Eight months after COVID- 19 hit Hawaii and shut down many businesses, the Hawaii Farm Bureau brought back its popular farmers market at Kapiolani Community College on Saturday.
“It’s good to come back and sell,” said Thoune Hongphao, owner of Thoune Farm, as a handful of customers looked over the okra, bananas, eggplants and other produce laid out on tables under his tent. “This is our first day back.”
Hongphao had abstained from participating in other farmers markets after the KCC event closed temporarily in March, but with the return of the KCC market, he said he and his family will start selling at other locations as well.
About 60 vendors set up booths and hundreds of customers filtered in and out throughout the morning. The scene was similar but different from past KCC Farmers’ Markets: Social distancing and required face masks were in evidence and there were far fewer tourists than before, as Hawaii’s visitor industry struggles to recover.
To discourage crowding, eating on the premises — one of the chief attractions — is prohibited. Many customers bought produce and prepared food and ate on the grass nearby.
Brian Miyamoto, executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, said that KCC and the University of Hawaii had been cautious about reopening the Diamond Head campus’ parking lot to host the event.
“We are grateful to the Kapiolani Community College and the University of Hawaii school system for allowing us to resume this important essential service,” Miyamoto said in a statement. “This commitment of both partners to provide residents and visitors access to freshly harvested, locally grown food is extremely crucial to the health and nutrition of our community, as well as the health of our economy.”
Farmers markets were deemed essential businesses in Hawaii since the beginning of the pandemic, and many have remained open or reopened after temporarily closing.
Brandon Villanueva, owner of Ono Kettle Pop, sells his kettle corn at six markets every week. The work keeps him busy, he said, and it was obvious Saturday as he was constantly bagging the salty-sweet treat for customers waiting in a line that never seemed to shorten.
He enjoys the markets and said the KCC Farmers’ Market stands out because it is normally a hotspot for tourists from nearby Waikiki and elsewhere.
“A lot of diversity, a lot of tourists, a lot of people from all parts — it definitely brings a lot of fresh faces,” he said.
But tourists were notably absent Saturday as travel restrictions have put a damper on many vacation plans. Although domestic visitors to the state have been able to bypass the state’s 14-day travel quarantine since Oct. 15 under a pre-arrival testing program, and visitors from Japan were cleared to do the same effective Nov. 6, so far they have mostly been trickling in.
Miyamoto reported around 500 people an hour after the KCC market opened Saturday morning.
“I was expecting more than this,” Hongphao said, adding that customers would normally “bump into each other” while walking around.
Most of Hawaii’s businesses have struggled since the onset of COVID-19. The state was among the nation’s leaders in permanent business closures from March to early July, according to a Yelp analysis.
Miyamoto said that farms, especially medium-sized and large ones, have been hurt because they supply produce to hotels and restaurants, many of which shut down or slowed operations during the pandemic.
Some farms have lost 50% to 60% of their business since March, and a number of federally funded programs in the state have sought to buoy them.
Prior to COVID-19, Phongphila Farm sold its produce to wholesalers, but owner Lane Phongphila said that in April his family started appearing at farmers markets. His family has been growing and selling farm goods since the 1980s, he said, but Saturday was their first day at the KCC market.
Loren Shoop, founder of Ulu Mana, said he began selling value-added products such as locally sourced ahi jerky and venison sticks and ulu chips about a decade ago at farmers markets. When COVID-19 hit, he pivoted to online sales to deliver to customers directly.
Shoop was at the market Saturday and prominently displayed a sign to advertise the Hawaiian Farmers Market website where his products are sold.
Kim Falinski, owner of Nalo Meli Honey, also turned to online sales, advertising on social media. She started delivery, primarily to residents, and has been busy as a bee, selling about 600 pounds of honey per month — about double her normal rate, she said.
“Every night, when I would finish my day job, I would go and deliver quarts of honey all over the island,” Falinski said.