Finding a Way

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When Elmer Viernes was just 6 years old, he remembers working on his family’s rice farm in the Philippines. He would wake up early during his summers to work in the fields with his family. Although his routine may be the same today, farming remains his life.

Elmer came to Kaua’i from Ilocos Norte in 1998 to be with his high school sweetheart. Ailyn was 14 when she first arrived on the island. After graduating from Kauai High School, Ailyn went back to the Philippines to visit Elmer and her family. When she returned, Elmer accompanied her back to Hawaii for good. He started working in landscaping, at hotels, and even doubled his hours working at Wal-Mart in the evenings.

Four years after moving to Kaua’i, Elmer worked for Kilohana Farms, under Fred Atkins, and honed his farming knowledge. Everything lined up when a friend of his had some Grove Farm land in the Lihue area, which was overgrown with guinea grass and invasive trees. Fred encouraged Elmer to approach Grove Farm to lease the land for farming. Elmer was able to take over his friend’s lease and started to clean up the area.

From those fields full of hau and other invasive species, Elmer expanded with an additional 64 acres further up the road in 2006. He grows ginger, papaya, long beans, string beans, eggplant, bitter melon, tomatoes, turmeric, lychee, longan, cooking banana, mango, lettuce, jicama, sweet peppers, tangerine, cabatete, tropical flowers, pumpkin, squash, watermelon, and a very unique sword bean. Despite raising a lot of different vegetables and fruits, Elmer is methodical in the way he organizes the various sections. He has a schedule of harvesting, planting, and weeding, while trying to plant every three days.

With the demand for farm-to-table eating and fresh produce at an all-time high, supermarkets like Times will buy all of Elmer’s supply. Most of the time, Times buys his papaya, gingerand his other fruits and vegetables for sale in their stores island-wide. He also sells to restaurants and businesses like Kountry Kitchen in Kapa’a and Kauai Juice Company. Elmer’s produce can also be found at the Sunshine Markets in Kapa’a, Kauai Community College Farmers Market, and at the former K-Mart parking lot.

All of this work is not done by Elmer alone. His wife gave up working at Foodland in 2009 to help on the farm, process orders, and with deliveries. His family and friends help in the afternoon, after they finish their full-time jobs, assisting with maintenance and, on this particular day, to help with cleaning and preparing the ginger and jicama for delivery.

Elmer spends about 14 hours a day at his farm. No vacations, no breaks, but maybe he can take a sick day here and there. Every morning, he gets up before sunrise to drop off his daughter Chloe at school, heads to the farm to work, and goes home after sunset. Family means a lot to him, as passed on in the Filipino culture. He values the time the family spends together on the farm. He also laughs at the fact that his teenage son, Joshua, chooses to spend time with his girlfriend rather than work.

Of course, things in agriculture never go as planned. Wild pigs continue to be a problem for all the farmers in the area. Elmer invested a lot of money for fencing around his property and it proved to be a wise investment. One thing a fence can’t prevent is birds. The pesky parakeets love to peck through peppers and papaya. The other problem he sometimes faces is the prolonged winter weather. “The cold is good for us to work, because it’s not too hot,” He said. “But it makes the papaya look ugly and some fruits don’t even grow.”

Although the fruits don’t look as good as they should, the taste is still delicious. When there is heavy rainfall, water pools around his papaya trees, stunting the growth of both the tree and the health of the fruit. Excessive water also harms vine plants, like the bittermelon and wingbean, by making their fragile root systems muddy and unstable. The best advice Elmer ever received was simple: “Don’t give up. When the plants die, when the papayas die, I learn.” He said. “Always try again, and don’t be afraid to try new things.”

Before Elmer and his family got busy with the farm and fulfilling his orders, they spent a lot of time at the beach or playing baseball. He bought a boat so he could use that as an excuse to fish more. “Once I deliver to Times and the sunshine markets, I have no time to fish,” he said with a chuckle. Having time -- whether it be caring for his fruits and vegetables or spending it with the family -- is valuable to Elmer. He cherishes each moment spent with Chloe, Joshua, and Ailyn, at home or walking up and down the rows of neatly planted crops. His time spent growing fresh local produce is an important component for Sustainable Foods, part of Grove Farm’s goal of “Building a Sustainable Kaua’i.