Pat Iwamoto and Mark Suiso, Hawaii’s best-known mango growers, have a lot in common. It was their fathers who, in the middle of the last century, planted the mangoes that would become Yee’s Orchard in Kihei, Maui and Mākaha Mangoes in Oahu. Neither was a farmer: Wilbur Yee was an optometrist when he and his brother Warren, a horticulturist at the University of Hawaii, bought the first of their 20 acres. Over in Makaha Valley, Reuben Suiso was a schoolteacher.
Their passion for farming, and for mangoes in particular, took root in their children.
And now Iwamoto and Suiso face the same problem: They don’t have enough mangoes.
While neither can keep up with demand for the juicy orbs from stores and restaurants, Iwamoto’s situation was exacerbated in January, when the gale-force winds that swept across the state blew off 95 percent of her winter crop. And this was after a bad 2016 at Yee’s Orchard, which forces its Haden and Golden Glow trees to flower at different times of the year so they have a winter and a summer crop. Winds blew off many flowers last year; it was the survivors that got hit this time. “I’m hoping that the Year of the Rooster will be better. But if it’s not the wind or weather, it’s thieves,” Iwamoto says. “People don’t have trees in their yards like before, so thieves have fewer places to steal mango from. During peak season (in summer) when you have plenty, it’s easier to accept that a few are gone. When you just have little bit, that’s when you get all frustrated.”
Suiso’s orchards are also victims of theft, and he also can’t meet demand, even with the combination of his mangoes and those he buys from growers on other islands to rebrand and sell under his Makaha Mangoes label. But his main irk is that not enough people grow backyard mangoes any more. “The idea of a 100-acre mango farm, I just don’t see that happening. We have so many neglected fruit trees (in backyards) already that are not producing. If we can get them to produce, that’s going to go a long way toward producing enough for the island,” Suiso says.
“It’s the whole idea that the tree is part of the family and you have to maintain it. That involves training it so it grows in the direction you want, making sure it has flowers and the flowers turn into fruit, picking the fruit. Training people to do that on a regular basis is the nut to crack,” he says. “More people need to specialize in pruning trees for fruit. And we need to get more trees out there. We need to put fruit trees in newer neighborhoods,” he says.
“I just think if you don’t have a fruit tree in your yard, there’s something wrong with you. You should have something that grounds you.”
With 15 of her 20 acres in production, Iwamoto may not quite see her trees as part of the family. But she does share one final trait with Suiso. Like their fathers, neither started out as a mango farmer. Iwamoto is a retired buyer for Liberty House and Suiso is a banker. “When you grow up on a farm, you tend to end up on the farm,” Iwamoto says. And that’s not without some contentment.