The Unexpected Farmers

Inheriting the family farm is just the beginning
Story by Mari Taketa. Photos by Dana Edmunds.

On the North Shore of O‘ahu, where the Ko‘olau mountains descend toward the sea, Michael Kamiya rides a forklift among trees bearing the state’s most expensive papayas. The proprietor-in-training of Kamiya Papaya signals the driver to stop, then reaches for a plump yellow orb twelve feet above the earth. “This is what you want to see—a column of fruit going up the trunk,” he says. “Those flowers at the top? We know we’ll be getting fruit for at least six months.”

Four years ago Michael knew nothing of the sort. His eleven-year career in Honolulu’s printing world was on an upward trajectory. He had an adrenaline-filled life of securing contracts and averting crises, along with the perks that went with the job: the gym after work, gourmet dinners, a new car every year.

Then Michael’s father, Ken Kamiya, started talking about selling the farm. As a second-generation farmer who had co-founded the Hawai‘i Papaya Industry Association, Ken had watched the ringspot virus decimate the state’s papaya crop in the ’50s and again in the ’90s. The hybrid he developed with the University of Hawai‘i was a cross between the ringspot-resistant, genetically modified Rainbow papaya and his own Kamiya papaya. Today 95 percent of local papayas are GMO, but the industry still hasn’t fully recovered. Kamiya papayas have, though. Densely flavored, juicy and improbably sweet, they sell out every week at O‘ahu’s Times Supermarkets and at mom-and-pop stores, where regulars wait for the delivery trucks to get first pick of their breakfast fruit.

This was the legacy Ken Kamiya built, but his three daughters were pursuing their own careers. Michael had left the farm as soon as he could and never looked back. Still, Michael recalls, “He was going to let this go, and if it wasn’t going to be me, there was no one else. He told me, ‘Don’t do this if you don’t have a passion for it, because you’re never going to succeed.’”

Michael took two weeks off from his job to find out whether he had that passion. He wasn’t conditioned to farm work, and he didn’t have the mechanical skill of his father, whose improvised forklift chariots —which allowed two workers to pick parallel rows simultaneously—had brought papaya harvesting out of the dark ages of wheelbarrows and ladders. Mondays he’d be in the office catching up on accounting and paperwork. Tuesdays and Thursdays he’d be harvesting, washing, sorting and packing. Wednesdays and Fridays he’d spend trucking papayas to stores. There would be marketing and expansion plans, but with farm manager Neal Haunga overseeing fieldwork and production, Michael felt he could do it. So in 2011 he stepped up.

With each new discovery his respect for his father’s wisdom grew: how shallow ditches channel the rain and keep the roots from rotting; how sun hemp planted in fallow fields repels nematodes and balances nitrogen; how the rows of ironwoods his father planted protect the papaya trees from wind and salt air.

But it wasn’t long before his enthusiasm ebbed. Why was a tree dying? Was it bugs? What bugs? “It’s humbling,” Michael says, “coming from a job you know completely to one you don’t.” After about a year, though, Michael started to see the rewards. “In my old job it was so gratifying when that finished product came off the press. I didn’t have that feeling with Kamiya farms,” he says. “Then I started deliveries, started seeing customers waiting for us. It started to resonate. We’re doing something really good here, and I can perpetuate this.”

Michael says he doesn’t miss the old life anymore. He’s closer to his father, who still checks in. His mother, who often calls when he’s on his way home, cooks him dinners that mean more than the expensive cuisine he used to eat. “Both feet are in,” Michael says. “I was doing a great thing before, but this is even better.”

When Maui farmer Ali‘i Chang passed away, the question was immediate: Who would run his renowned agritourism business, Ali‘i Kula Lavender? His son, Koa (pictured), initially wrestled with the decision but then took over where his dad left off.

Koa Chang sweeps his arm toward Haleakalā, the mountain’s rolling pastures dotted with the unlikely hue of lavender. Forty thousand plants in forty-five varieties line these slopes of Upcountry Maui: Chang’s inheritance from his father, the agritourism pioneer Ali‘i Chang. But it’s not the herbs Koa wants me to notice. It’s the series of shallow ditches running through the fields. “When the rain comes down the mountain, we channel it …” he says before I jump in with, “So the water doesn’t pool and make the roots rot! Michael Kamiya taught me the same thing.” “Exactly!” Chang laughs.

The joy of learning is evident in new farmers. Like Michael, Koa has been on the job for four years—and like Michael, the job had always been his if he wanted it, which, also like Michael, he didn’t. Carved out of a former protea farm, Ali‘i Kula Lavender was Ali‘i Chang’s pride, and he made no secret that it would fulfill his life’s dream to see his son take over. But Koa preferred working at Mama’s Fish House to fund surfing trips and muay thai kickboxing training in Thailand. “OK, Dad,” he’d say when Ali‘i asked him to come home. “Eventually.”

Before one of Koa’s trips, he and his father shared a beer. Ali‘i was proud, he said, that Koa was exploring what he wanted to do. And though he didn’t expect it to happen, he would appreciate it if after his next trip Koa would come home and manage the farm for a while to see whether he had a passion for it—and if he didn’t, to learn something he could use in his future. Koa promised he would.

Eight months later while in Spain, Koa got a call from his cousin. “Your dad passed away,” he said. “You have to come home.” Koa took whatever flights he could—a brutal, lonely trip. During the layover in Moscow, he realized his old life was over. “My dad was my bedrock,” Koa recalls. “I said to myself, ‘There’s pretty much no other thing. There’s no other solid rock for me now but this farm.’”

The board of directors met soon after he arrived. Ali‘i, who’d loved plants so much he would stay out in the fields past sundown talking to them, had taught his son about lavender but nothing about business. Jet-lagged and still in shock, Koa discovered that the farm was heavily leveraged and losing money.

For a while he couldn’t see two feet in front of him; he suddenly had twenty employees, up to three hundred visitors a day, inventory, permits, licensing, insurance and a virus that was attacking the protea. A week earlier his biggest concern had been arranging a surf trip to Bali. Now his cousin, corporate attorney Kawika Saul, was teaching him business management. Lani Weigert, Ali‘i’s business partner and a respected figure in Hawai‘i agritourism, took him under her wing. And there was Ali‘i, whose spirit was as much a part of the gardens as the afternoon mist. “In the evenings I’d sit on a bench next to his ashes and just talk to him,” Koa says. “I feel like he’s still here.”

The debt spurred him to take any accounting and business classes he could; this year the farm will repay its last loan. Now Koa leads me through the gardens, pruning shears in hand, pointing out new plantings. Among the tufts of lavender are rows of apple saplings, a grove of young citrus, experimental pears and nectarines. It’s his dream to grow food, even if it’s not the kind you’d expect on Maui, so that every child who visits can choose a fruit and know that it was grown there—and that they can grow their own food, too. It occurs to me that Koa is planting his own dreams in the soil, dreams that he sees stretching beyond his generation and into the future, just as his father did.

Lorie Obra (right) with her daughter Joan at Rusty’s Hawaiian Coffee in Ka‘ū. Lorie and her husband Rusty created the plantation from scratch; when Rusty died, Joan left a journalism career in California to help her mother run the farm. Today Rusty’s is considered one of Hawai‘i’s finest coffee farms.

One of the unlikeliest stories to sprout from the fertile soil of Ka‘ū on Hawai‘i Island is that of Rusty’s Hawaiian coffee farm. Rusty and Lorie Obra had cobbled together a plantation from seedlings found at the base of friends’ trees. Neither thought to ask what varieties of coffee they might be, which tells you two things: Neither had farming experience and neither drank coffee. Rusty was a chemist and Lorie a medical technician. They lived in New Jersey. “They came back and said, ‘Guess what? We’re raising coffee!’” their daughter Joan recalls. “My brother and I, our jaws dropped.”

That’s where the story begins—the unlikely part was to come. Rusty’s Hawaiian began winning awards: top scores in Coffee Review—which is to coffee what Wine Spectator is to wine—and the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe’s Outstanding Producer award, among others. The tragedy was that Rusty died before seeing Ka‘ū coffee recognized among the world’s best. It had been his conviction and optimism that propelled the Obras to an early retirement in rural Pāhala, where Rusty’s parents had settled and which, to a chemist who’d toiled twenty-five years in labs, seemed like a boundless, verdant paradise.

Three-and-a-half miles upslope from their lānai, shrouded in Mauna Loa’s after-noon clouds, Rusty’s trees stand in precise rows. When he died the family made their way there. Still in her mid-fifties, Lorie continued running the farm, processing, roasting, shipping and marketing. She relied on her science training, filling books with notes on experiments isolating variables in fermenting, roasting, water, anything. From tree to cup, she was teaching herself to be a full-fledged artisan coffee producer. When roastmaster Miguel Meza took notice of this unknown coffee region now winning awards, Lorie offered him a job. It was Meza who identified the trees—typica, yellow and red caturra, the elusive red bourbon—and helped Lorie refine her processing. “You’re roasting too low and too long,” he told her. “Put fewer beans in the drum.”

Lorie was simultaneously running the farm, heading the Ka‘ū Coffee Growers Cooperative, helping to organize the fledgling Ka‘ū Coffee Festival and caring for her ailing father. Joan could see her mother was overwhelmed. As a reporter and columnist at The Fresno Bee, she had written about people who gave up careers to return to family farms. “It made me think maybe I could do this,” she says, especially because print media like newspapers were in decline. “My mom had built this into something she couldn’t handle,” she says. “So do I try to build upon what my parents did? Or do I stay in an industry that’s in major contraction?”

She and husband Ralph Gaston, who’d left his job as a sports reporter, arrived in 2011. They started by picking coffee cherry and working their way up the line. It was unnerving. Coffee farming—which is vulnerable to pests, uneven demand, big rainstorms—had none of the certainties of a salaried job. After a while, Joan says, “I was in defensive mode, waiting for the next bad thing to happen. You can’t be an entrepreneur that way. I just got tired of preparing for the next bad thing and started seeking out the good.”

Today the two run sales, marketing and finances at Rusty’s Hawaiian as well as a coffee industry consultancy. What Rusty, Lorie, Joan and Ralph have learned gets exported to budding farms in developing regions, thanks to the communications skills of the new generation. And that, on top of the awards, is more than even Rusty ever dreamed of. HH

Story by Mari Taketa. Photos by Dana Edmunds