Community Supported Agriculture grows up

Thursday, April 12th, 2012
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By Cynthia Sweeney

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is gaining in popularity on the Big Island. With half a dozen CSA farms on the Hilo side, the concept is beginning to take off on the west side of the island as well. In North Hawaii, Ka ‘Ohi Nani Farm, just outside of Waimea, has been servicing between 50 and 100 members with weekly boxes of fresh vegetables for the past three years.

“This is an encouraging time,” said Lark Willey who, with her husband Steve, owns Ka ‘Ohi Nani Farm. “What used to be a small fringe movement has now entered into the mainstream with access to organic and locally grown food increasing in popularity.”

CSA farms are a way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer. A farmer offers a certain number of “shares” to the public who purchase a share in the form of a membership or a subscription. Members then receive a box of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season. It’s a win-win situation for the community and for the farmer. Members have access to seasonal fresh food, get exposed to new vegetables and new ways of cooking them, get to visit the farm and learn more about how food is grown, and develop a relationship with the farmers who grow their food. Depending on the farm, CSA members might buy a share of the land, or like Ka ‘Ohi Nani, members commit to buying a box of freshly picked vegetables delivered to their door each week.

“To be a CSA grower, you have to be service oriented,” Lark said. “This is very different than being a commercial grower.”

As for CSA farmers, they are able to build a reliable, steady customer base, to receive payment early in the season, which helps with the farm’s cash flow and to have an opportunity to get to know the people who eat the food they grow.

“You have to be very social,” Lark said. “The whole idea is to get out into the community and the community gets to see the farm. I’m having a lot of fun with it and it has helped us to bond with the farming community.”

The Willey’s three-acre farm has well over 50 members, 75 percent of whom have been with them for three or more years. Putting together the weekly boxes takes a lot of strategic planning and Lark starts thinking about each box a week ahead of time.

“It’s challenging,” she said. “It’s more demanding than being a regular commercial grower. A lot of farmers don’t want to touch it.”

The contents of the boxes, which cost $20 each, vary from week to week. A typical box will include an array of vegetables picked that morning – spinach, mushrooms, lettuce, artichokes, beets, leeks – and subscribers will often find fresh flowers and eggs, a newsletter, and a product list with recipes.

The Willey’s have been farming organically for 22 years. They moved to the Big Island from Maui six years ago, where they had been growing organic produce, mostly lettuce, for Down to Earth health food stores. They grew and harvested 800 to 1,000 pounds of lettuce a week, which Steve described as “intense.”

Ka ‘Ohi Nani Farm was one of the first vendors at the Parker School Farmer’s Market several years ago, but as it spread by word of mouth, their door-to-door service took off and they had to quit the market.

Still, the Willey’s are meeting challenges in Waimea, mostly having to do with weather. At 2,900 feet elevation, it is colder and wetter than what they are used to. “Really odd weather” has included hail the third week of March, which could have pounded right through spinach and lettuce leaves. They also continue to experiment and plant new things like yacon, a Peruvian root vegetable, which is thriving. Steve also cultivates taro on the farm, which is sold at KTA stores.

Ka ‘Ohi Nani, which means beautiful harvest, is not certified organic, although the Willeys adhere to strict organic practices. Everything is done by hand; no machinery is used. Weeding is a seven-day-a-week task, Steve noted, and neighbors have been known to scold them for weeding on Sunday’s and holidays. Fertilizer and plant food is organic, and everything possible is composted.

“Nothing ever goes to waste around here,” Lark said, including pesky garden snails, which are fed to the chickens and ducks.

“We’ve been doing this for so long, I’m very confident with our standards,” Lark said.

“Organic certification on Maui was really strict, and I like that,” she said, referring to laxer organic standards required for certification by the mainland, since the Hawaii Organic Farmer’s Association ceased certification of organic producers.

The Willey’s also open their farm to school groups and recently they led a group of preschoolers and their parents on an educational tour of the farm. About two-dozen toddlers from Tutu & Me Traveling Preschool, Waimea, got their hands wet examining freshly picked lettuce, beets and leeks.

“We need vegetables to grow,” observed three-year-old Aaliyah Koyanagi, adding “They need love.”

Keiki also appreciate the Willey’s chickens, ducks, and their perennial population of monarch butterflies.

“They can see where the food grows and walk away with a sense of appreciation,” Lark said. “These farms are in their backyard,”

As if all this didn’t keep them busy enough, Steve also has a landscape business, and Lark paddles at 6 a.m. several days a week with the Kawaihae Canoe Club.

“That’s actually what keeps me sane,” she said. “It’s a beautiful way to start the day.”

Sonia R. Martinez, with Hawaii Homegrown Food Network, has been compiling a list of Farmer’s Markets and CSA farms on the Big Island for the last few years. Anyone with a CSA farm that is not on the list is encouraged to contact Martinez.

To see the list go to Or email Martinez at Contact the Willey’s at [email protected]. or call 885-1950.