Small-scale Farming Hawaiian Style
Bananas still on the tree
Hawaii’s Big Island is perhaps best known for black-sand beaches and volcanic activity, but it is also alive with agricultural enterprise. From the famed Parker Ranch, one of the largest and most historic cattle ranches in the United States, to world-famous Kona coffee, the Big Island’s lava-based soils and diversity of microclimates offer an environmental buffet that’s suited to growing just about anything. So when Elizabeth Jenkins and Barney Frazier decided to trade San Francisco’s nightlife for quiet country living, Hawaii was the obvious choice.
Although neither had any farming experience, both were committed to the concept – which was just what the couple needed to put a little adventure and excitement back into their lives. Barney was eager to meet a new business challenge, and Elizabeth wanted to live a more naturally sustainable life. This couple’s dream began to unfold when they stumbled upon an abandoned fruit and nut orchard on the island of Hawaii in 2001.
“Initially, we bought a 5.3-acre property (one-fourth of the original orchard),” Barney says. “Six months later we bought the second parcel, because it had more macadamia trees on it.” And as so often happens with tight-knit families, Elizabeth’s mother wasn’t about to be left behind. She moved to the Big Island as the owner of a third, adjacent parcel, making it a real extended family farm. The 15-acre operation came to life with 270 macadamia nut trees, 375 avocado trees, bananas, and plenty of citrus: orange, tangerines, tangelos, grapefruit, lemons and limes. But it was far from a turnkey setup.
The Jenkins-Frazier orchard had been abandoned for several years and was a definite fixer-upper when the couple arrived. The trees needed pruning but hadn’t been sprayed chemically or fertilized for many years, so gaining organic certification was relatively easy – it only took six months to complete, thanks to the folks at the University of Hawaii’s agriculture department. The orchard was back in the fruit and nut business by March of 2002 when the first certified organic harvest was sold from the back of an old truck – the couple’s first roadside stand. Farm-raised Ka’u coffee, honey and other value-added products are now part of the lineup.
Barney says that as their Ailani Orchards business grew, the produce stand evolved to handle the increased market and traffic. The old truck was replaced with a 10-square-foot tent, which was then replaced with a series of larger tents. Today, the farm’s on-site produce stand is a permanent pole structure where folks can find everything from the freshest organic limes and avocados to organic honey to macadamia nut butter and coffee – all in season.
In addition to farm-stand sales, Elizabeth and Barney market avocados and citrus through farmers’ markets and to wholesalers and organic food stores. However, the more valuable macadamia nuts and coffee are only available at the farm or through the website (www.AilaniOrchards.com, 808-929-8785). Barney says it’s important to market the more labor-intensive crops directly because they can better control the pricing.
Over the years, the Internet portion of the farm’s business has become more important – thanks in no small part to Barney’s farm-stand philosophy and the fact that people like to know just who it is that’s producing their food.
“We enjoy having just a few people visit the stand at a time,” Barney says. “Then you have time to talk with each person, get to know them and tell them a little bit about what we are doing and how we are doing it.” Taking the time for those interactions has paid off in a big way. Barney estimates that 99 percent of the farm’s Internet business comes from repeat customers who’ve visited the stand.
“They know who we are and call us by our names,” Barney says. “That’s a good thing. I like that.”
Elizabeth and Barney recently added sheep to their operation. The 45 head of Blackbelly Barbados and Saint Croix hair sheep do a good job of mowing the grass and gobbling up windfall fruit – converting it all into succulent protein; they also leave fertilizer wherever they go.
Keeping sheep in a diversified tropical orchard is not without its challenges, however. Barney recalls an episode when the flock spent three days in the coffee orchard while he was away from the farm. Sure enough, the animals feasted on the trees, stripping bark and leaves. Although he was concerned about losses, about a month later the coffee trees exploded with blossoms. The trees had gone into shock from the debarking, which stressed them into reproduction. They have been producing like crazy ever since.
“There are no problems here, but there are always challenges,” Barney says. “The biggest is that we are isolated; we’re 2,500 miles from the next stop.” Being isolated has caused the couple to become more connected with their environment as their survival depends on it.
“We are an hour and a half from Hilo or Kona,” Barney says. “You learn to do repairs; you stay aware of what you need and become more self-sufficient, less wasteful.”
Dreams come true
Even though the Big Island is ideal for growing crops such as those raised at Ailani Orchards, weather can still affect the bottom line. For example, any time heavy winds come with rain, trees are likely to be blown over and destroyed.
Barney also worries about pollination and fences and animal health.
“There are a lot of variables – farming is farming,” Barney says. “When you move into an area like this, you just sort of jump into the ‘back pocket’ of the older farmers, and they become your mentors. They were very helpful. And now, I have become a mentor to others.”
Mornings like one not too long ago make the two realize they’d make the leap again. Sitting in their living room enjoying home-raised Ka’u coffee, they looked to the orchard and saw turkeys strutting. The chickens were all gathered around a ewe with her two new lambs. The entire farm seemed to be in communion with the miracle of life – an essential characteristic of country living that makes Ailani Orchards a dream come true.
If you find yourself traveling Highway 11 between Kona and Volcano, look for the Ailani Orchards stand between mile markers 67 and 68. The farm stand is open between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. most days of the year.
Libby Platus writes about food from the farm, ranch or garden to the table. A native of Los Angeles, she’s visited all 50 states, discovering interesting places and fun things to do.