Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023 |
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Reaching into the crown of his durian tree, John Wooten grabs hold of some small branches and delivers a kiss to an elliptic green leaf.
Such acts of appreciation are part of a unique caretaking regimen that the sentimental farmer has come to embrace. According to Wooten, the loving attention he pays his plants is one reason why his 20-acre fruit and vegetable farm, situated in the shadow of Kalalea Mountain, is thriving.
Two decades ago, when Wooten began planting his Moloaa property with jackfruit, atemoya, rambutan and a half-dozen other types of tropical fruit trees, the demand for them was nearly nonexistent. The farmer’s beds of chard were far more lucrative than the best of his fruit trees. But in recent years, the island’s collective appetite for exotic fruits has skyrocketed, Wooten said.
As Kauai residents and visitors become increasingly educated about what breadfruit is and how best to eat it, Wooten says he has been able to triple his tropical fruit production.
More common produce, such as kale and beets, now account for only about a third of the business, the farmer estimates.
“When we first came here, we decided to grow some breadfruit trees because it was such a wonderful fruit, but basically there was no market to sell it,” says the 67-year-old proprietor of Wootens’ Produce of Kauai. “I kept growing them because I thought, ‘Someday people are going to wake up.’ And now they have. The ignorance of how to grow and prepare breadfruit and of how nutritiously beneficial it is for you is being dispelled.”
The farm gate value for Hawaii’s tropical fruit and specialty crops is estimated at $7.5 million, according to new federal data for the year 2016. All told, 4.4 million pounds of tropical crops were produced in the state last year, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
The last time federal regulators measured Hawaii’s tropical fruit production was in 2008, when the market was valued at $3.9 million. The total production that year amounted to 2.1 million pounds.
The state’s top volume-producing crop is ginger root, with 730,000 pounds of production fetching a value of $1.7 million in sales last year. Longan ranks in second with a sales value of $1.2 million.
The survey does not include pineapple.
For Wooten, the tropical fruit business is taking off in part because his customers are becoming better acquainted with exotics such as soursop and eggfruit.
Of course, he and his wife and business partner Nandanie are always prepared to explain what a fruit tastes like (Wooten likens eggfruit to a sweet version of peanut butter) and how to prepare it as a meal (Nandanie is famous for her breadfruit curry).
“Twenty years ago, I would go around the island and see all these coconuts rotting on the ground,” Wooten says. “Now people are using coconut not just to drink but also the meat. People who move here and who live here want to embrace the tropical lifestyle and embrace new things. There’s a lot more willingness to try something new.”
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