The machete makes a zipping noise, followed by a loud crack. I try to guess what other U.S. industries are powered by guys with machetes. Probably not many.
Wailea Agricultural Group’s operation on the Big Island of Hawaii looks like a very small, lush lumberyard. Smooth logs are piled on the flatbeds of three John Deere Gators backed into a semi-circle against the packing shed. Beyond the gray metal walls, a sea of short, dark-green palm fronds flap under a clear morning sky, awaiting their fate by machete blow. My friend, who’s brought me to the farm in his Prius, arches a cynical eyebrow.
“You know, this is Hawaii’s new sustainable cash crop. Or, some people think so.”
A lot of Hawaiian farmers wonder what’s next after the final demise of pineapple and sugarcane. Del Monte harvested the last pineapple crop in 2008, Maui Land and Pineapple shut down in 2009, and Dole has moved all but a few acres in Oahu to Costa Rica, Thailand, and the Philippines. Just last December, Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company (HS&C) harvested their final crop and put the 36,000-acre parcel up for auction, closing the door on an industry that once brought over 300,000 immigrant laborers to the islands. Today’s profits are most easily reaped selling agricultural land to resorts and housing developments, but some small farmers don’t want to stop growing food; they just need to figure out which crops will let them earn a living.
I watch as one man expertly zips the machete through the palm trunk, twisting to snap off the log’s outer sheath, which falls like parchment paper at his steel-toed shoe. He kicks the curl into a growing stack and picks a few sinewy strands off what’s left: the snowy white tube of the tree’s heart. He gingerly places this interior section aside on a stainless steel table before reaching for another log.
Stripping heart of palm. Photo by: Lindsay Gasik
The palm heart, sawn into pieces and wrapped in clear plastic wrap, will be overnighted to high-end restaurants around Hawaii and mainland America, including to big name chefs like Alan Wong and Colin Hazama in Honolulu and Anita Lo in New York City.
Heart of palm is a vegetable delicacy in many ethnic cuisines. In Thailand, coconut hearts (yod-ma-prao-oon) are dressed in lime juice and peanuts or stewed in curries. In Brazil, the heart of Acai palm, better known for the purple superfood paste made from its fruit, is often tossed into fresh salads with avocado and lime. Native North Americans sometimes ate the heart of Florida’s state tree, the sabal palmetto, and canned heart of palm is eaten throughout the continental U.S., although the fresh version is largely unheard of. Even the heart of the date palm, with its yummy profusion of saccharine fruits, is sometimes consumed in northern Africa and the Middle East.
Mike Crowell, co-owner of Wailea Ag, waves us into the dimness of the packing shed. He’s got a grizzled gray beard and wears a baseball cap and sunglasses clipped to his collar. The metal walls cast blue shadows on his white t-shirt and the columns of palm hearts in shiny plastic wrap waiting to be packed.
Crowell and his partner, Lesley Hill, founded Wailea Ag in the early 1990s as a diversified farm specializing in exotic tropical fruits, flowers, and spices, a chef’s playground of flavors. He leans over a map of the 110-acre farm, color-coded according to crop, his brown finger flicking over gingers, heliconias, durians, citrus, and the palms. My cynical friend and I are actually visiting to see his rare fruit collection, but heart of palm is the farm’s economic core. Crowell’s 35 acres are the oldest and largest source of American-grown heart of palm.