LANAI CITY >> An orange tomato is oh-so-close to making the cut. Japanese cucumbers have qualified, and so have a variety of lettuces along with plum, cherry and beefsteak tomatoes.
These vegetables are lined up to be part of the first commercial harvest from a pioneering hydroponic greenhouse farm on Lanai developed by technology billionaire Larry Ellison and envisioned for expansion to serve the state and potential replication beyond Hawaii.
The venture, Sensei Farms Lanai, is prepared to begin selling its first produce early this year to stores and restaurants on Lanai at prices that compete with produce largely imported from the mainland and barged from Honolulu. Later in the year, Sensei anticipates distributing some of what it grows to Oahu.
“This is just the beginning,” said Molly Stanek, senior vice president of the farm operation for the Los Angeles-based health technology firm Sensei Holdings Inc., co-founded by Ellison and renowned cancer specialist Dr. David Agus.
Ellison, the founder of Oracle Corp. who bought 98% of Lanai in 2012, shared his conceptual vision for the farm two years ago in a Honolulu Star-Advertiser interview.
Now that vision is in an early realization stage.
On the 5-acre farm site where pineapples grew in the dirt for 70 years until the early 1990s, two greenhouses covering 20,000 square feet each are producing new crops. Two more are near completion and should start turning out produce for the market by the middle of 2020. A building for storage and packing is also done, and sits next to a “farm house” that contains a computer center, a laboratory where scientists will measure nutrition from the crops, office space, employee locker rooms, classrooms and a finely appointed event space featuring a commercial kitchen and panoramic ocean views.
Full build-out on the site involves adding five more greenhouses, two of which are being framed now, for a total of nine greenhouses. Each greenhouse is to be powered by a photovoltaic array connected to Tesla batteries.
Finding a product mix
To arrive at this point, Sensei has put in tireless research, millions of dollars and a ton of experimentation.
En Young, general manager of the farm with 10 employees so far, said close to 500 varieties of produce have been tried in the first greenhouse that’s dedicated to product development. The hydroponic systems also have been refined, with the newest version installed just a few weeks ago.
Young was raised on a Hawaii island macadamia nut farm and developed expertise in food supply logistics through local food bank programs. He explained that so much experimenting is necessary because the integration of Lanai’s natural climate with controlled elements inside the greenhouse is something that doesn’t exist in places such as the Netherlands, Japan and Israel with leading hydroponic industries.
“Agriculture is climate- driven to a large extent, even with us applying some controls,” he said.
For example, winter squash appears to thrive on one row of Sensei’s test greenhouse designed for vine plants. It’s a desirable choice because it could easily replace a seasonal import and be grown year-round. But while the leaves on the vines are flourishing, the gourds aren’t growing with much size or shape consistency.
“These probably aren’t going to make the cut for production,” Stanek said.
The extra challenge with winter squash, like some other produce, is that it hasn’t been grown commercially using hydroponics, according to Young.
Other plants in Sensei’s testing greenhouse include cilantro, basil, giant parsley, dill, a Tokyo-style giant green onion, chard, kale, Asian cabbage, at least 25 varieties of lettuce and several tomato varieties, including one that’s supposed to be yellow and blue but has been losing its blue shade upon ripening.
How the product mix for commercial sale develops remains to be seen, but Young and Stanek said customer demand for initial produce is overwhelming, based on feedback from retailers and restaurant operators on Lanai who have sampled the product.
“Everyone wants what we have,” Stanek said, explaining that most produce arrives on Lanai 10 to 20 days old while Sensei intends to deliver within 24 hours of harvest.
Phoenix Dupree, owner of the Blue Ginger Cafe restaurant and bakery in Lanai City, is eager to buy from Sensei after tasting samples several months ago.
“I’ve been waiting for them (to start selling),” he said. “Of course, I want to buy local produce.”
Dupree, whose weekly orders include four cases of lettuce, a case and a half of tomatoes and 10 pounds of cucumbers, said Sensei is helping diversify Lanai’s economy while also reconnecting with the island’s agricultural heritage and creating jobs that will help keep more youngsters from leaving the former Pineapple Isle.
“It’s good for our island,” he said.
Global farming model
Lanai, with a recent population around 3,000, was the world’s largest pineapple plantation after James Dole started growing the prickly fruit on the island in 1922. The plantation grew to cover about 16,000 acres but closed in the early 1990s as the successor to Dole’s company, led by billionaire David Murdock, developed two luxury hotels that were acquired and upgraded by Ellison.
Ellison, who is ranked by Forbes as the world’s fifth- richest person, with an estimated worth of about $66 billion, picked Lanai for his farm venture to demonstrate that a place with high labor costs and a limited freshwater supply could profitably deliver high-quality produce for a lower price than imports.
Water is in low supply on Lanai, which is why pineapples, which need little irrigation, were grown there. Hydroponic farming uses 10% the amount of water needed for field farming for the same vegetables.
As a model, the farm on Lanai could be replicated in other parts of the world, Ellison envisioned.
“Lanai is step No. 1,” he said two years ago. “We think we can transform agriculture.”
As for price, Ellison said Sensei produce would cost less than imports. Pricing is still being assessed, but Stanek said the cost initially isn’t expected to be much below or above imports.
Lani Manuel, a cashier at Pine Isle Market who has tasted Sensei tomatoes and cucumbers, said the grocery store looks forward to stocking produce from the company.
“Residents here, they like local produce if possible,” she said.
Sensei intends to supply a full range of retailers and restaurants on the island, from mom-and-pop operations to the Four Seasons hotels, that include a Sensei-branded resort in Lanai City where the all-inclusive experience includes dining in a glass pavilion over a reflecting pond on fare created in partnership with celebrity chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa.
Young said Lanai’s entire resident and visitor population can probably consume what Sensei can produce from one or two greenhouses, depending on the diversity of crops the farm produces.
At the high end, that’s about 330,000 pounds of produce annually. That leaves seven or eight greenhouses to supply other parts of the state.
If the venture with nine greenhouses is successful, about 16,000 acres of fallow farmland is still available for expansion.
“We have so much room to grow,” Stanek said.