BY EMI SUZUKI
When my great grandparents started Sumida Farm in 1928, they wanted to grow a crop that would nourish local families that could also be grown year-round in their Bishop Estates’ leased, fresh spring water fed, wetland. That crop was watercress. They weren’t the first to farm watercress; in fact, there were so many watercress farms in Kalauao that a co-op was formed in the 1950s-60s which they called Pearl Harbor Springs Watercress Co-Op.
Much has changed since then. One by one, the watercress farms shut down; only 2 of the original 12+ watercress farms that made up the Pearl Harbor Springs Watercress Co-Op are still operating. Sumida Farm now grows an estimated 90% of the islands’ watercress. When production at our farm slows or stops, the islands feel it, and we often get calls from loyal watercress customers asking where they can find our watercress.
In the summer of 2015, we experienced an unprecedented decline in production. It was a long and hot summer, and our fragile watercress’ growth was stunted, resulting in a 70+% decline in production that lasted through September. For the whole month of September 2015, we harvested the same amount of watercress that we would typically harvest in one single day, which was devastating to our business. Sadly, since that time, we have continued to experience this sharp production decline, which in recent years has extended through January. We now plan and prepare for the decline from July through January which we have coined the "Summer Slump.” We have also started to celebrate “Watercress Season” which marks the return of cooler weather from February through June when our watercress thrives.
Farming is hard—and farming in the tropical agriculture environment of Hawai’i and on our urban aina offers some unique challenges. In addition to global warming with unprecedented heat and humidity, there are more pests that thrive and love to feast on our crops in this farming environment.
Our arial sprinkler system serves as our primary pest deterrent. Developed in the 1970s (Sumida Farm Aerial Sprinklers), the sprinkler system saved not just our farm, but all watercress farms in Hawai’i when leafy greens’ mortal enemy, the diamondback moth, were destroying the islands’ crops.
Our near 100-year-old farm is in need of some major infrastructure updates, and our arial sprinkler system is at the top of the list. This summer, we experienced setbacks with repairs to our sprinkler system and when the sprinklers aren’t operating, the diamondback moth thrives. I told our young daughters the moth is like the book The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The moths’ young caterpillars are ravenous and when they hatch chomp through our watercress leaves, leaving the watercress to look like Swiss cheese at best; at worst, they can eat the watercress down to the roots. While catastrophic to watercress, the moth is not harmful to us humans who also love to eat our watercress.
July 2023 was the perfect storm of our Summer Slump colliding with arial sprinkler system issues, and the subsequent rise of the diamondback moth. We received lots of calls and concerns from our loyal customers asking why no watercress on the grocery shelves. We worked hard over the summer to get our sprinklers operating at full capacity again and our dedicated field crew harvested every patch of watercress that they could.
We thank the community for their support and for demanding watercress—without this demand, we would not be able to continue to operate!
Each bunch of watercress that we sell has so much love, care, work, and research behind it—our hope is to continue to educate about the challenges farms face and what we are doing to bring watercress to your ohana’s table. Our ask is for the community to continue to support local and lift up your local farmers. Mahalo for your aloha and always, Eat Plenty Watercress!