Rob Parsons

Special Delivery

Kula Fields brings farm fresh local food to your door

by Rob Parsons

March 26, 2009

Roxanne Tiffin is planting the seeds
for a sustainable future.

There is a growing awareness that too much of the food we consume is imported. The reasons for favoring a local diet are many: it's fresher and more nutritious; it supports and helps diversify the local economy; it avoids fuel spent on shipping.

Still, most statistics quoted indicate 85-90 percent of the food consumed in Hawaii is shipped or flown in. A detailed analysis of Maui's food systems has yet to be conducted, but it's suspected that the same numbers hold true. 

Maui residents who buy fruit and produce from farmers' markets and swap meet vendors may not realize that often they are purchasing shipped-in foods, rearranged and displayed as if they were Maui grown. (To help make it clear, Upcountry grocers such as Mana Foods, Hanzawa's, Pukalani Superette and others label items raised by local farmers.)

Up on the fertile slopes of Haleakala, an entrepreneurial effort has sprouted to deliver farm fresh foods to your door. Roxanne Tiffin of Kula Fields Delivery Service has shifted gears to keep up with demand from her expanding customer base, which is growing faster than a midsummer zucchini vine.

Tiffin, a busy mother of three, says her business was born out of her own reluctance to run to the store, only to find Mainland imports. Sensing that others would support local farmers if they could, she initiated her service. Now she's on the road three days a week, after compiling 70-80 orders weekly from her Web site, kulafields.com.

"Just the energy of working with fresh fruits and vegetables makes me happy," Tiffin says. "I know that sounds a bit funny, but it's true."

Tiffin is succeeding where other attempts for similar services connecting growers and buyers have floundered. She also offers up a monthly newsletter and recipes, donates excess produce to the Maui Food Bank and works to support school gardens in collaboration with South Maui Sustainability.

In fact, it was after attending one of SMS's first meetings last year that her business took a quantum leap. She suggested to one of the group's founders, Maury King, that he sign up for her service and see how he liked it.

Roxanne showed me a typical list, which changes according to seasonal availability, of items delivered to customers. This week's assortment includes: strawberries; papaya; Roma tomatoes; red leaf lettuce; green beans; kale; rainbow chard; radishes; green peppers; mixed baby greens; avocado; and lemons.

Optional orders may also be placed for floral arrangements, Maui Cattle Company beef, Surfing Goat Dairy cheeses, Maui Coffee Company whole beans, honey, fruit, bread, oils and Kula Country Farms jams, syrups and barbecue sauces. Buyers can also opt for "organic only." 

Impressive? Maury King apparently thought so. He wrote a glowing letter of praise about Tiffin's service to The Maui News. The results were immediate.

"My Web site went from a few hits a day to 100-plus," says Tiffin. "My phone was ringing off the hook. I had no idea so many people were hungry for this kind of service."

Kula Fields now has about 130 customers, who sign up for either weekly or bi-weekly deliveries. Tiffin's largest client base is in West Maui, where she says grocery stores are especially limited in the locally grown items they carry. South Maui is a strong second, she says.

Her toughest day is Friday, when the "Upcountry route" takes her from Kula to Huelo, Haiku, Paia, Spreckelsville, Haliimaile, Makawao and Pukalani. That's a lot of gas. But, she reasons, it's much less than her dozens of customers would burn driving to the store.

Tiffin buys directly from farmers, and also from the Maui Farmers Cooperative Exchange. Her roots are on the Mainland, where she organized a natural food buying co-op, The Good Earth, in west suburban Chicago, circa 2000. 

Moving to Maui in 2004, Tiffin worked as a buyer at Mana Foods for three years, leaving to give birth to her third child. Soon after, her delivery business was born.

It's not surprising that grassroots community efforts are leading the charge to support small farmers, organic growing methods and local food sustainability. Nationwide, government has too often kowtowed to agribusiness giants like Cargill, Monsanto and Archer-Daniels-Midland when setting agricultural policy and doling out federal subsidies.

The Sustainable Food Coalition noted that the amount of federal support for local farmers' markets—about $5 million last year—is roughly the same as it was when Jimmy Carter was President. The New York Times reports that while mandatory farm subsidies gobbled up $7.5 billion, just $15 million was spent on organic and local food programs.

The Farm Bill guides policies over a five-year span, and significant changes require congressional approvals. Still, the Obama economic stimulus plan has provisions to award as much as $250 million in loan guarantees over the next two years to support local and regional food networks.

After chatting at scenic Rice Park in Kula, Tiffin and I drove down winding Naalae Road to meet CSA farmer Gerry Ross. Ross greeted us with freshly cut chunks of a multi-hued, heirloom variety of sugar cane (Hala ali'i), one of dozens of crops he raises.

Ross, who provides weekly produce to 15 families, also grows coffee, papayas, dryland taro, potatoes, corn and orchard crops. He walked us through his vegetable gardens, where he has 180 cultivated beds of 100 square feet each. Butterflies and other pollinating insects filled the air.

Like Tiffin, Ross is interested in getting gardening into the schools. He teaches second graders through the Ag in the Schools program, supported by Maui County Farm Bureau.

Last month, Ross's friend Russell Greenleaf of Scarsdale, New York came to visit. Greenleaf has had success in implementing school gardens programs, and is now moving to teach similar skills to prison inmates. Joined by Tiffin and her friend Jill Nordby, they met with local ag agencies to discuss a school gardens program on Maui. 

"I didn't want to see it get talked to death while waiting for funding," says Tiffin, explaining why she jumped into the project. Finding willing partners in SMS, who will dig beds, deliver compost and install irrigation over the upcoming spring break, Kamalii Elementary in Kihei will soon be sprouting its own vegetable plot.

Tiffin and Nordby brainstormed a Harvest Day fundraiser: Kula Fields would support the Kamalii school garden by donating 10 percent of the proceeds from subscribing families of Kamalii students. Healthier than a bake sale, they note, and more sensible than a car-wash fundraiser on water-short Maui.

As government too often spins its wheels, community efforts are steering us toward a healthier, localized food paradigm. A throwback to a simpler time, Roxanne Tiffin's Kula Fields Delivery Service is just one example of grassroots ingenuity tackling part of the sustainability challenge we all face.