John Giblin: Adding value with unusual flavors

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SOUTH KONA — Since his first visit to Hawaii when he was 14, John Giblin dreamed of living in the Aloha State.

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SOUTH KONA — Since his first visit to Hawaii when he was 14, John Giblin dreamed of living in the Aloha State.

As an adult, working his day job as an auto mechanic in Palo Alto, California, he continued dreaming.

“I even wove my retirement dream into my art,” John notes.

In his fused glass artwork, he often included the Hawaiian Islands somewhere in the piece.

When circumstances allowed, he and his wife, Renn, bought a condo on the Big Island for vacationing and began imagining a relaxing retirement here. That image came to partial fruition about six years ago when he retired from his mainland job.

Though Renn’s grandparents had a farm, neither she nor John had ever grown much beyond a home veggie garden before coming to Hawaii. When looking for their retirement home, they were immediately enchanted by the farm in South Kona. The curving drive up through the gently sloping macadamia nut orchard caught their fancy. The 16-acre parcel at 1,300 feet elevation was planted in macadamia nuts, avocados and coffee and seemed full of potential.

They bought the South Kona farm almost six years ago and decided that Ohana Farm Orchards should concentrate on the existent macadamia nuts, avocados and lilikoi and grow them organically as their major crops. They put off expanding the coffee until they had the other crops fully productive. They also offered some space to Big Island Bees to install 40 hives. The bees obviously provide lots of extra pollinators for their crops. Some of the hive space rent is paid to them in honey which they use in several of their ice cream flavors.

“This isn’t exactly a relaxing retirement job, though,” John reports. “In fact, I find myself working more than 40 hours a week, but I definitely enjoy most of what I do.”

And he does a lot. With 650 macadamia nut trees to maintain and harvest, as well as 42 Sharwil avocados, he keeps busy. Lilikoi, as well as bananas, coconut and other fruit are also harvested for sale fresh and to use in his ice cream. He has found that using his crops creatively in items he can sell at markets has added to his income as well as his workload. Luckily, John has the help of a couple who live and work on the farm and the support of his wife who has a job working remotely for a mainland company.

Farming macadamia can be quite a challenge. Maintaining the health of the trees is, of course, step one. Macadamia nut harvest requires agility as the nuts fall to the ground when they are ripe and must be collected off the ground. Then comes husking and drying, requiring time and equipment. John has a drying rack where harvested nuts can be routed directly to the cracker once they are adequately dry. After cracking the very hard shells, the raw nuts are dehydrated or roasted. John has the drying deck and equipment needed for each of these steps on his farm. Following this, the flavoring and other processing is completed in a commercial kitchen. It’s a long and arduous process that ends in some delicious farm to mouth products.

A few years ago, John made some ice cream for his daughter from a bumper crop of fruit.

“That first ice cream was so good we decided to branch out and try more flavors,” he says.

Renn came up with some recipes and their ice cream took off at the farmers market. Now with a bank of Cuisinart ice cream machines at a commercial kitchen in Ocean View, he whips up some exotic flavors weekly as well as some more traditional favorites. Dragon fruit lilikoi, honey ginger and seared pineapple are his personal recipes. Lilikoi is his best seller and the rest of the pack includes mango, avocado, Kona coffee, banana and coconut as well as chocolate and vanilla macadamia nut. Because 51 percent of his ingredients are locally sourced, John’s ice cream bears the coveted Hawaiian seal of quality.

Renn has developed numerous recipes to flavor their macadamia nuts. With 15 different value-added macadamia nut products, John’s booth at the Farm Bureau’s Saturday morning Farmers Market in the Keauhou Shopping Center is always crowded with tasters. He sells local favorites like macnut brittle and butter, as well as li hing mui flavored nuts but market visitors love to try the more unusual flavors like bacon cheddar, dill pickle and garlicky habanero. The newer orange creamsicle and salted caramel have lots of fans as well.

These value-added products are all created by John in a commercial kitchen. The preparation takes time, but the results are delicious and helpful to his bottom line. Most of his time, however, is spent doing the hard work of maintaining the land for optimal production and harvesting crops at the peak of their maturity and flavor.

When I asked John what his favorite retirement farming activity was, he quickly responded.

“I love riding in my ‘gator, surveying the farm. Believe it or not, I also like weed whacking. With earphones on I actually find it very meditative.”

Beyond their current flavor bonanza, John and Renn plan to grow more plants that they can use for crafting into useable products. Renn has made several ipu heke to use in her hula halau and is now growing her own gourds. She has also planted a hala tree to use for lauhala weaving. Working with feathers is another of Renn’s creative projects and she often sports a wonderful hat lei made from rooster feathers. Looking into the future, she dreams of putting a creative cottage on the farm to offer workshops in various crafts.

In his short tenure as Hawaiian farmer, John has learned quite a bit and has some sound advice to pass on. “I kept expanding my product line to bring in more money, but doing that has also meant a lot more work. My advice to new farmers is to keep it simple”

John finds that the farm is not a big money maker but at least it pays for itself. His retirement “hobby” covers his farming costs. He enjoys the work and finds truth in the old Hawaiian saying: “Take care of the land and the land will take care of you.”

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To get in touch with them, find out more about the farm, schedule a visit or see some of their value-added products, visit their website at www.ohanafarmorchards.com.

Diana Duff is a plant adviser, educator and consultant living in a dryland forest north of Kailua-Kona.