Robb Farms owners harvest final crop: Head off on new adventure

  • Chris and Ginny Robb stand on their 22-acre certified organic farm that they started in Lalamilo 12 years ago. They will bid it farewell in April when they move to Medford, Oregon. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
    Chris and Ginny Robb stand on their 22-acre certified organic farm that they started in Lalamilo 12 years ago. They will bid it farewell in April when they move to Medford, Oregon. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
  • Chris checks in with farmer Max Bowman, who will soon lease the land where Robb Farms is situated in Waimea. Certified organic produce will continue to be grown there under a new name, Anoano Farms. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
    Chris checks in with farmer Max Bowman, who will soon lease the land where Robb Farms is situated in Waimea. Certified organic produce will continue to be grown there under a new name, Anoano Farms. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
  • About 10,000 cases of large leaf lettuce are grown at Robb Farms each year. Owner Chris Robb, who is affectionately called an “import displacement specialist,” is proud to provide the local produce in place of what the state would otherwise import. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
    About 10,000 cases of large leaf lettuce are grown at Robb Farms each year. Owner Chris Robb, who is affectionately called an “import displacement specialist,” is proud to provide the local produce in place of what the state would otherwise import. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)

WAIMEA — Everybody said it couldn’t be done, but Chris Robb proved them wrong.

A fixture in Waimea’s Lalamilo agriculture community, the 61-year-old farmer has harvested a bounty of produce on his 22-acre farm for the past 12 years. He is the only Caucasian farmer who has successfully grown certified organic vegetables there among lots that Japanese families have leased since the early 1960s.

But on April 12, he will hand over the land where Robb Farms sits to a new operator who will continue to meet the state’s certified organic produce demand.

A third-generation Hawaii resident, Chris and his wife, Ginny, are moving to the mainland for a new adventure: exploring opportunities in Southern Oregon’s booming Rogue Valley wine country near Medford.

“They have an up-and-coming wine industry. Residents call it ‘the next Napa,’” Chris said with a grin. “At this point in my life, wine grapes are a little more appealing than row cropping. It’s seasonal; you can have a life. The more affordable cost of living is what’s drawing us on this next adventure too.”

He first started getting his hands in the dirt at age 10, gardening in his hometown, Manoa, on Oahu. In 1982, Chris and Ginny moved to Hawaii Island.

“To get ahead around here is very hard in the farming business,” he said. “When we first moved to Kona, our landlord, Hideo Komo, gave us a lease on two acres of abandoned coffee land which I hand-cleared and got into production. He gave us our first break. Then we got up here, and Roy and Nobuko Hori offered to lease us the land in Lalamilo.”

They started Robb Farms there in 2004.

“We were the first ‘outsiders’ that the old-time families leased to,” Chris said. “They would lease to each other, but they wouldn’t lease to outsiders. Everybody said farming certified organic couldn’t be done and we proved them wrong. You don’t see too many white guys row cropping, not to mention certified organic. Even the University of Hawaii didn’t think you could farm organic up here.”

On Robb Farms, 19,000 seedlings are planted every week, 52 weeks of the year. The vegetables they grow are primarily fennel, broccoli and lettuce.

Customers include Whole Foods on Oahu and Maui, and distributors Armstrong on Oahu, Kula Produce on Maui and Adaptations Inc. in Kealakekua. Big Island consumers can find Robb Farms certified organic produce at Island Naturals in Kona, and KTA, Foodland and Healthways II in Waimea, Takata Store in Kapaau and Honaunau Market in Kona. Their large leaf lettuce can also be found in dishes on the menus at Pau and Luna in Waimea.

“It’s been very satisfying for us. We’ve been very fortunate,” Ginny said. “Our produce grew from being just an oddity — organic — to having a niche. And now it’s mainstream. So we’ve grown with the whole appeal. Having Whole Foods as our customer for the past eight years ago has been a big boost to our business.”

Max Bowman, a farmer in his early 30s, will take over in mid-April. For the past few months Chris has been mentoring him and his team, which includes his own son, Dylan, and Max’s younger brother, Noa. The name for the new operation will change to Anoano Farms.

“They have the energy, the spirit. Initially, Max will grow the same crops,” Chris said. “We have an established system, established market. I know he wants to get into more root crops. Beets do very well up here. The quality is super high.”

The conversation began last August.

“For us, leasing was really the only option. And for Max, that will enable him to make a profit. Once the owners agreed they would negotiate a lease with Max, then they started to spend some time with them to get the lay of the land,” Ginny said.

A Honokaa High School grad, Bowman studied at University of Redlands in California and then worked at Dean Okimoto’s Nalo Farms on Oahu straight out of college. He started his own business in the Hamakua Agricultural Co-Op about six years ago.

Healthways II co-owner Gloria Flack-Doggs has been a Robb Farms customer almost since the beginning.

“We’ve been doing business with Chris for more than 10 years,” she said. “They’re great people, and their lettuce and broccoli are excellent. We know this will be carried on.”

Looking back, the Robbs reflected on their biggest accomplishments.

“We’ve proven that you can farm organically up here,” Chris said. “I’ve heard all my life, ‘This is Hawaii, you can’t do that here.’ This has always irritated me, so my goal was to prove that it can be done.”

Ginny said the farm has also allowed them to raise their sons in a place where they could learn skills and stay out of trouble. All three have worked on the farm at some point.

“It’s given them a work ethic, the ability to be profitable and pride,” she said. “They really have been a big part of the success over the years.”

The Robbs also give special credit to their customers.

“They have actually identified the product on their menus and on the shelves,” Ginny said. “The feedback we get is certainly about the quality, being No. 1, the shelf life and taste. And people know that they get a good value — the most gratifying part. That has helped us keep our place in the market.”

In addition to being a farmer, she also calls Chris an “import displacement specialist.”

“We grow about 10,000 cases of large leaf lettuce a year that we are keeping them from being imported,” Chris explained. “We’re displacing 10,000 cases and another 40,000-50,000 pounds of broccoli and other assorted things. We’re trying to be part of the solution, not the problem. KTA has been a major supporter of local farmers for many, many years.”

If Chris could leave some words of wisdom for future organic farmers in Hawaii they would be, “Nature finds a balance, and if you work with nature, all in all you’ll come out ahead.”

Ginny added, “For people who want to get into farming, it’s no light commitment. But the payoff can be tremendous. You see tangible results from what you’re doing. We came with nothing, and are leaving with a lot of memories, success and goals achieved.”

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