Get to Know Your Local Farmer: Ed Otsuji

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Get to Know Your Local Farmer: Ed Otsuji

Otsuji Farms may be known for its beets and lettuce greens and kale and spinach and daikon and turnips  and cilantro and green onions and a variety of other fresh farm produce, but the most important item on the Oahu farm to Ed Otsuji is his hat.

“It’s my signature hat,” he said, standing in the driveway of his farm in a Hawaii Kai subdivision, overlooking Maunalua Bay. He’s wearing jeans, a long-sleeved plaid shirt and hiking boots. An iPhone is clipped to the waistband of his pants. “I only have two hats, and they no longer make them.” Ed speaks with a soft, even voice, the kind you lean in to hear. “It’s almost time to take it to the dry cleaners.”

The favored Crocodile Dundee-style hat may have started as camouflage tan and green in color but over the years, a patina of Hawaii red dirt has worked its way into the fibers that no amount of cleaning could remove. That’s thanks to the steady trade winds, although mild, stir up the dust.

Ed is 74 years old and doesn’t work in the fields anymore. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t work hard. He’s on the farm every day. He’s bagging greens, packing up a truck and trekking off to farmers markets. He’s seen quite a bit of change in his family farm’s 50+ years of life, from the crops they grow to the people buying his produce and the housing subdivision that’s built up around their four-and-a-half acres.

His parents grew carnations. They switched to Manoa lettuce. But Ed left the farm and went to college. He tried other things. “But they didn’t suit me,” he said, as we walked the terraced fields of his farm. And, so he returned to the land. “I enjoy growing things.”

And by that, he meant a variety of things. With Ed on the farm, the family diversified. They planted daikon, green onions and, eventually, added beets, kale, radishes and a variety of herbs. They grew pikake and strung lei. I pointed to a grove of papaya. “That wasn’t me,” he said. “The birds got us into papaya.”

On our visit, Ed was growing bok choy, cilantro, spinach, six varieties of lettuce, four varieties of kale, turnips, daikon, two varieties of spinach, arugula and green onions.

The farm isn’t 100% organic, but he uses organic pesticides. “I have an organic predilection that goes back to high school,” he said.

Even in his 70s, Ed continues to experiment today. His latest project is figs. He’s also trying to raise tilapia in an aquaponics system. He sells eggs sometimes. And when marine biologists were cleaning out invasive seaweed in Maunalua Bay across the road, they asked him if he wanted the seaweed, and he said absolutely. It’s good for the soil.

One of the biggest changes to the farm in the recent years has been who is buying his bonanza of bountiful goods. It used to be that grocers and wholesalers made up 100% of his customers. Now, he’s also selling direct to consumers at the growing farmers’ market boon around Hawaii. You’ll find Otsuji Farm at Kailua, Kapiolani Community College, Honolulu, Ala Moana and Kaiser High School Farmers’ Markets around Oahu.

We finished our tour of the farm at the starter flats, experimental figs and aquaponics station. A white cat with black and tan spots made figure-eight laps between my legs, arching its back for a good rub every now and then. And, then, we headed to Kale’s Natural Foods for a salad made with Otsuji Farm’s produce—greens, arugula, beets, and carrots.

As active as Ed is, the question that inevitably comes up is, “What’s next for the farm?”

And just like Ed, his son Jonas left the farm. In fact, he went as far away as Utah, where he works as a chef. (The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.) But Jonas is planning his return. And like his father, he’s a bit of an experimenter. He’s thinking of blending his expertise with the family’s heritage and starting a gourmet lunch truck that will sell prepared foods made from the family farm’s produce. He’s also considering an ag-tourism concept and a possible u-pick farm for the community.

“Farmers are kind of getting elevated a little bit these days. I am seeing a genuine appreciation for food producers. People are saying thank you,” Ed said. “It’s important to know where your food comes from.”

As we walked to our cars. Someone in our group looked back, saw something sitting on the picnic table outside the health foods store. “Hey, Ed, is that your hat?”

You’ve never seen a 74-year-old move so fast.