Fed by the Pearl River
Sumida Farm in ‘Aiea is a rare treasure of a family farm, nestled in between the Kamehameha Highway and the Pearlridge Mall. It defies logic, in a way, having beaten the odds and survived the aggressive suburban building frenzy that occurred during the late 1950s and 1960s. Although ‘Aiea used to be home to numerous farms, particularly sugarcane (the California and Hawaiian Sugar Company had a refinery there until 1996), it is now the only farm remaining—a true holdout from Hawai‘i’s past.
Sumida Farm was established in 1928. The third and current generation of owners, David Sumida and his sister, Barbara, show a lot of family pride when talking about their farm and their forbearers’ determination to keep their land. Their father was the first president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau and used his clout within local politics to keep his lease when the Pearlridge Mall developer had other plans for it.
The fact that Sumida manages to produce five tons of watercress per week on a relatively small plot of land—and stay family-run and profitable—makes it an interesting case study for agriculture in Hawai‘i.
Occupying only 10 acres of leasehold on Kamehameha Schools land, the farm manages to produce 70 percent of Hawai‘i’s demand for watercress. They also happen to grow a delicious and surprisingly versatile product, catching the attention of Slow Foods O‘ahu, which hosts tours of the farm.
Visiting the farm on a beautiful Saturday morning, it’s early enough that it’s not yet too hot. Despite its odd location and the surrounding visual cacophony, the farm itself is very peaceful.
“Wait until you taste the spring water,” one of the Slow Food veterans says. I’m slightly taken aback; I didn’t see any drinking water around.
When Operations Manager and tour guide David Sumida wades into the stream and proceedes to cup a large gulp with his hands, I’m shocked to think that water at one’s feet could be clean enough to drink. Granted, I’m not the most outdoorsy person, but I can’t help but eye the Sears Department store overlooking the farm as Sumida drinks.
It turns out the reason the farm is located where it is is due to the abundance of spring water around Ke Awalau o Pu‘uloa (Pearl Harbor). There are 12 watercress farms on O‘ahu, each growing a different variety of watercress, but all 12 are in the vicinity of Wai Momi, the water system from which the Pearl River derives it’s name. Sumida Farm is the furthest east of these farms and, consequently, recieves the highest quality water from the spring.
Indeed, the water tasted delicious—a bit like watercress, in fact. Watercress does not grow in dirt. Instead, it grows directly in the water with the aid of a little gravel so that the roots of the plants can grab onto something. A crop can be planted just by tossing watercress cuttings into the water. In roughly eight weeks they will become mature plants, ready to harvest. Because there is no soil depletion, there is no need for crop rotation, making the farm very efficient. They grow a dense amount of food in a small area.
The farm also has a history of innovation. It has the first vacuum chilling machine on O‘ahu, a device that can extend the shelf life of the watercress to one week from the usual three days. The machine, now 50 years old, was specially designed in Salinas, California and chills up to 1,000 pounds at time to 36 degrees Fahrenheit in less than an hour. This process also allows the watercress to be shipped to the outer islands.
The watercress is not exported to the continental U.S., however, as Florida grows the majority there. However, demand in Hawai‘i continues to exceed supply.
Sumida Farm employs many progressive and sustainable practices which benefit the farm workers, the farm land and, of course, the product itself. As a nice perk, the laborers have their own gardening area on the farm, on which they grow kalo and other produce. Workers receive full benefits, including health insurance. They use “integrated pest management”—i.e. “good bugs fighting bad bugs”—to minimize various threats to the crop. For instance, they have brought in surfeit flies to kill their primary pest, the diamond-back moth.
Another nuisance is the local ‘Akekeke, a bird that destroys watercress patches in search of food. Scarecrows and low-tech clappers made from bamboo are the primary means of warding them off. Spraying is a last resort.
Still, operational costs of the farm are high, including fertilizers, pesticides, electricity and rent. The Sumidas do what they can to reduce overhead without compromising quality. They do all of their own distribution early in the morning to beat the heat because refrigerated trucks are too expensive. They also do their own marketing in house.
Watercress is a cruciferous vegetable, meaning it is in the same family as broccoli, kale, cabbage, bok choy, etc ... In other words, it is a nutritional superstar. Packed with vitamins A, C and B1, watercress is also a good source of iron, potassium, phosphorus and calcium. It is high in fiber and contains isothiocyanate (good for the lungs) and lutein (for healthy eyes).
Look for the red and white twist tie, which designates a bunch of watercress as Sumida.
Flank steak sandwich with watercress dressing | recipe by Chef Lindsey Ozawa