Hawaii's premier grower of salad greens, along with delicate microgreens, herbs and esoteric produce such as Okinawan spinach.
By Alain Gayot and Lesa Griffith
If you eat at fine dining establishments on Oahu, chances are you'll see the term "Nalo greens" on a menu. The ubiquitous salad mix comes from Dean Okimoto's Nalo Farms in Waimanalo, on eastern Oahu. Okimoto's father, Charles, a 100th Battalion WWII veteran, founded the farm in 1953. Guava and papaya gave way to daikon and green onion. Today, the farm is Hawaii's premier grower of salad greens, along with delicate microgreens, herbs and esoteric produce such as Okinawan spinach. Okimoto, a political science major, had had his sights set on law school. "But I applied a day too late. So I started helping my Dad." The boy who once loathed farm work ("Our punishment as kids was to weed for two hours") fell in with a group of farmers and learned about the nitty gritty of agriculture. He was hooked.
Herbs were Okimoto's crops, but then in 1990 he lost all of his basil to disease. "I almost quit farming," he says. When a friend visited the three-acre spread, he asked Okimoto if he could bring a friend. Okimoto said sure, the friend looked at the land and suggested, "Try growing some baby greens, and I'll buy them from you." That friend was chef Roy Yamaguchi, who had opened his flagship restaurant in 1988. Today, Nalo Farms supplies 130 restaurants with up to 3,000 pounds of tasty greens each week.
The tropical climate allows for a year-round growing season, and also makes for more intense flavor — arugula is extra spicy and peppergrass is as hot as wasabi. The plants grow in a volcanic muddy loam that's chock-full of minerals such as zinc and iron. Nutrition interests Okimoto, and he's always on the lookout for new, healthy things to grow, such as tatsoi, a bok choy relative that's high in folic acid and vitamin C, and Okinawan spinach, which is purported to have lower cholesterol levels.
Guests are welcome to a guided tour of Nalo Farms, although reservations must be made at least two weeks in advance. Those looking to buy Nalo's famous greens will want to call ahead, as all produce is cut fresh. The drive is worth it: The small operation sits at the base of the Ko'olau Mountains, which tower majestically over the neat, multi-hued rows of vegetables.