according to the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority. This was a lot of mouths to feed — and, in these past months of 2020, it has left a gaping hole in demand.

The Japanese truck farmers of Waimea, Hawaiʻi island, present a unique microcosm of our local community. Its members’ stories, past and present, hold lessons on how to move forward, post-coronavirus…not only in the agricultural industry, but as an island society. And yes: there is a silver lining for family farms at the end of the pandemic.

The Japanese Truck Farmers of Waimea

Historically, most Japanese immigrants to Hawaiʻi migrated from agricultural communities in southern Japan, and thus understood farming and the rigors of the lifestyle. When their sugar-plantation contracts ended, many saw farming as an opportunity to become independent, providing a better life for their families.

On the Big Island, Waimea offers microclimates with a “wet and dry side” and elevation ideal for growing varieties of vegetables suited to the local palette. The majority who took up farming in Waimea were Japanese families.

A baseline study commissioned by the County of Hawai‘i on the status of food production stated that during the plantation era, the island was relatively food self-reliant.

At their height of their immigration in 1920, Japanese made up 43% of Hawai‘i’s population. One can surmise that the islands’ food self-sufficiency was due, in large part, to issei and nisei truck farmers. Over the century from then to now, how did we go from being food self-reliant to only 11.6% locally sourced? The gradual decline in local food production started in 1960, when Matson’s S.S. Hawaiian Citizen became the first vessel in the Pacific to incorporate large-scale refrigerated containers.

California supplies a large majority of the fresh vegetables and fruits consumed in Hawai‘i and across the U.S. Hawai‘i’s farmers now had to compete with large-scale, corporate-farming operations with economies of scale to their advantage.

Farmers of Lälämilo

“Arable portions of the 10,000-acre Lälämilo tract in Waimea will be sold for farming after the Territorial Land Department completes all necessary work to give the project a good start so that farmers can earn a reasonable living,” Land Commissioner Frank W. Hustace had decreed back in Dec. 5, 1957.

On April 14, 1961, a public drawing was held for about 550 acres. Then, on June 5 that year, a parcel was acquired for a Lälämilo reservoir site and roadway in a land exchange with Parker Ranch by an executive order signed by Gov. William F. Quinn. A study by the University of Hawai‘i Experimental Station stated that the first new agricultural production year for these parcels was 1962.

Sansei Lälämilo farmers I spoke to agreed that roughly 90% of the people who signed-up in the first drawing, and who thus were able to purchase Hawai‘i island land, were Japanese.

Roger Hirako

Sansei Roger Hirako left the Big Island to earn a master’s degree in agricultural engineering. His intent was to return to Waimea and the family farm. Like members of all working families in the agricultural industry, he and his four siblings had grown up helping on the farm. Roger admits that while attending Oregon State University, and later at University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa, he yearned for the farming lifestyle.

Roger’s grandfather, Seijiro Hirako, came to Hawai‘i from Aichi-ken to work for the Kukuihaele Sugar Plantation, known as the Honoka‘a Sugar Company, before it shut down. His grandmother, Kuma, came from Yamaguchi-ken. After his contract was over, Seijiro became a taxi driver and later owned a fleet of trucks. In 1928, he acquired 20 acres of land to start a farm in the Pu‘ukapu Homestead just east of what is now Waimea Town. Roger explains Japanese families operated the majority of farms in Pu‘ukapu.

When Roger’s father, Kiyotsugu, was just 17 years old, his father, Seijiro, fell ill. While still in high school, Kiyotsugu took over the Hirako farm operation. As a young teenager, he lied about his age to get a driver’s license so as to run farm errands and make deliveries. The farm produced celery, daikon,

lettuces, and — because Pu‘ukapu had deep soil — the Hirakos also grew gobo (burdock root), as did other Japanese farmers.

Kiyotsugu and his wife, Shitsuko, signed up for the second public drawing for Lälämilo farmland and acquired 22 acres. They were now working both the Pu‘ukapu and Lälämilo farms.

After Roger returned from college, he and his brother Jeffrey took over the farm operations. Today, they farm roughly 100 acres in Pu‘ukapu and Lälämilo.

Roger said they grow romaine, iceberg, green and red leaf lettuces, won bok, head and mustard cabbages and broccoli. Roughly 50% of their production normally ships to O‘ahu. However, the pandemic’s impact on the economy and on Young Brothers shipments brought that portion of their business to a halt. He said, “The support from local retailer KTA is helping us get by.”

Jeffrey’s 28-year-old yonsei son, Justin, also works on the family farm. “Farming becomes part of you when you are raised working on the farm,” reflects Justin.

Justin has a degree in accounting from UH Hilo and an MBA in business administration from Hawai‘i Pacific University.

After college, Justin traveled extensively. He backpacked through northern Europe and Iceland. After he traveled to Japan, China, Singapore, Malaysia and down to Chile, New Zealand, and Australia, but admits, “There’s no place like Waimea, and no place else I’d rather live.”

The future of the Hirako family farm will be in good hands.

Wendell Kawano

When Wendell was a young boy, he loved to plant things and watch them grow. His parents allowed him to create a small garden next to their house. He recalls planting corn and watching it grow. That love for cultivating food became his life, continuing through today. After nearly 50 years in farming, Wendell retired about three years ago.

Wendell’s grandparents, Motoshiro and Toma Kawano, came to Hawai‘i from Hiroshima-ken. They followed a similar path as Roger Hirako’s grandparents, farming in the Pu‘ukapu Homestead. Wendell’s parents, Tomoyoshi and Amy Kawano, were among the first group to acquire land in Lälämilo.

I found this story both ironic and insightful. For about a 10-year period from the early 1970s, Wendell was shipping won bok to California, of all places. Some Kawano farm won bok made it as far as Chicago. Won bok, California’s Napa cabbage, has an off-season from late winter to early spring. Wendell shared a baseball analogy: “When you know what pitch is coming, you load up on it.” He leveraged this seasonal knowledge to plan his won-bok growing cycles around the timing of that off-season and compete in the mainland agricultural market.

Wendell said his parents grew gobo and would ramp up production for the Japanese New Year, Shögatsu, where kinpira gobo and gobo konbumaki are traditional Shögatsu dishes. He said this holiday-season demand for gobo declined with each passing generation. The Okada family farm in Pu‘ukapu that shut down about 10 years ago was one of the last in the state to grow gobo commercially.

The gobo waved by UH football fanatics while chanting, “Go Bows! Go Bows!” were likely from China or Taiwan.

Today Wendell will grow a row of gobo about three times a year mainly for home consumption but also for sharing with family and friends. He said there is a distinct difference in taste between fresh and imported — I bet!

Earl Yamamoto

Earl and his four siblings represent 105 years of the Yamamoto farming tradition. Earl’s grandfather, Sakichi, immigrated to Hawaiʻi to work at Pa‘auilo Sugar Plantation. His grandmother, Kimi, was a picture bride. Both are from Yamaguchi-ken.

After his plantation contract ended, Sakichi, as well as wife Kimi, took jobs — yardman and housekeeper respectively — at the Pu‘uopelu estate of Richard Smart, the last heir of James Palmer Parker, the founder of Parker Ranch.

While employed by Richard Smart, they acquired two acres of land outside of Waimea and became subsistence farmers, selling the surplus for extra income.

Six months prior to World War II, Parker Ranch offered several farmers plowed land in Waimea. The ranch saw a need to supply the troops with food while they trained at Camp Tarawa, today the site of the Lälämilo farmlands. The Yamamotos were among the farmers who supplied food for those troops.

After the war, Parker Ranch reclaimed the land. Several years later, the Yamamotos became part of the first group to purchase Lälämilo farmland.

Earning a degree in tropical agriculture from UH Mänoa, Earl had originally intended to return to farming and the outdoor lifestyle that he loved. However, he got married — then his wife wanted to remain on O‘ahu. They had a son, but the couple soon learned that life in the city was different from rural Hawai‘i island; when the boy was old enough to ride a bike, they had to make an effort to drive him to a place where it was safe for him to ride. After six years on O‘ahu, the family finally moved to Waimea, wanting a better environment to raise their son.

Earl worked alongside his siblings growing cabbage, leafy greens, seasonal bell peppers, cantaloupe and watermelon (the smaller, Japanese variety). Their farm also has persimmon and fig trees.

Today Earl is semi-retired, growing just green onions; he helps on the family farm when his work is needed. Earl said, “You never stop farming.”

He now can pursue his passion for hunting and fishing. And as a karate sensei, he gives his time to teach his 20 or so students, as his own sensei, the late Lälämilo farmer Richard Nakano, once did. The döjö founded by Nakano-Sensei is now run by Yamamoto-Sensei as a community service for the children of Waimea.

All in the Same Canoe

In Lälämilo, kökua is common practice in everyday life. A farmer can count on an extra pair of hands or heavy equipment when he or she needs it. With a great barter system where the farmers regularly grow and share different varieties of vegetables with each other, it is like having their own, locally grown, “produce section.” The community members enjoy a sense of security which comes from knowing that their neighbors have got their back.

In Hawaiʻi communities such as this one, the breakout of the coronavirus has brought out more good than bad (hoarding) in people. We see community members and local businesses across the islands come together — donating food, funds and time to help families in need. Even after the pandemic, we should all practice kökua in everyday life.

The Hands that Feed Us

Farming involves risks such as inclement weather, pests and “ag-theft.” As a result, Japanese farmers have experienced both good and bad years. A farmer jokingly explained, “We hardheaded, and we don’t know when to quit.”

If that were not enough, the farmers tell me that increasing government regulations and documentation requirements have become a burden on small family farms. They must hire or contract a compliance officer, the cost of which large-scale farming operations can more easily absorb than family businesses.

According to a 2015 USDA report, 99% of the farms in the U.S. are family-run and account for 89% of domestic food production. The government, in its new regulations and requirements for these small businesses, bites the hands that feed us. And lack of enforcement adds to the frustration for the family farms that abide by the rules.

The average age of Hawai‘i’s farmers is roughly 61 years old. A decline in local food production will fundamentally accelerate within the next 10 years. There is an urgent need for a new crop of farmers who can provide the scale to replace what we will lose.

One of the farmers I spoke with said his yonsei son was considering taking over the farm, but the burdensome regulations became the tipping point for him to move on. That is one too many next-generation children who faced the challenge of an existing farm to take over — but who had chosen not to do so.

The story of the immigrant Japanese truck farmers tells us we need to take a hard look at how to assist today’s immigrant farmers. In Kunia and the North Shore of O`ahu, the bulk of small agricultural leases are farmed by Southeast Asian families looking to build a better life. Like the immigrant Japanese farmers, they have the desire and work ethic, but the challenges are greater today.

A Silver Lining

A change in consumer behavior brought on by the pandemic works in the farmers’ favor. A New York Times article revealed that 54% of the people responding to an online survey said they are cooking more because of pandemic; 35% said they are enjoying cooking more than ever; 51% said cooking more often is their new normal; and 39% said they are eating healthier. We need to cook more ourselves, in order to grow local food production.

The following data will show who holds the key to the future of farming in Hawai‘i:

• 93% of the food-purchasing decisions are made by women.
• 80% of meal preparations are made by women with kids, and 75% of these preparations are by women with no kids.
• 80% of grocery shopping is done by women with kids, and 68% of this shopping is by women with no kids.

Not all women may have the means to purchase fresh, locally grown food. But certain demographics within the women’s market allow this group of consumers to buy such food, to varying degrees. To grow demand, the agricultural community must engage each of these gendered market segments with a compelling “Why?”

With the headwinds farmers now face, only strong demand will stimulate local food production. Only strong demand will stimulate a new crop of farmers. Only strong demand will encourage investment in agricultural infrastructure.

Think Wähine power — the power of the purse!

Editor’s note: Younger people or other newcomers interested in professional farming careers can check out the current Hawaiʻi Herald Bulletin Board, on the back cover of this 9-4-20 issue, which includes basic websites and program info for those who wish to look into commercial, small-scale farmer training across different islands, offered through the University of Hawaiʻi system.

Dan Nakasone is a sansei Uchinanchu from Wahiawä. He is a marketing and advertising professional and was a producer/researcher for PBS’ award-winning food and culture series, “Family Ingredients,” which is based in Hawai‘i and hosted by Chef Ed Kenney.

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