Devoted fans: Red ‘hot’ bell peppers keep them coming back for more

  • Susan Hamilton helps the first customer in line at her Hawaiian B Natural Farms, Inc. booth at Parker School last Saturday morning. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
    Susan Hamilton helps the first customer in line at her Hawaiian B Natural Farms, Inc. booth at Parker School last Saturday morning. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
  • Sweet bell peppers and cherry tomatoes are among the most popular items at the booth. The peppers always sell out first. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
    Sweet bell peppers and cherry tomatoes are among the most popular items at the booth. The peppers always sell out first. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
  • Hamilton works in her 12,000-square-foot greenhouse in Honokaa, where more than 50,000 pounds of beefsteak tomatoes were grown last year. (COURTESY PHOTO)
    Hamilton works in her 12,000-square-foot greenhouse in Honokaa, where more than 50,000 pounds of beefsteak tomatoes were grown last year. (COURTESY PHOTO)

WAIMEA — On Saturday mornings, especially December through early March, residents serious about peppers and tomatoes line up as much as a half-hour before Waimea Town Market at Parker School opens, all in an effort to get first dibs on the produce at Susan Hamilton’s Hawaiian B Natural Farms, Inc. booth.

What makes Hamilton’s produce worth waiting for? Many agree that the all-natural produce from her farm is among the freshest and most flavorful on the Big Island.

“Depending on our harvest for any week, we might only have a box or two of an item and can sell out in the first 15 minutes of market,” Hamilton said, one half of a husband-and-wife team that owns Hawaiian B Natural Farms. “We plant baby pepper plants year round, but once the days get cooler and shorter, most of the pepper plants slow way down. They don’t grow as much, they don’t flower as much and therefore, there are a lot less fresh peppers over the winter. We sell out of our bell peppers first every week and the cherry tomatoes second.”

A groan can be heard now and then from someone further down the line when the last vibrant red, orange or yellow pepper sells before their turn.

Hamilton and her husband have gardened sustainably for more than 20 years, and in 2008 founded their farm in Honokaa to produce high-quality, naturally-produced food. While their main crop is beefsteak tomatoes, which are only sold commercially, their cherry tomatoes, sweet bell peppers and basil can only be found at the farmer’s market.

What sets them apart from some farms is their use of organic fertilizer, foliage feeds and treatments whenever possible. Picked less than 24 hours before being sold at the market, most of the flavorful bell peppers are eaten raw, as a snack or in salads.

“With them being that fresh and crisp, they are great to just slice and eat as is,” Susan said.

Because of the level of competition among customers, several years ago Waimea Town Market was forced to begin using an official opening bell.

“We had some customers wanting soft sales before the official opening time and it got to the point that several vendors — our farm included — would have people waiting for us as soon as we backed up our vehicles first thing in the morning,” Susan said. “As we were trying to serve the early bird customers, we were unable to set up on time for everyone else.”

She and her husband, Lance, moved to Honokaa from Colorado in 2008, specifically to start the farm.

“Both my husband and I wanted to leave corporate America and create something truly our own,” she said. “Over many months — and many glasses of wine — we brainstormed and talked over many options and farming in Hawaii came out No. 1.”

The “B” in the farm’s name was originally created as part of a marketing slogan.

“We were thinking, ‘B natural, big B tomatoes,’ however we have always sold 100 percent of our production and have a waiting list, so we ended up not doing any marketing with the name after all,” Susan said.

She and her husband split the farm responsibilities.

“Lance is the farm manager and supervises all the crop rotations, the daily greenhouse work schedule, farm purchasing, etc. I oversee the harvest of the crops, the front end of the business and all customer accounts,” Susan said. “At the farm, we always joke that my job stops at the greenhouse door and Lance’s begins.”

Set on six acres, Hawaiian B Natural Farms is comprised of a four-bay, 12,000-square-foot greenhouse with 3,000 plants. It also has specially designed roofs that catch rainwater.

“Our first planting in the greenhouse was 100 percent beefsteak tomatoes. We have slowly added in additional products as we see a demand for them at the farmer’s market,” Susan said. “We now produce cherry tomatoes, sweet bell peppers and basil year-round, and have a variety of citrus and fruit we bring to market when in season. Beefsteak tomatoes are still our main crop and last year we produced over 50,000 pounds.”

Her personal favorite is the cherry tomatoes.

“They are fun, have great color, taste awesome and are in a snack-size bite,” Susan said. “Our red cherry tomatoes have placed first place in a tasting contest at the market, and our yellow salad tomatoes came in second.”

Their biggest orders come from local eateries and specialty distributors.

“All our tomatoes are sold on island and most go directly to restaurants,” Susan said.

None of their produce is sold in grocery stores, but farm sales are available for retail customers Mondays through Friday mornings each week. And all come with a guarantee of freshness.

“Our ‘Fresh Garden’ guarantee is that our products are farm fresh, local and guaranteed to taste great when you buy them,” Susan said. “If any of those items are not met, we replace the purchase, free of charge.”

Another unique aspect of the farm is a low-tech, non-chemical route the Hamiltons chose to grow their produce.

“Prevention is always the best growing technique. Instead of trying to solve a problem on the back side, we decided to be preemptive and try to keep out most pests before they even get to the crops,” Susan said. “I would say the screening on the greenhouse keeps out 90 percent of the bugs — naturally.”

The couple also focuses on small-scale produce studies in their own research gardens.

“We are currently trying out some grafted tomato plants, using a sturdy, virus-resistant root stock and then grafting on our current beefsteak tomato plants,” Susan said. “We tried a few tests over the winter and liked what we saw. We are now trying a full row of grafted plants to see what they will do in the summer heat.”

Hawaiian B Natural Farms is open every Saturday from 7:30 a.m.-noon at Waimea Town Market at Parker School

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