Envisioning The Future And Sustaining A Legend At Sumida Farm

Food & Drink

What do you do when you are suddenly tasked with taking over the family farm?

Locals know it as the farm with the little grass shack next to Pearlridge. Sumida Farm, a 95-year-old watercress farm on Oʻahu, that most locals toured in elementary school, is bordered by the retail stores, restaurants and parking lots of Pearlridge Center on three sides and a partially finished Honolulu Rail Transit Project, that hovers above busy Kamehameha highway on elevated tracks, on the fourth. The contrast between bright green rows of watercress against a backdrop of a shuttered Sears building with trains shooting through the sky for intermittent testing looks like something straight out of Blade Runner.

How has a farm in the center of a shopping mall sustained four generations? Emi and Kyle Suzuki, who took over in March 2020, are figuring that out now, because with each generation a new iteration of the farm is born.

Located in the central town of Aiea, Sumida Farm produces most of Hawaiʻi’s watercress. The key to the farm’s vitality is its freshwater springs.

“The water’s very pure and cold because it’s coming from underground,” Kyle Suzuki explained. In a classic water cycle, rain cascades down the mountains and filters through its pores gathering in underground aquifers before moving out towards Pearl Harbor.

“There are cracks in the aquifer where this water pushes up. We have about a dozen of those across the farm, which could be drunk straight from the source.”

With 5-7 million gallons of water a day flowing from the aquifer, by way of the Kalauao Springs, the farm can hold 3-4 inches of water across 10 acres. This ecosystem powered by water and sun is alive with native and non-native fish, ducks and birds, and of course watercress.

“When the workers are harvesting, you’ll see the egrets following behind them looking for fish and crayfish, so they can grab them,” Kyle Suzuki said.

The farm has worked with the University of Hawaiʻi to conduct water quality tests and found that, unlike wild watercress that grows near rivers or streams, this watercress is not in danger of being contaminated by toxic runoff. The farm manages pests by spraying recycled spring water over the fields to knock bugs off the leaves.

1st Generation

The Sumida family immigrated to Oʻahu in the early 1900s from Hiroshima, Japan. They settled in a town called Aiea where they worked on a dairy farm and in sugar mills and pineapple plantations, until 1928 when Emi Suzuki’s great-grandparents Makiyo and Moriichi Sumida leased a 5-acre parcel of land from Kamehameha Schools (Bishop Estates) to plant vegetables for their community, who was living primarily on packaged imported food. Eventually, the Sumidas realized that watercress grew the best in the farm’s wetland environment–originally wetland taro patches– and decided to focus all their efforts there.

2nd Generation

Over time the farm expanded to 10 acres. When Emi Suzuki’s grandparents Masaru and Norma Sumida took over, they leveled the multi-level terraced farm and laid a pebble bed down, so that the spring water could flow more evenly throughout the field. Her grandfather also created tile pathways between the watercress patches for the workers to walk on. These paths also enabled them to use wheelbarrows instead of carrying the harvests out by hand.

Originally the farm was part of a cooperative with over a dozen other watercress farms in the area, but in the 1970s many shut down due to either dried up wells, land development or a pest called the diamondback moth, which had the ability to decimate entire fields. Kamehameha Schools intended to pave over Sumida Farm to begin its third phase of Pearlridge Center. Masaru Sumida lobbied local legislators and rallied community supporters. He fought relentlessly against the real estate giant until he won. Today, only Sumida Farm and one other watercress farm still exist here.

Masaru Sumida perpetuated the idea of the farm as a social gathering place. He was the first Hawai’i Farm Bureau Federation President from 1959-1966 and the founder of the Aiea Boat Club, which still meets regularly at the farm. Emi Suzuki was recently on a local podcast called “What School You Went?” The host of the show reminisced about a time in the 1990s when he walked to the farm to check it out while having his tires changed at Sears. He said he ended up spending the entire day, hanging out and having beers with Masaru Sumida until midnight.

“That’s the experience most people have at the farm,” Kyle Suzuki said.

3rd Generation

Emi Suzuki’s parents were born and raised in Aiea and met as young adults, studying the same subject for their PhDs. Her dad’s younger sister, Aunty Barbara Sumida was the one to take over the farm next. Trained by Norma Sumida, Barbara Sumida ran the business side of the farm as General Manager and President for over 30 years, while her brother David Sumida ran operations and hosted all the Elementary School tours.

“It’s the best marketing that the farm ever could have done,” Kyle Suzuki said. “All of these people are coming back and saying, ‘I remember my favorite tour was Sumida Farm and that’s why I have a connection to the farm.’”

4th Generation

Emi and Kyle Suzuki grew up in Washington, where Emi Suzuki’s dad, Stephen Sumida, went to college. They live in Seattle where they have children and corporate jobs. Neither Emi, her siblings or her cousins had ever helped on the farm as kids, but in 2018 Emi and Kyle Suzuki spoke up, expressing interest in eventually taking over the farm upon retirement.

What started as a 7–9-year plan turned into a crash course overnight when in January 2020 Barbera Sumida was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer. When Emi Suzuki received the news, she was on the first flight out. Barbara Sumida did her best to explain how to do things like pay taxes and manage payroll and vendors, but with brain cancer impacting her memory it was near impossible. Within six weeks of her diagnosis Barbara Sumida passed away.

Emi Suzuki returned to Seattle and flew back to O’ahu with her family in March. It was the last flight to O’ahu before Hawai’i Governor David Ige declared no more flights into Hawai’i due to COVID-19.

“We didn’t have a transition plan in place at all,” Kyle Suzuki said.

For the next year and a half, the Suzukis were in and out of quarantine traveling back and forth between O’ahu and Seattle, living on the farm and schooling their girls virtually.

Sustaining

Thanks to the farm’s dedicated field crew, the Suzukis already had quality workers in place to take care of the land.

“The most valuable resource of our farm is our field workers, “Kyle Suzuki said. “Some of them have been here 25 plus years.”

Watercress grows year-round in Hawaiʻi, but March through July when the days get longer, and the nights are cooler, is its most bountiful season. The field workers work shoulder-to-shoulder harvesting everything by hand, the way they have since 1928, pulling up one-pound bunches, trimming off the lower yellowing leaves, tying them into bundles and putting them into wheelbarrows to transport to the wash house. The trim is then pushed back into the earth where the watercress reroots itself and grows again. No seeds needed.

“It’s an interesting connection to the past,” Kyle Suzuki said, “because all of this watercress is coming from watercress that was already here before. I think over the years we’ve had a few changes, but in general this watercress variety has been here for decades and decades.”

His understanding is that they got the watercress originally from Florida. It’s an Asian variety which is thick and tall and takes 6-8 weeks to grow, depending on conditions. When it is time to harvest, the field workers spend seven hours a day harvesting multiple patches across the farm.

All 12 of the field workers are from the Philippines where they grew up farming. The 76-year-old man, who moves hundreds of pounds of watercress to the wash house to rinse it a day, has worked on the farm for 25 years. Each worker has their own plot of land around the perimeter of the farm to grow their own food.

“It works for us whether they sell it or eat it themselves,” Kyle Suzuki said, “because it helps us maintain the land.

In addition to the 12 mini farm plots located near a flowing spring surrounded by wild kalo (taro), tomatoes and papaya trees that anyone can enjoy, it is also important to the Suzukis to pay their workers a livable wage.

“When our farm does well, we always try and take care of our employees, so they can afford to comfortably live here as well,” Kyle Suzuki said.

The Future of Sumida Farm

Emi and Kyle Suzuki manage the business side of the farm from Seattle, traveling back and forth about once a month. In 2022 they extended the farm’s lease for another 30 years, installed a new vacuum chilling machine and hired the first non-family operations team member to ever have worked at Sumida Farm.

Phase 4.0 of the farm also includes a consulting chef and a social media manager to bring the farm’s image into modern times. Emi Suzuki has made media appearances and Kyle Suzuki leads tours for local chefs and restaurant workers. Earlier this year they hosted students from the University of Hawaiʻi’s GoFarm AgBusiness program to teach future farmers about the business of farming and conduct a hands-on workshop in the field.

“We don’t think of ourselves as a family farm, we think of ourselves as a community farm,” Kyle Suzuki said.

Consulting chef Kamalu Chris Fujimoto, a recent graduate of the culinary arts program at Kapʻiolani Community College, postponed his career in the restaurant industry to learn more about the ingredients of his Hawaiian heritage. In addition to working with other non-profits and farms in Hawaiʻi he creates recipes for Sumida Farm such as watercress guri guri (a Hawaiʻi style ice cream), watercress dip and a watercress-ginger-lime syrup he uses in cake and soda.

Sumida Farm’s watercress is heartier than most varieties found on the rest of the US continent, making it ideal for soups, stir-fries and stew, or even as a nice crunch in salads. The staple watercress dish in Hawaiʻi is watercress soup made with either salt meat (salted beef brisket) or pork (usually pork bones or ribs).

“I think it’s really cool that chefs now say they care where their ingredients come from,” Emi Suzuki said.

The farm with the little grass shack next to Pearlridge

How does the farm keep going after 95 years, from a time when all that surrounded it was farms, rivers and mountains to the age of concrete shopping centers, outlasting Sears, Monterey Bay Canners, Circuit City and Bed, Bath and Beyond? The answer lies in four generations of land stewardship, community farming and never forgetting who the land belongs to.

“What my dad was really adamant about,” Emi Suzuki said, “was that we are only a small part of history because all of this was Hawaiian farmland way before us.”

As for the grass shack, the story goes that one of the older field workers once had a garden there. Feeling bad because they were going to have to remove his garden to expand the watercress field, Stephen Sumida built a little shack in its place, so that the worker could rest in the shade.

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