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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 11, 2010

Hawaii Kai farmer expanding direct sales

By Robbie Dingeman

O'ahu residents can buy fresh-from-the farm vegetables three times a week in East Honolulu as part of an expansion of Otsuji Farm's successful $10 bargain box system.

When the direct-to-customers business first started, customers would e-mail or call to order boxes for pickup that typically include: lettuce, turnips or daikon, choi sum, bok choy, radishes and green onions.

Because they are so fresh, the vegetables in these boxes often last for two weeks longer than store-bought does.

The vegetables come from farmer Ed Otsuji, who works 4.5 acres in Hawai'i Kai, land he leases from Kamehameha Schools.

His primary business was selling green onions, radishes, choi sum and other produce to supermarkets that include Safeway and Don Quijote before he began direct sales about 18 months ago.

Otsuji customers have been receiving an e-mail letter informing them of the recent changes.

Otsuji's friend, Norrin Lau, got him started selling straight to consumers in a friendly, low-key operation behind Kaiser High School that relies on lots of volunteer help and repeat cus-tomers.

We followed up this week because the business is doing well and evolving to fit the environment.

On good weeks, more than 150 boxes were ordered over the Internet, and about 70 percent picked up each week.

But as time wore on, people who had ordered didn't show up, and people driving by or old customers would buy without ordering.

Lau, who sells insurance for a living, figured it was time for a change.

"I was getting frustrated because only 20 or 30 percent were showing up," he said.

"So we have just recently discarded the Internet as a way to predict how much veggies to prepare," Lau said. "We just use the Internet as a way to keep in touch with our customers."

Now, Lau said they calculate how many boxes to prepare by track record and guesstimate. "We look at our box sales for last week ... then we will prepare more or less by looking at if we had any extra boxes."

The farm also sells other vegetables that include red beets, kale, spinach, kai choy, eggplant, Chinese parsley, basil and more. "Spinach has been a real good seller. Lettuce is doing good," Lau said.

Sometimes they have to fix extra boxes, but that is no problem since the veggies are right in the fields next door and ready to pick, he said.

Lau added that his son Isaac continues with the operation and "made so much money he had to pay taxes this year."

The veggie boxes also can now be sold as a fundraiser.

Organizations such as the American Cancer Society and a homeless shelter are pre-selling the boxes at $15 each, buying them for $10, then keeping the $5 profit per box.

With folks more health-conscious and price-savvy, the veggie box can be a welcome change from cookies, chili or sweet bread sales.

They are delivering bigger, more expensive boxes to offices and schools a $15 "super veggie box" when they have a minimum of 10 boxes ordered, and only in the Honolulu area.

They developed a mission statement: "To encourage/help people purchase veggies locally, to encourage people to grow their own veggies and to help people store food for emergencies."

Instead of just Saturdays, Otsuji Farms now sells veggies:

• Tuesday afternoons on the Kaiser High School lawn, 4-6:30 p.m.

• Friday afternoons at the farm behind Kaiser, 459 Pakala St., 3:30-5:30 p.m.

• Saturday mornings at the farm, 8-11 a.m.

• Call 395-4131 or e-mail otsujifarm@gmail.com. For more information, see www.otsujifarm.blogspot.com.