Local Greens In Local Markets

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - April 25, 2007
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Dean Okimoto
Dean Okimoto

Dean Okimoto was honored by UH’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources last week, for his outstanding contributions to farming in Hawaii. He’s long been the face of farming here, and is probably best known for his work with the Hawaii Farm Bureau and for taking greens gourmet.

For five years, Dean was a weekly guest on my afternoon radio show where we talked about farm issues, and the one topic we revisited again and again was the lack of local produce in our supermarkets. Packaging, processing and labeling are all bigger headaches than farming itself, and the red tape and paperwork are too much for most farmers to consider. Not so, Okimoto. This week sees at least one of his dream projects come to fruition, as Nalo Fresh Greens go on sale in supermarkets, for the first time.

“It’s been quite a process,” he says, “I started about five years ago thinking the whole thing might take a year or two!” he says.

Dean has been building a processing plant in Waimanalo that’s still a few months from completion, so the Honolulu Poi Company has being contracted to bag and package the greens.

You’d think that the biggest challenge facing an island farmer would be weather, followed by protection of crops from pests, but for Dean and his team the main problems were all logistical.

“We were stonewalled many times along the way,” he says of the project, “and there are still challenges in just getting the greens from the fields to the plant and then to the supermarkets. Plus you have to figure out how much to actually grow and send!”

And then there’s the marketing. Most of you will be familiar with Dean’s Greens - if you haven’t bought them, you’ve probably eaten them in one of the dozens of restaurants that carry the famous mix. But this week, Nalo Fresh introduces a range of greens that may not be as familiar to most people.

“We’re growing baby arugula and baby spinach on the Big Island,” says Okimoto, “and I think most people will be comfortable buying them. It’s the Asian Greens and the Healthy Greens that may seem a little different, until the public get used to seeing them.”

Asian greens are a mix of the kinds of greens (and purples and reds) that you find served with sashimi or somen salad - a mix of strong-flavored leaves that include tatsoi, mizuna, red mustard and the wonderfully spicy pepper cress. The greens provide a wide diversity of flavors in tiny bites.

“I think it will take a while for people to get used to them ” says Dean, who intends to create recipe cards to give consumers ideas on how to use them.

The Healthy Greens should sell well. They’re a mix of tatsoi and spinach and just bursting with vitamins and iron.

So far, Foodland and Don Quijote supermarkets are carrying all four packages, and Dean hopes to be in most stores within the next two months. The goal is to supply about 3,500 pounds of greens a week - a far cry from the days when we first met and he was cutting about 600 pounds a week for local restaurateurs.

There should be more from the farm too, if things go according to plan. Much like his initial success in growing greens, Okimoto is being encouraged by local celebrity chefs to supply supermarkets with his own line of herbs, as well as a range of baby vegetables, and haricot verts (green beans).

“There should be as much local stuff out there as possible,” Dean says , “and if we can do it, then we will.”

Happy salads!

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