Story by Neal Webster Turnage
Photos by Elyse Butler
“Look for the toughest thing and tackle that first,” says Mike Hodson. As a high school football coach at Pahoa High near Hilo, Hodson drilled that philosophy into his players. Twenty-plus years and a move to Waimea later, Hodson took his own advice. His wife, Trisha, had been diagnosed with diabetes, and it was their belief that a shift from eating a traditional Hawaiian diet — kalo (taro) and ‘uala (sweet potato) as well as wild tomatoes—had contributed to her illness. Hodson, who is part Native Hawaiian, decided in 2006 to trade his playbook for tomato seedlings.
Healing harvest: Mike Hodson--seen here with wife Tricia, sons Baba and Micah, and their cousin Devin Liza--started growing tomatoes in 2006 to help treat Tricia's diabetes. Today, Wow Farm in Kamuela produces 3,400 pounds of organic tomatoes a week.
Before you rightly protest that tomatoes aren’t part of a traditional Hawaiian diet, consider Mike’s gridiron philosophy. Tomatoes are agricultural miscreants—delicate, susceptible to disease, high maintenance and sensitive to humidity. Simply put, they’re one of the most difficult crops to grow in Hawai‘i. “Trisha and I plan to farm Hawaiian staples like taro,” Hodson says, “but first we had to learn how to farm, so we started with the toughest crop.” And it wasn’t enough to tackle the toughest crop. Hodson went at it in the toughest way, he says, “to grow tomatoes in the soil, not hydroponically, and do it organically, without putting pesticides and chemicals into our rich Hawaiian soil.”
When a friend tasted one of the Hodsons’ first tomatoes, the reaction was simply, “Wow.” The name stuck, the Hodsons expanded and Wow Farm today commands ten acres in Pu‘ukapu, on Waimea’s Hawaiian Home Lands. “Pu‘ukapu is known for its fruitful land,” says Mike. “It’s sustained Hawaiian communities for centuries.” The Hodsons keep their operation predominately in the family: Their four children all help run the business, which each week harvests about 3,400 pounds of Mahiki Heirlooms, Pukalani Yellows, Waimea Reds, Paulama Romas and six other varieties— with enough left over to make crack salsa.
Chefs at Kohala Coast resorts (Four Seasons Hualälai, Mauna Lani, Hilton Waikoloa) and Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine luminary Roy Yamaguchi serve Wow tomatoes. They (and the salsa) are available to the public at farmers markets on O‘ahu and Hawai‘i island. As for Trisha, she’s back to kalo, ‘uala and tomatoes; her diabetes has improved to the point where she no longer needs insulin.