Perhaps Nalo Farms owner Dean Okimoto acquired his resilience and ingenuity from his father, a 100th Battalion World War Two veteran who founded the farm in 1953. Dean, an Iolani School and Redlands graduate who was set to go to law school and loathed farm work, ended up diversifying farm production and partnering with Roy Yamaguchi to supply 130 restaurants with now signature Nalo Greens.
Today he’s teaching kids to eat locally, is passionate about preserving local ag land, and excited by organic retailer Whole Foods’ announcement of three planned stores on Oahu. An excerpt of our conversation was published in the Advertiser earlier this year, but now you can read the entire interview here.
What I’m Reading | Dean Okimoto
Owner, Nalo Farms
Q&A with Christine Thomas
—What are you reading?
Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time as President of the Farm Bureau with the legislature. A lot of it is about bills related to agriculture, tax credits. … We’re trying to get more land into agricultural production and stimulate agriculture for several reasons—food security reasons, use less fuel, Etc. To stimulate agriculture we need to look at tax credits … How do we get the message out to the public for them to really understand what we can do as a community? What agriculture really does deliver to a community is the water percolating down to aquifers, and just the beauty of Hawai`i. Tourism will be affected if there’s no place to drive around this island and all you can do is go to the beaches. What does that say about the island? If you ask people, Do you support agriculture?, everyone says yes, but no one’s actively doing it.
There is a book called The Next Green Revolution: Essential Steps to a Healthy, Sustainable Agriculture. It basically talks about agriculture as the founding basis of civilization. It goes into when you start forsaking agriculture and not understanding what it delivers you, you lose an overall perspective of a community, and all the good things agriculture delivers to life.
–How did you discover it?
I think Alan Wong gave it to me. I go back and read it every once in a while. Over the last 30 years in Hawai`i it’s almost like we didn’t look at this component in developing our lifestyle. We’ve kind of lost it. Thirty years ago we probably produced about 40% of our agriculture needs locally, and today it’s probably down to 15%. It gets scarier as time passes. I’m considered a young farmer, and I’m 52 yrs old. That’s pretty bad for any industry to think 52 years is young. We’re not getting that many kids into the industry, because kids have gone to the society where they’d rather sit in front of a computer than do physical labor.
But the interesting thing is that I also think agriculture probably provides the largest opportunity to become successful and make money. If it’s looked out in the right way—with an entrepreneurial spirit and you’re able to brand the product, all the things that make a good business—if you take those principles and put it into practice you can make a good living. But it’s selling that to the kids and the kids being able to see, if I went to school for business and learned all the things that I would for opening a shoe store or something, and then applied to agriculture, would it work? I’m a good example, and others too. Most of the successful farmers—that is the model.
–Even though this book was published years ago, does it give you a new perspective on invigorating a new agriculture boom?
Yes, there’s footprints in there that can be used anywhere in the world. I don’t know if people really understand what rural lifestyle is anymore, but it’s a term that’s thrown around. A rural lifestyle is promotion of agriculture and the growing of food products for our food supply. It’s going out and tending to the chickens or the forest or plowing your fields and having that around your neighborhood to support your community.
–You often remind people that farming isn’t mindless work, and continually research new products and trends. Is that true?
I try to look on the internet at least 3-4 times a week. I’m a food person too—I love looking at guys like Roy and Alan, DJ Kodama. I look at web sites of restaurants on the mainland—chefs that are world famous and on par with Roy and Alan. The reason is I look at their menus and look at things I don’t know what it is, and look up what it is and I find out about new things to grow. If you see it on several menus, it means there’s a trend for that item.
–Does that mean reading is an integral part of farming?
Definitely. I think when you get in a rut and you keep doing the same thing over and over. I don’t grow our Nalo Greens the way I first started. We find a new product or bio control, or new ideas in irrigating. It’s an ongoing process. If you don’t adapt and change you lose it. We go against all farming models because we’ve been growing the same thing on our land for 14 years, but we add back into the soil, compost, amendments, that we’re able to keep the fertility of it up. … That’s directly from research and keeping up with new technologies. If we really want to grow, we can’t keep doing it the same way. It’s a challenge to be in business. I’d rather do this than become a lawyer. I find this way more challenging.