Emi and Kyle Suzuki and their two daughters caught one of the last flights into Hawaii before the airports shut down in early March 2020. They came not for pandemic-be-damned sun-seeking, but because the unexpected death of Emi’s aunt meant their nine-year plan to take over the family watercress farm suddenly became a nine-day plan.
Emi, née Sumida, spent her childhood summers on the family’s eponymous Oahu farm, where 10 acres of spring-fed lush green watercress grow under a monorail that connects the two halves of Honolulu’s Pearlridge Center. The mall’s split came late in the design, when Emi’s grandfather refused to give up the farm, standing his ground on the oasis surrounded by strip malls and highways. “He would be laughing now,” says Kyle. The Sears, Bed, Bath & Beyond, and Circuit City that tried to push Masaru Sumida out all sit empty, while his only grandchild to grow up outside Hawaii becomes the fourth generation steward of their little patch of green.
High school sweethearts Emi and Kyle always knew they wanted to have their own business, but when she picked up an in-flight magazine in 2018 and read an article about sustainable Hawaiian farming, she realized they already had one. “Why are we spinning our wheels about starting something new,” she wondered, “when we have something that’s already been built up by three generations and perfectly aligns with our values?” She paid for 10 minutes of in-flight internet to send her husband an email suggesting they pre-emptively volunteer to take over the farm. He wrote back in agreement before her Wi-Fi expired.
Emi’s great-grandparents, Moriichi and Makiyo Sumida, also wanted to own a business. The Japanese immigrants started as dairy farmers in the early 1920s, just down the street from the current location of Sumida Farms, and with a foray into kimchi production. In 1928, they signed a lease for the land around Kalauao Springs from the Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estate and started growing watercress. At the time, most of Hawaii’s farms still grew the colonial mega-crops, pineapple and sugar, and the islands already suffered from the lack of locally grown ingredients and food security that still plagues them today.
Watercress grew in the homelands of many of the immigrants from around Asia that came to Hawaii. Unlike the delicate microgreen mainlanders might know for visual appeal, Hawaiian watercress grows strong and thick, adding taste and texture with crunchy stalks and peppery leaves—like a cross between yu choy and arugula. Its defining characteristic, as the name implies, comes from the water it absorbs: any runoff from farms or ranches upstream renders it inedible. Much of the job of watercress farmers involves protecting the water. “The springs are the heart of the farm,” says Kyle. “Hawaiians believe that if you take care of the land, the land takes care of you.”
When immigrants working sugar and pineapple during the plantation era saw the fresh springs and noted the climate shared with their homelands, they saw the opportunity to grow watercress using the techniques they brought with them. "We know it's not a native plant, but we think of it as truly local," says Kyle. "Because it's been grown for probably over 100 years and it's so important to the community ."
When Moriichi and Makiyo opened, Sumida was one of dozens of watercress farms in working-class ‘Aiea, nestled between the Kamehameha Highway and the ocean, a few miles west of the Honolulu Airport. It remained so well into the 1960s, long after their son Masaru—Emi’s grandfather—took over.
But first, he worked as a mechanic, sometimes repairing gear at gunpoint during World War II because his Japanese heritage meant that though the military employed him, he wasn’t fully trusted. His parents tended to the farm, from which they could see planes fly overhead on their way to Pearl Harbor, just across the narrow mouth of the bay.
Following the war, Masaru brought his engineer training back to the farm, devising and implementing a terrace system on the land, allowing for easy pathways for workers to access, while keeping the water flowing down toward the Pearl Highway at the edge of the farm. In 1960, he worked with the University of Hawaii to bring the first vacuum chiller to the state, which all the local watercress farms shared use of, and that Emi and Kyle still use today to keep the product fresh. But while Masaru’s contributions were well known within the community—he was the first president of the Hawai’i Farm Bureau Federation—his wife Norma quietly ran much of the business.
By the time Emi was born, two of her father’s five siblings had already taken over Sumida Farm: Uncle David did the operations, while Aunt Barbara ran the books. Norma died when Emi was only three, but it was her record-keeping systems — organizing the accounting, sales, and employment — that Barbara still used to run the farm, and whose notes Emi looked to for help as she learned the ropes. “I’ve gotten to know my grandmother really well through taking over this position,” says Emi, as she realized the full scope of how much her grandmother did behind the scenes.
Sadly, those notes ended up being the only guidance Emi got for how to run the farm. In December 2019, Emi and Kyle started to plot out the transition, with plans to spend nearly a decade training with David and Barbara. A month later, Barbara was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and the tumor sat on the part of her brain that held her memory.
Emi flew in from Seattle and spent the first few weeks of the new year piecing together how things worked through partners, trying to recover passwords, and keeping the business moving. On Valentine’s Day, Barbara passed away, and a few short weeks later, just as the pandemic ramped up and schools shut down, Emi, Kyle, and their daughters, ages four and seven, packed up and flew to Hawaii on a one-way ticket.
The family holed up in a small farmhouse, the first of four two-week quarantines they did in the next two years, trying to assist the business from a distance when in Seattle, do their own jobs online, and help their children manage remote school. Within a week, the farm lost 30 to 40 percent of its business as restaurants and hotels closed; distributors that used to pick up five days a week scaled down to just one.
As their newly-inherited business flagged, Emi and Kyle pivoted hard, looking for new ways to reach customers who had supported the family business for generations. “The benefit of watercress is that it’s a comfort meal for many [Hawaii residents],” says Emi. With everyone at home and cooking more, they found a big demand from Hawaii residents looking to make their grandmother’s tofu watercress salad or pork and watercress soup. The pair focused on grocery stores and even managed to add to their customer base.
As they found their footing and came up for air, they found their own place in the community, remembering their job of protecting the pure spring water and all it entails. They donated watercress to the food bank, which struggled to provide for the increasingly unemployed population. They hired the first non-family members into the office—the first as soon as they arrived, then two more since—who do the bulk of the day-to-day work.
Now, Emi and Kyle split their time between Oahu and Seattle, where they still work corporate jobs and their girls attend school. As primary owners of Sumida Watercress Farms, they consider their hands-on role mainly to be eliminating barriers for on-site workers. More importantly, Emi says, "Our focus is on paving the path toward the future."
Of the dozens of watercress farms that the island once supported, only a few comparatively small operations remain—Sumida produces about 90 percent of the crop in Hawaii. They grow about 200 tons of watercress annually, which ships around Hawaii but not to the mainland. In the past, the farm fended off the encroaching development of Pearlridge Shopping Center and the rapid expansion of Honolulu’s concrete jungle. Now, the concern comes from the other side.
“Growing one crop within eye distance of the ocean, knowing that there's going to be rising sea levels and climate change,” says Kyle, thinking five or 10 years in the future, “our farm may be very different.” For now, Kamehameha Schools, which owns the land they lease, is committed to local farming, but it hasn’t always been in the past, and they don’t know that it will in the future. They aim to diversify the revenue of the farm through tours, books, merchandise, or value-added products, to stabilize it—to keep the farm and its employees afloat in the changing world. “Our goal is proving that farming and a small business can provide a living wage,” says Kyle, admitting it is a little aspirational. “It can be an industry in Hawaii, that Hawaii doesn't have to depend on tourism and entertainment.”
That means their vision of success includes making sure the people who work for them can afford to buy houses and raise their families on Oahu, and it changed the definition of to whom Sumida Farms belongs. Emi’s great-grandfather started the farm, and she takes pride in her role there. But generations of school children who toured the farm on field trips and ate the watercress at their family table stand to inherit the legacy. “It’s a community business,” she says. So, if the next generation of Sumida Farms doesn’t include her daughters, that feels natural to her. “After 100 years, it’s more important that it continues on,” says Emi. “Failure would be that the farm just went away and turned into a parking lot or condo building.”
Published on April 27, 2022
Words by Naomi Tomky
Award-winning Seattle-based writer Naomi Tomky explores the world with a hungry eye, digging into the intersections of food, culture, and travel. Her first cookbook, The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook, was declared one of 2019’s best by the San Francisco Chronicle. Follow her culinary travels and hunger-inducing ramblings on Twitter @Gastrognome and Instagram @the_gastrognome.