Sun shines at Kaua‘i farmers’ markets

KOLOA — Sunshine markets are at the core of developing an agriculturally sustainable island, said Larry Feinstein at the Koloa Sunshine Market Monday.

The shopping crowd was larger than the week before when gray clouds and rain kept shoppers dry, and Branch Harmony, longtime vendor and coordinator of the Koloa Sunshine Market, was pleased with the large turnout.

Markets around the island have been enjoying similar success as revenues from the sunshine market have grown to double-digit increases from last year as compared with other retail businesses which are gearing up for less-than-ideal shopping conditions based on economic uncertainty on a global basis.

Based on figures from the county’s Office of Economic Development that oversees the sunshine market network, Beth Tokioka, director of that office, said that at the end of the first quarter of 2008, overall revenues were up 8.08 percent.

That figure grew to an increase of 16.97 percent by the end of the second quarter, when compared with the same period of 2007.

By the end of the third quarter, overall sales of the sunshine market system governed by the county had risen to 19.93 percent when compared to the same period in 2007.

Feinstein is described as the “sunshine market monitor” which means he works on behalf of the county’s OED and oversees the seven sunshine markets operating under the OED umbrella.

He noted that the highest average revenue per vendor status goes to the Kilauea market which hosts its event on Thursday afternoons at the Kilauea Neighborhood Center. Feinstein also noted that most vendors are conservative when it comes to reporting figures.

Feinstein said, “The best problem we could possibly have is that the markets outgrow their present locations because there are just too many customers and not enough spaces for the growing number of local farmers.”

At the Koloa market, the shopping process begins with a ritual when Harmony greets the shoppers at the outside gate armed with a ti leaf, and on occasion, joined by Ula, his pet dog.

After explaining the shopping process sprinkled liberally with Hawaiian terms he explains, Harmony allows the elderly and medically handicapped to enter to a point just before the rows of vendors. He raises his ti leaf and leads the remainder of the group to that same point, where once he is satisfied that everyone is ready, he sounds the starting whistle.

Stephen Ruiz, a vendor at the Koloa, Hanapepe, Kalaheo and Lihu‘e locations, is well-known for his lettuce which always sells out.

With his wife Yvonne at his side, Stephen said, “We’re holding our own. After doing it for awhile, you know what to bring and how much to bring.”

Ruiz took the place of Harmony during the several months’ hiatus Harmony took due to medical reasons, but on Monday, the music of Raymond Kane emanating from Harmony’s truck indicated the Lawai farmer was back.

“I’m just learning,” said Lynnda Lhamon, a vendor who was just enjoying her fourth trip to the Koloa location to sell. “But this is an enjoyable experience working with visitors.”

Lhamon, who grows assorted citrus and tropical flowers at her Koloa property, said she’s already learned that when you offer avocado, they need to be ready to eat. She said visitors told her that.

James Huang, enjoying his third trip at the Koloa location as a vendor, said that locations frequented by visitors are more productive than locations where only local residents shop.

Harmony, who has been the Koloa coordinator for several years, said he broke down the shopper profile for the Koloa market. He said, based on his observations, 50 percent of the customers are first-timers, the bulk of those being visitors. Another 30 percent are returnees, noting that they are time share and condo visitors who have been to the market previously. Fifteen percent of the crowd he attributes to newcomers to the island who have moved here from the Mainland and elsewhere, and five percent are local families.

However, he said having the market at noon on a workday prevents a lot of local people from shopping at the sunshine market, and he would like to see more opportunities where local residents have access to sunshine markets.

Feinstein said, “While the markets were originally envisioned as a way for our large farmers to off-load their Grade B produce, that is certainly not the case today.”

He said most of Kaua‘i’s commercial farmers have become “victims of the cheap oil-driven global food juggernaut.”

In the absense of the large farms, Feinstein said he has discovered some of the hardest-working people on this island.

“They grow things, haul to market, and in many cases, work with customers,” he said. “That’s a lot to expect out of one person, but they are here at the markets.”

Feinstein, who originally was put on to ensure that vendors sold produce that is grown on Kaua‘i, said, “For years, we have been dealing with a declining number of farmers and less overall produce, primarily because it just became impossible to compete with the supermarkets who were able to get produce from all over the world less expensively.”

He said, “We are now extremely vulnerable to the whims of global economics because we import more than 90 percent of our food. In order for us to take control of our agricultural future, we must start creating more farmers and farming on Kaua‘i.”

Feinstein encouraged shoppers to visit the sunshine markets which take place around the island.

“In most cases, the prices are lower than the supermarkets and virtually everything you buy will have been harvested that morning,” he said. “In addition, you will have an opportunity to meet some wonderful people and experience their locally grown aloha.”

Molly Middlebrook, 4, was one of those experiences as she enjoyed her snack of peanut sprouts, heedless of the hectic pace of shoppers vying for packages of lettuce, citrus, papaya and other local delicacies.

As shoppers zipped by her, she silently slipped her tiny hand into the little plastic bag, extracted a peanut and silently thrust it forward in a sharing gesture.

“It’s good,” her mother said. “You can get it from the sprout lady.”

Kaua‘i’s sunshine market schedule is Koloa on Mondays at noon at the Anne Knudsen Park, Tuesdays in Kalaheo in the parking lot at the Kalaheo Neighborhood Center starting at 3 p.m.

Wednesday market is at the New Kapa‘a Town Park starting at 3 p.m. with Kilauea hosting its market starting at 4:30 p.m. at the Kilauea Neighborhood Center.

Friday’s market is at the Vidinha Stadium parking lot starting at 3 p.m. and Kekaha hosts its market on Saturday at the Kekaha Neighborhood Center starting at 9 a.m.

For more information, visit the county’s Web site at www.kauai.gov

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