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What Can We Learn From Hawaii?

In agriculture, we often hear the terms value added, sustainability, organic, and gate to plate; some growers are becoming interested in ag-tourism. On a recent visit to the island of Maui, Hawaii, this winter I had the pleasure of touring O’o Farm in the upcountry region of this beautiful Hawaiian island and discovered an excellent example of how all of these ideas can come together and be put into practice. Although we Manitobans do not raise food crops year round as they do in Hawaii, perhaps a modified version of this model could be adapted to Manitoba.

O’o Farm is owned by two restaurateurs who use the produce from the farm in their restaurants in the resort town of Lahaina in West Maui. Although the farm cannot possibly supply all of the fresh produce needed by the restaurants, it satisfies a good portion of their needs and allows the restaurants to market themselves effectively as a result.

The farm is an 8.5-acre property in the cooler upcountry area of Maui. Most of the work is done by hand; a front loader on a tractor is used to turn the compost piles but the tractor is not used for field work. Soil fertility is seen as an essential part of the sustainability of the farm, and this includes adding large quantities of compost, produced right on the farm, to the soil. Biodiversity is another key component of the farm model, which includes careful crop rotation – the idea is to mimic nature and to be in harmony with it by creating a balance between all of the components of the farm. Irrigation, biological pest control, and the use of border crops and extensive buffer zones as well as physical barriers all play a role in keeping the garden plots healthy and productive. One of the advantages of so much hand labour is that diligent daily observation is key to preventing small pest or disease problems from becoming major threats to the crops.

The farm produces a variety of greens, including lettuce, cabbage, sprouts, spinach, arugula and chard. Many are coloured varieties – the chefs love colour! I was intrigued by huge “Watermelon” radish the chef used slices of this dark-pink root in the luncheon stir-fry (the tour included a lunch prepared on site). Squash, eggplant, peppers, cucumbers, peas (snow and sugar snap are popular there in stir-fries), beans (including pole beans), and asparagus are also grown. A number of heirloom tomatoes and a butter spinach called “Melody” are favourites.

The chefs eagerly make use of the fresh herbs the farm produces – fennel, lemon grass, rosemary, parsley, thyme and sages among them. Heat-loving herbs such as basil are produced in greenhouses during the cooler winter months; the greenhouses are used as germination centres as most of the vegetables are not direct seeded but grown from transplants. Thyme acts as a ground cover in some areas of the gardens and is harvested for use in the kitchens. Nasturtiums are grown for their flowers, which are used as garnishes, while marigolds and alyssum are popular border plants.

Fruit trees are now old enough to be productive – figs, apples, oranges, lemons, limes and grapes are grown as well as stone fruits such as apricots, peaches, plums, avocados and pears. Because the fruits are seasonal, the restaurant menus must change to reflect the in-season crops. One of the challenges of the farm is to give the restaurants enough advance notice as to what produce will be available from the farm on any given week.

The farm has ventured into ag-tourism; groups come for a farm tour during which they experience harvesting some of the greens which are taken to a well-equipped outdoor kitchen where the attendant chef prepares a noon luncheon – served to guests at long, outdoor tables complete with linen napkins. Visitors are allowed to bring their own wine.

Perhaps such a farm-to-table culinary experience would be feasible in our area – a new twist to the farm vacation model that we already have. It would be a wonderful way for non-farm residents to reconnect with the true source of their food, make urban residents more aware of farming practices – and perhaps provide a bit of income for local farmers. Perhaps we will see similar farmer-restaurateur partnerships develop right here in Manitoba.

– Albert Parsons writes from Minnedosa, Manitoba

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