Richard Ha writes:
Time magazine recently ran an interesting article titled Eating Better Than Organic, which made me reflect about our long-time farming philosophies at Hamakua Springs.
The article talks about eating organic food that is produced elsewhere and transported long distances vs. buying food that is grown—and purchased—locally.
“Nearly a quarter of American shoppers now buy organic products once a week, up from 17% in 2000,” writes John Cloud. “But for food purists, ‘local’ is the new ‘organic,’ the new ideal that promises healthier bodies and a healthier planet.”
Cloud goes on to quote ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan in his 2002 memoir Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods: “If you send it halfway around the world before it is eaten,” he muses, “an organic food still may be ‘good’ for the consumer, but is it ‘good’ for the food system?”
Here at the farm we have thought about these issues for a long time. Even when organic was at the top of everybody’s consciousness, we always believed that “local” was most important and what we wanted to concentrate on.
In her 2001 memoir This Organic Life, Columbia University nutritionist Joan Dye Gussow writes that her commitment to eating locally is driven by three things. “The first is the taste of live food; the second is my relation to frugality; the third is my deep concern about the state of the planet."
Long ago we came to three similar conclusions. First, regarding taste. We select the varieties we grow for taste above all else, and then we find the methods and systems that allow us to grow them successfully. In an effort to produce the freshest lettuce possible, we even sell Living Lettuce.
Second, frugality. We live in an area where production costs are high, so we look for ways to add value to our products. As only one example, our produce is third party Food Safety Certified by Davis Fresh Technologies.
Thirdly, whereas Gussow has a deep concern about the state of the planet, our similar concern is—because we live in the middle of the Pacific—about our island community.
But philosophies are one thing and measurable results are another. We believe in measuring.
Our cocktail tomatoes were ranked “Best Tasting” by Honolulu magazine in their 2005 “Best Of” issue.
Lynne Rosetto Kasper, who hosts the NPR program The Splendid Table, recently conducted a side-by-side tomato tasting in Honolulu. She invited 100 master chefs and culinary students to rate tomatoes from various farms, and our cocktail tomato was voted Best Tasting.
Recently we have started measuring the nutritional contents of the edible portions of our products, and we are working to improve them. We are taking baseline data, making adjustments and keeping track of results. This is not commonly done, but we think it makes perfect sense as long as the extra effort does not jeopardize our business.
Although we agree with most organic philosophies, after careful consideration we decided not to grow our vegetables organically. Before we started our hydroponic lettuce production three years ago, we knew that E. coli contamination was a huge and growing issue. We felt that composting, as done with organic methods of production, was riskier and less controllable than hydroponic methods of production.
We decided to use hydroponics in our lettuce growing operations, rather than organics, because we can disinfect our nutrient solution and keep it clean for the duration of the crop. We feel this is more dependable than field production, where rainwater could splash soil and contanimants onto the edible portion of leafy greens. Also, as we've seen in the news recently, growing in fields near cattle operations is a risk factor for E. coli. Our nutrient raceways are isolated, and the edible portions of our leafy greens never come in contact with soil or compost.
Finally, we strongly believe in locally grown products because Hawai‘i needs to be self-reliant in its food supply.
At a recent Senate hearing where Hawai‘i’s dependence on imported food was discussed, I testified in favor of growing food on all islands in all climate zones. Concentrating food production in one location can be risky, as we found out when Banana Bunchy Top virus devastated our Kea‘au banana farm (fortunately we had the Pepe‘ekeo farm, too).
Hawai‘i, it was noted, imports the majority of its food and is just seven days away from empty shelves should there be a shipping interruption. Andrew Hashimoto, Dean of the University of Hawai‘i College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, testified that, “We are the canary in the coal mine for the rest of the nation.”
The Time magazine article quotes local-eating pioneer Gussow defining “local” as: “within a day's leisurely drive of our homes. [This] distance is entirely arbitrary. But then," she says, "so was the decision made by others long ago that we ought to have produce from all around the world.”