Sure, Roy Yamaguchi may have launched his Nalo Greens, Nalo Farms owner Dean Okimoto has since made his own name across the state, with a passion for local agriculture rooted in his genes, and a determination to lead—even if it makes him grouchy—his signature ingredient.
I talked to Dean for Modern Luxury Hawai’i Magazine‘s summer food issue, but didn’t have space to print our entire interview, where Dean talks about his love for haricot vert, gets passionate about taro and GMO, and explains why we have to start making some noise.
Now you can read it all, below.
Q. When you’re not farming, how do you kick back and relax?
A. That’s rare, except in the evening. I like to go to the movies, to Side Street and have a drink and pupus. I run on my treadmill in my spare time, four days a week. Sundays I go golf in the morning, and then if we don’t go to the movies I’ll cook.
I love to barbecue at friends’ houses. I enjoy cooking too, especially doing marinades.
Q. What do you cook at home?
A. My dad made this recipe a long time ago that is my favorite chicken dish, with a sherry herb marinade and then barbecued. On Sundays we have tomatoes that are overripe so I’ll take ten pounds of tomatoes, some fresh herbs, get maui onions and bell peppers, and I make a fresh marinara sauce, and cook it for 3-4 hours.
Q. How do you use your greens at home?
A. Probably one of my favorite salads is our greens with fresh mango, cut up with a bit of Old Amsterdam cheese or, if I can get it, Big Island goat cheese, with a Maui onion vinaigrette that I make. And tomatoes, of course.
Q. Is there anything you wish you could grow, in an ideal world?
A. What I’d really like to grow if I could make money at it is French haricot vert. We just can’t grow it at the prices you can get it from South America. I still may try again. I’ve grown it before, but the bugs love it and it’s really hard to pick it and make it profitable, because sometimes it takes about 20 minutes to pick a pound, and three pounds an hour doesn’t make a business.
Q. You’re always interested in nutrition, and do a lot of research on what’s current, so what’s hot right now?
A. One thing we’ve been grappling with are food safety issues, especially with our new president getting concerned about peanut allergies and things. We invested in putting up a processing facility and just started using it—it’s very costly but now we can deliver a product to our customer that’s food safety certified. There are a lot of protocols to that guarantee, and to make sure that rat lung illness on the Big Island can’t happen to us. There’s also very little chance of salmonella or e-coli.
Going forward it’s becoming more of a concern to the hotels and general public. We’re investing in that to be sure that if people are going to eat Nalo greens or anything from our farm, it’s going to be safe—you’re not going to get sick.
I think root vegetables are becoming more of a demand and we’re not growing enough of them here. We’re going to try soon to expand that and grow more root vegetables, like baby beets and even looking at different radishes. I do wish we could grow parsnips but it’s too hot, at least where we are.
Q. Farming is about adapting—any advice for us during these changing and tough economic times?
A. Farmers are a different breed because they have a hard time giving up and when they do give up they don’t tell anybody—they just disappear. That’s the sad part. I think you have to make noise. We’re at a point that too many people have become so disconnected with agriculture—they don’t understand it, and there’s so much misinformation out there. The people that say they support agriculture actually go against policies that would help it survive.
There has to be more outreach to the community so they understand what we’re trying to do and what it takes to get that vegetable to your plate. If we do that we’ll get more understanding and in the long run agriculture will be more viable.
Q. Is being that voice for local agriculture your main focus now?
Yes. The taro industry is my best example right now. Kahea has put out a hit list saying we’re telling people to thing about choices, and don’t support corporate taro farmers. They name two taro farmers–the two guys who produce 80 percent of our poi—Hanalei Poi and Honolulu Poi.
These are both 4th generation farmers, and now they’re getting calls from the mainland and from the islands, and the intonation of the whole message is that they are using GMO taro, but there is no GMO taro. It’s affecting their business and if they go under you’ll have 80 percent less poi out there. It’s just so blatantly unfair. Who’s going to be eating poi in the future if you put these companies out of business? I don’t know what their agenda is really. It’s such a selfish way of thinking and that’s not the Hawaiian way that I grew up with.
Q. Your childhood nickname was habutz, but do you have a new nickname now that you’re happy in farming?
A. Oh heck. No I don’t have a nickname anymore. It’s funny because that’s the one everyone remembers, but I was also called the farmer in high school, because my dad was a farmer, and in college they called me Mokey Bear because I had hair down to the middle of my back so they thought I was a moke!
–Q&A with Christine Thomas, edited version published in Modern Luxury Hawai’i, Summer 2009