In this age of rapidly advancing technology and widespread automation, a farm in Hawaii
is thriving on a low-tech concept of growing tomatoes developed in the 1950s.
Nestled in the rural community of Hauula, against the spectacular backdrop of the Koolau Mountains on the island of Oahu, the farm owes much of its more than 45-year success to hydroponics – a water-based concept in which tomatoes are nurtured in rows of beds 150 feet long and 3 feet high. Green Growers raises its tomatoes on 3 halves of the farm’s 8 and a half acres of land.
Graf Shintaku, who has been working on the farm since 1954, took over management of Green Growers in 1961.
“The farm was built in the 1950s, and was already in existence when my father starting working here,” says Terry, Shintaku’s son. “At the time, everything was new and hydroponics was a new idea. It wasn’t a commercially known concept, but there was a lot of interest in it. The design of the farm is simple. And maybe that’s why we don’t have things breaking down all the time. I call it low-tech. We specialize in growing tomatoes. Tomatoes are good because we get the most yield for the kind of investment we put into the crop.”
Working with his father at Green Growers was part of growing up on the farm, says Shintaku. Later, he attended the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he majored in agriculture.
At first, the intent was not necessarily to become a farmer, although that has proven to be the case. He has worked there full-time since graduating from college in 1978.
Hydroponics is often referred to as a soil less concept. However, since tomatoes require nutrients, the nutrients are introduced through the water. At Green Growers, two large water tanks are filled with a nutrient-filled solution that is then pumped into the tomato beds on a daily basis.
“We have 100 beds of tomatoes,” says Shintaku. “A tunnel goes all the way to the back, and the water seeps out. Pull at the inner tube and it floods, and then when it’s full, we drop it back down. There’s a sump that catches the water and pumps it back up into the tanks, so it’s continually recycling. We start with 20,000 gallons, and on real hot days use about 5,000 to 7,000 gallons per day. There’s no loss using this hydroponics concept, except for what is held back in the beds as moisture. We use lava cinders and coral in the beds.”
Calcium in the coral may be contributing to the success of the crops, the grower believes. Each tomato bed can best be described as concrete troughs elevated above the ground, with cement slabs at the bottom of each trough.
On average, each plant yields about 15 pounds of large tomatoes, says Shintaku. The family relies on a Dutch hybrid tomato variety, the result of years of experimentation. The seed is not available in Hawaii, but is special ordered from Holland.
“Holland is a major tomato breeder,” says Shintaku. “The Dutch are one of the pioneers in hydroponics. They breed varieties to fit this kind of production. We’re always trying different varieties, and there are hundreds of varieties out there.
Hydroponics is one of the more efficient ways to use water. We’re unique in that a majority of tomato farms are enclosed (sheltered). Dad (Graf) had a section of our farm covered during the 60s, and the taste of those tomatoes was not as good as those grown outdoors in sunlight. That’s why I promote direct sunlight a lot. It helps the tomatoes ripen better. Even the colors of our tomatoes are richer and more vibrant than tomatoes grown in greenhouses. We harvest vine-ripe. Everything is red by the time we pick them.”
The ideal climate for tomatoes is long, warm and sunny days with cool nights, notes Shintaku. The April-through-June season is ideal for growing tomatoes in Hawaii. Tomatoes require sun, not rain. Overcast days with a lot of rainfall are not on the growers’ wish lists.
Planting Season Begins in January
For Green Growers, the planting season begins in early to mid-January. The harvesting season begins in June and takes about three months to complete.
During the peak season, farm workers harvest 5,000 to 7,000 pounds of tomatoes per week, according to Shintaku. Some tomatoes weigh close to one pound each.
Near the end of the season production drops dramatically. Because the tomatoes are not grown in greenhouses, they are more vulnerable to insects at that time of the year, particularly thrips, aphids and the tomato spotted wilt virus.
“That’s why we clean out our fields (in early November),” says the young grower. “We begin pulling out the beds, and by the end of December are completely cleaned out. For about a month or so, there’s nothing in our fields until early January. This technique helps break the virus cycles. All the bugs move out, and because they’re gone, the viruses have no hosts. We’ve been doing this for the past four years.”
Extensive manual labor is required, admits Shintaku. Everything is done by hand, from pruning stems to processing and packaging. Tomatoes are packaged in trays with wrapping designed in the 1960s. Loose tomatoes are identified with the Green Growers label.
A typical day at the farm begins at 4 a.m., when Shintaku prepares for his first deliveries. The day winds up at about 8:30 p.m. The family works seven days a week.
The farm’s primary customers are military bases, supermarkets, restaurants, hotels and a few health food outlets.
“Tomatoes are like wine or grapes,” says the young grower. “You can have farmers growing the same variety in different areas of this island, and the tomatoes will taste different. Our customers have come to know our product and are willing to pay more for our tomatoes. You need a good product, a good label, and have to be able to get your product to your customers. If you do these things, 90 percent of them will be sold on your product.”
Farming is a big gamble, according to Shintaku. The Shintakus are lucky to be able to farm year to year. Green Growers has had good crops during certain years, so they’ve been able to increase production and move into different markets.
It’s important that the island chefs are educating the public and promoting the use of island produce. For example, the cooking shows have been good for getting the word out about the Shintakus’ tomatoes. People have called and asked where they can get Green Growers’ tomatoes, because they saw them on a menu at a restaurant.
Years of Trial and Error
The success of the current tomato operation is based on years of trial and error, the growers admitted. The elder Shintaku (Graf) said he developed the hydroponics concept and formula currently being used on his own.
Life has not been without its trials. There were times, particularly during the 1970s, when the economic rewards were not there. During one year, for example, a nearby river overflowed and flooded their crops.
The scaling back of the military presence in Hawaii was another setback, the younger Shintaku acknowledges. The military bases had been primary customers, so new customers had to be found.
“I had to get out there and become a real salesman,” admits Shintaku.
One blessing has been the hiring of Dean Okimoto of Nalo Farms, also on Oahu, to help reach more restaurant clientele.
What makes tomatoes grown by Green Growers different from the competition?
Improved consistency and quality are essential factors, emphasizes Shintaku. Some customers, for example, demand his tomatoes, even though shipping is required, when there are other tomatoes grown right at home.
Due to the salmonella threat, food safety is another major issue, notes Shintaku. Special caution is taken during handling. And as harvest time nears, the family also pays strict attention to materials being sprayed on the crop. Customer safety is paramount, and their reputation is at stake.
In their marketing considerations, Green Growers pays particular attention to demographics, constantly assessing the marketability of their tomatoes. They recognize, for example, that in a supermarket in a community dominated by younger customers with mortgages to pay, the farm’s tomatoes will not sell as well as in a community where the population is composed of older, well-established customers with higher incomes.
“There’s a big difference in where you market your product,” admits Shintaku. “Our tomatoes have been at Times, a market chain here, for so many years that the produce managers know our product. They’re not afraid to put our tomatoes on the shelf in areas where customers can see them. We have a loyal following.”