Farmer Dean Okimoto is the co-founder of Oahu's popular KCC Farmers' Market. // © 2010 Dean Okimoto
Since its creation in September 2003, the Kapiolani Community College (KCC) Farmers' Market has introduced thousands of locals and visitors to some of Hawaii's best local produce and products. As the islands continue to promote farm-to-table cuisine and as the KCC market continues to grow in popularity, we decided to chat with Dean Okimoto, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, as well as the co-founder of the KCC market and owner of Oahu's own Nalo Farms.How did the KCC Farmers Market get started and how has it changed since its early beginnings?
We started the KCC Market in September 2003 with no certainty of success. Joan Namkoong, who was the retired food editor of the Honolulu Advertiser and a dear friend, had traveled to Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco in 2002 and wanted to start a farmers' market here after seeing them on the mainland. In early 2003, I went to San Francisco and Los Angeles and saw the same things. We talked about it and, after pulling a lot arms and begging a lot of people, we were able to come up with 16 vendors to start. We chose the Kapiolani Community College site because of the demographics of the area, which is generally composed of upper and middle class homes. We did not want to sell cheap food, but quality produce that would give the farmers the best chance to make money and therefore make the market more viable for the farmers' success. It was a hit; the first day, all of the vendors were sold out in less than one hour.
Since then, we have grown to 60 vendors a week, and we have a waiting list of about 100. We give first preference to farmers who grow their own products, and we look for farmers growing different or new things. Our customers number between 7,000-10,000 on any given Saturday.What makes the KCC market so popular, both among visitors and locals?
I think the market has a different appeal to visitors and locals. For locals, we have created a true community environment that exudes everything good about community events: good food, a wholesome environment, a social setting, being able to get the freshest, tastiest produce and flowers and getting to meet and know farmers who grow their food. Visitors like it because they get to experience what the locals eat.How do you pick which vendors can sell at the market? Is it a difficult process?
We try to pick vendors on the basis of how much local products they use in selling their items in the market. Produce, fruits and flowers are only allowed if they are grown locally. If they are serving breakfast, cooked foods must use local eggs, any beef served must be local and any cooked vegetables must be sourced first from Hawaii.
Picking vendors is a very difficult process, as many people just look at the success of the market and see it as a revenue stream. The Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation tries to make them understand that the integrity of the market is based on supporting locally-grown products and our farmers.What makes Hawaii so unique in terms of the products that are offered at its farmers' markets?
The uniqueness of our products lies in the amount of sunshine we have here in Hawaii and the volcanic soil we grow in (otherwise known as terroir). For example, the fruits, such as papaya, mangoes, lychee and lilikoi, are some of the best, sweetest and tastiest in the world because of our climate and soil. Greens that I grow do not taste like greens grown in Salinas, Calif., because we grow in tropical climates where temperatures range from 68 to 90 degrees, whereas Salinas grows in 40- to 70-degree weather. What it does to our greens is produce a much stronger flavor. I'm not saying it is necessarily better, but it is different. We also have tomatoes available at the market that rival anywhere in the world, again due to our great year-round climate conditions.What are some of your personal favorite things to buy or eat at the KCC Market?
My personal favorites are the things that make us unique. The barbecued fresh abalone for only $5 for two pieces is a steal. The fried green tomatoes; the pesto pizza with fresh vine-ripened tomatoes; a cheese omelet with fresh tatsoi and Hamakua mushrooms; taro poke (a great take on our local dish made with taro instead of fish); the Waialua Estate Cacao chocolate bars made from cacao grown on Oahu; the fresh-roasted corn from Kahuku with all the different toppings; oh man, it's hard to stop! I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be in Hawaii on Saturday mornings except at this market. For me, it even beats the beach, because you can always go to the beach after the market.What are some other great farmers' markets that visitors should check out when on Oahu or on the other islands?
Other Oahu farmers' markets are: the Honolulu Farmers' Market at the Blaisdell Center from 4-7 p.m. on Wednesdays; the Kailua Farmers' Market in Kailua Town from 5-7:30 p.m. on Thursdays; and the Mililani Farmers' Market from 8-11:30 a.m. at Mililani High School on Sundays. On Kauai, there is the Kauai Farmers' Market at Kauai Community College. In Kona, on Hawaii's Big Island, there is the Keauhou Farmer's Market at the Keauhou Shopping Center on Saturdays from 7:30-11 a.m., and in Hilo, the Hilo Farm Bureau Farmer's Market is held on Saturdays from 7:30-11 a.m. Also, along the highway going into Kamuela on the Big Island, there is a farmer's market from 7-11 a.m. on Saturdays.
Now that the farm-to-table movement has really picked up in Hawaii, what are you and the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation planning to do to keep up the momentum?
I have been going to many forums, talking to business groups about sustainability and how the public plays a great role in making local agriculture survive. We have partners, such as Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi from the restaurant industry, who also help in doing talks about our local agriculture and seafood industry. They have also been sponsoring educational seminars and dinners where we showcase local agricultural and seafood products, and do side-by-side tastings with comparable ingredients from the mainland and around the world. The restaurants have been key players: If you go to Roy's, Alan Wong's, DK Kodama's, Hiroshi's, the Sheraton Waikiki, the Halekulani, the Hilton Hawaiian Village, 3660 on the Rise or the Sidestreet Inn, you will fine Kulana beef, Hamakua mushrooms, Nalo Greens or Dean's greens, Hauula tomatoes, Hamakua Springs tomatoes, Ho Farms long beans and cherry tomatoes, Big Island abalone, Hukilau moi and more on their menus.What local restaurants do your frequent regularly that truly exemplify farm-to-table methods?
All of the above and some others, like Kakaako Kitchen, Le Bistro, Nico's, Neiman Marcus' Mariposa, 12th Avenue Grill, Honolulu Academy of Arts, Indigo, Kaiwa, Tokkuri Tei and Tango.