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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Kahuku Farms tries new ventures

By Robbie Dingeman

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Kylie Matsuda, the fourth generation of the Matsuda family to work at what is now the combined Kahuku Farms, plans to open a Kahuku country store selling the farm's products and giving agriculture tours.

ROBBIE DINGEMAN | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Number of employees: 40

How long in business: Formally incorporated in 1997 as Kahuku Farmers Inc., the joint venture grew out of two farming families. The first generation was Shinichi and Torie Matsuda who started growing bell peppers, watermelon and other crops in the 1940s, joined by son Melvin in 1960; and Masatsugu and Nora Fukuyama, who started farming watermelon, eggplant, cucumber and other crops and were joined by their son, Clyde in the 1960s. The two farms started working together in 1986, formally merging into Matsuda/Fukuyama Farms in 1995.

Describe your business: Kahuku Farms combines two family farm operations spanning some 300 acres of leased land in Kahuku and Haleiwa. The farm's main crops are apple bananas, papaya, and long eggplant. But they also grow taro leaves on a smaller scale and are just starting out in vanilla.

Work philosophy: "Our partnership has lasted for many, many years. We always have to be thinking of things to make the farm more progressive and make it more sustainable," Fukuyama said.

Business survival tip: Both partners cite the importance of working relationships. "We try to have a good relationship with all our people, customers, vendors, workers. You have to make sure your customers are happy," said Melvin Matsuda.

Big change or next big thing? The fourth generation of farmer Kylie Matsuda is working to open a country store later this year that will offer agricultural tours, sell products from the farm and eventually smoothies, sorbet and other foods still in development. The exact opening date is not set.

Fun fact: While the farm became best known for Kahuku watermelons, the operation slowly phased out of that crop in favor of apple bananas, papayas and long eggplant that grow year-round.

Find them at: www.kahukufarms.com or 372-7522

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Kylie Matsuda the fourth generation of her family working at Kahuku Farms earned a degree in travel industry management, worked in nursery plant sales and at Nalo Farms before breaking into her own family business.

"They thought I was absolutely crazy," said Kylie Matsuda. "I really had to fight for my job."

Matsuda, 31, said her main childhood exposure to the farm was selling watermelons at the roadside stand in the summertime.

By the time she enrolled at the University of Ha-wai'i, she envisioned a future in travel/tourism until something clicked and she felt the pull of the farm. She learned some of the business outside the farm after her 2001 graduation.

And later this year, she hopes to combine her education and passion for the farm with a new country store that will use the bright green roadside building in Kahuku as a country store selling farm-fresh items that will eventually include smoothies and sorbets using farm-grown bananas and papayas, salads and paninis that feature farm-fresh ingredients, and a tour through the history of Hawai'i agriculture.

Kahuku Farms combines two family farm operations belonging to the Matsuda and Fukuyama families on some 300 acres of leased land in Kahuku and Hale'iwa. The main crops are apple bananas, papayas, and long eggplants. But they also grow taro leaves and are just starting out in vanilla.

Matsuda credits her father with first thinking of a smoothie stand. After five years of planning, permitting and working through the details, she estimates that the agriculture-tourism hybrid could be operating this fall, but emphasizes that people should check the www.kahukufarms.com website before showing up at the farm.

She has expanded the idea to "all kinds of fresh things that we can grow on the farm." And she is planning a big educational component to show how island produce goes from the farm to the lunchbox.

"There are so many children out there who think a banana comes from Costco," she said.

Matsuda already helped create a line of products that feature a main ingredient from the farm, usually through business partners in the community. The successful products include a mango jam, a mango scone mix, tea, soaps and body butter.

Matsuda said the products offer visitors and residents a chance to take these flavors or scents home with them and are a good way to use excess or off-grade produce. "Instead of wasting it, we could do mango jam or dehydrated bananas."

And she's excited about new products such as a lilikoi butter and a lilikoi balsamic vinaigrette they will produce.

Her father, Melvin Matsuda, is proud to have the next generation coming up in the business.

Even though the work is challenging and a bout of bad weather can mess up an otherwise promising season, he said he's glad he chose farming.

"One of the best things is nobody really tells me what to do. I only have to answer to myself," he said.

Last year, rain caused major damage to the papaya crop but overall the farm is expanding and thriving, he said. "We didn't do well in every year."

Both Melvin Matsuda and business partner Clyde Fukuyama praise their employees, who work alongside them all year. And they show that value with a pay and benefits package that's far from the old-fashioned stereotype of field worker it features a middle-class wage with medical and dental benefits and a 401K.

The workers are out in the weather and the daily demands take a toll, Fukuyama said. "We know it's not an easy thing to do. When we employ people we try to give them at least 40 hours a week."

And both men note an increase in community awareness of the value of fresh locally grown food.

"If we can increase our production every year, that would be nice," Matsuda said. "Making Hawai'i less dependent on imported foods, I would like to be part of that."

And he's pleased that his daughter is shaping the farm's future in her own way. "It makes me feel good that Kylie is moving forward on a new venture, which is not traditional farming."