Resourceful by Nature

How Kumu Farms has stayed ahead of the game

By Sean Aronson

A few years ago, Whole Foods grocery store entered the world of Kumu Farms. When Schule heard they were planning to open a store on Oahu, he contacted them about selling his papayas. They were interested from the get go.

“We were very impressed with his operation,” said Claire Sullivan, “He had all the makings of what we look for in a supplier.”

Sullivan works with Whole Foods in Hawaii to identify local producers of all things natural — from fruits and vegetables to soaps and granola. Whole Foods does not accept any genetically modified (GMO) items and currently sells about half conventional and half organic produce.

According to Sullivan, Whole Foods has been working hard to share the origins of their produce with customers. One way they do this is by posting a picture of the farm next to the product.

Today, in the papaya section, there is a picture of Schule with a description of Kumu Farms and its partnership with Hawaiian Homesteaders. “It’s a way for the consumer to connect to the producer,” says Sullivan. It also lets buyers know whether the fruit is conventional or organic.

Kumu is one of the only Hawaii farms to have their produce sold at Whole Foods on the mainland. The reason: “It’s his commitment to organic, non GMO,” says Claire Sullivan.

While Schule’s relationship with Whole Foods is important in terms of promotion and prestige, it is not a major source of revenue. Schule estimates that only about 5 percent of his produce is sold to Whole Foods.

“It may be small, but it has that name and that’s important,” said Schule

Whole foods will open three more stores on Hawaii in the next year — two on Oahu and one on Maui. When Sullivan was asked if the Maui store had a better chance of attracting Molokai farmers, she demurred. She said the irony is that even for the Maui store, products will travel to Oahu where their distribution center is and then travel back to Maui.

Sullivan said she is looking for quality products – not just produce, but manufactured goods as well. She is particularly interested in local celery, carrots, onions, potatoes and spinach.

Looking Ahead
As for Kumu, Schule says the future of the farm is a mixed bag – rising transportation costs and the increased cost of doing business on an island are keeping the farm from truly thriving. But Kumu’s durability and longevity bodes well for Schule. He has established Kumu as a reliable producer and that means his buyers have come to count on his produce.

Despite this, big challenges lie ahead, many of which are out of Schule’s control. He says Molokai is at a crossroads – people are working out what kind of future is best for the island. He says growth is necessary for the survivability of the island, and for the farm.

Again, Kumu will have to adapt.

Agro-tourism is one possibility for growth. The farm would need some cosmetic work, says Schule, but it already attracts a steady stream of people who come to see the operation. He’s unsure how they hear about the farm — perhaps its Kumu’s proximity to the airport — but they mostly come to buy his papayas and pesto.

Schule says Coffees of Hawaii is a good model for a potential agro-tourism business, but his vision is more laid back, just what one would expect from his personality.

“We would certainly be funkier, that’s the way I’ve always done things,” says Schule.

Funky methods or not, Kumu is a survivor at a time when survival on Molokai is perhaps most difficult.

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