Connecting Farmers, Chefs

Katie Paul with examples of the fresh produce she delivers.
Coco Zickos photos

By Katie Paul
President of Cultivate

Tell us about your business. Cultivate, run by myself and business partner Laura Kinny, is a local produce distribution company. We work with a variety of farmers on the North Shore and we deliver islandwide, mostly to restaurants, hotels and some smaller grocery stores. We always have fruits, vegetables and herbs that are picked on the day of delivery. Cultivate started to help small farmers find markets and to work together to supply the larger orders necessitated by a large hotel restaurant, for example. We are stepping into the middleman position without the middleman cut; we mark up only a small percentage. And all that we pay farmers is agreed upon; our farmers actually create the prices, so it’s fair pricing. You feel good that you’re not under-cutting farmers, which is the case with a lot of the undervalued produce you see in grocery stores.

How did you get started in this business? I started doing research about two years ago and I produced a white paper on North Shore agriculture. Basically, there’s so much talk on the island right now about agriculture and buying and selling local, and I didn’t understand why farmers were still saying they had so many barriers. I wanted to really look at what the barriers were and what was preventing all this talk from being put into action. So I interviewed more than 25 people related to ag – chefs, farmers and people in the distribution realm. It turned out the biggest barrier wasn’t farm workers or access to land, the biggest barrier was distribution and marketing. Farmers could grow all this food, all this beautiful produce that we see at farmer’s markets, but their problem was selling it and talking to the chefs. The biggest barrier was communication between the farmers, so I ended up creating Cultivate to meet that demand – to step into the communication position.

Why do you do what you do? Because I really care about local agriculture. I really care about farms. I think, in our world today, there’s almost a farmer genocide – these huge corporations have taken up so much land and, as we know, there are detrimental and environmental effects because of that, as well as social effects, so it’s really terrible. If we can create a living wage for people who do what they love to do in a healthy environment, we’re helping our communities. The money also stays in the community by buying local. We could expand our Kaua’i economy a thousand times just by focusing on agriculture. I’m just really passionate about it.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of your business? Everything. I think it’s really rewarding when we do deliveries and the chefs open the boxes and there’s nothing that they don’t like. Since the produce is picked the day of delivery, it’s so vibrant. You can order a case of imported bok choy, and by the time it gets to your kitchen it’s going to be half rotten or on its way. But our stuff just lasts forever. We never get any complaints about the quality of our produce. And to see the smiles on people’s faces both when they’re delivering and when they get it – it’s the best job I could ever have.

How do you measure success? A good way to monetarily measure success is that last year was our first whole year running Cultivate and we paid nearly $100,000 to our farming community. Cultivate alone has expanded the farming community on the North Shore by $100,000. That’s really amazing to see how much growth has happened and how much can happen. It goes right into the pockets of the growers, which is a valuable asset in our community.

What are your plans for the future? We’d like to cultivate more farmers and more chef relationships using local food. We need more growers. There’s all that talk in the county about growing our own and all these training programs, but when it comes down to it, we work with about six growers consistently because those are the ones who can consistently supply to us, and that’s not very many. We really need more produce, so we’re looking to expand and we’re hoping to get East side farmers interested.

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