Producers have turned to supplying direct to hotels catering to tourists, shifting the emphasis away from local preferences.


Farmers markets across the state abruptly shut down in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. Most quickly reopened as the virus exposed the unreliability of food imports and some shoppers felt safer buying food outdoors.

But on Lanai, a 140-square-mile bucolic wonderland that once supplied 75% of the world’s pineapples, the only farmers market shut down at the onset of the emergency and has not yet returned.

The Saturday Market at Dole Park was shuttered to reduce the spread of the virus on an island where the health care infrastructure is shaky. Now residents are showing their frustration at the absence of a reliable local food hub and community gathering place.

“We’ve been patient but patience is running out,” said Negus Manna, president of the Lanai chapter of the Hawaii Farmers Union United. “People are wondering where did the farmers market go and how do we get it back?”

Farmers markets flourished during the pandemic across Hawaii. But on Lanai, the island’s only farmers market was closed and never returned. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Farmers and residents are now trying to persuade Maui County officials to launch a new market on a nearby county parcel because they’re tired of waiting for Pulama Lanai — the landowner of the original market site — to bring the weekly event back.

Pulama Lanai, the company that manages billionaire tech entrepreneur Larry Ellison’s 98% stake in the island, declined to comment for this story.

The market doubled as a social and cultural hub hosting arts and crafts vendors, scratch-made tacos and pork flautas, civic booths and ample space to talk story in the shade of towering Cook pines that dot the grassy lawn. 

Backyard gardeners relied on the event to offload surplus produce for extra income. Shoppers could count on the market for vegetables essential to Filipino cooking and not sold in grocery stores. Local advocacy groups took advantage of the market’s captive audience to promote opposition to wind farms.

“I miss the market in terms of socialization and interaction,” said Peggy Fink, a retired librarian who used to rely on the market for eggplant and dragonfruit. “It’s a gathering place. We’re losing that connection.”

Some Lanai producers have turned to selling produce direct to resorts with the market closed. (Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2021)

Dole Park is an enduring gem of a 1920s plantation village built to accommodate a resident workforce that tended the island’s long defunct pineapple fields.

The park is flanked by restaurants, shops, a movie theater, a laundromat, a pair of grocery stores and the island’s only pharmacy. 

With little town acreage outside the company’s control, there are few options to start up a new market without Pulama Lanai approval.

“I’m really frustrated as a newbie farmer,” said Michele Weinhouse, a former school teacher who is diving into a new career in agriculture. “I wish that Pulama would look at the market and at farming in general as a food security issue and a health issue.”

Last year County Councilman Gabe Johnson, who was a farmer before he was elected to his first term in 2020, spearheaded conversations with Maui County officials to establish a new market next to the fire station on a small county parcel colloquially known as County Parks’ Park. 

  • ‘Hawaii Grown’ Special Series

“All the aunties who cook Filipino food, all the farmers who grow the produce, the food trucks, vendors with jewelry and crafts and clothes — they all would do it,” Johnson said. “The demand is still there. They just need a place to go.” 

His attempt to lobby the county Department of Parks and Recreation to allow the Lanai chapter of the HFUU to sponsor a market at the park was close to coming to fruition, according to Johnson. But the recent change in the county mayoral administration and a new Parks and Recreation director has set the effort back.

Maui Council, Lanai Seat Gabe Johnson at the Lanai housing lottery.
Maui County Councilman Gabe Johnson, who lives on Lanai, has spearheaded conversations with county officials to establish a new market. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

“Now we have to essentially start over and get them up to par on this issue,” Johnson said.

David Embrey, an organic vegetable farmer, speaks of the vanished market with rancor. 

Selling direct to consumers allowed Embrey to earn higher margins on his vegetable harvests. He said Saturday Market sales used to account for about half his income.

The market also gave Embrey an opportunity to learn about his customers’ produce preferences, leading him to grow more beans, eggplant, tomato, taro, lettuce and bitter melon on his two acres. 

To fill the void created by the market’s closure, Embrey said he’s selling his crop almost exclusively to the island’s hotels and high-end restaurants catering to tourists. 

“We have no incentives to grow food anymore,” Embrey said. “Yeah, I can grow basil and mint for the hotel, but to me that’s not really food. I’m still making money, but in some ways I feel really bad about that.”

The market was also a popular place for backyard growers, particularly seniors on fixed incomes who would offload their excess fruits and vegetables to generate extra income.

“That helped their income and now it’s gone,” Embrey said.

Lydian Batoon, 80, used to sell vegetables and six varieties of banana grown in her yard. 

Now she gives away most of her harvest and fills her freezer with a mammoth supply of banana to make enough crispy lumpia for years to come.

“If they return the market, we will really appreciate it,” said Batoon, who’s lived on Lanai for about five decades. “We’ve been waiting a long time.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Stupski Foundation, Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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