Monday | April 27, 2015
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Prickly Pick

When a box of smooth hot pink and red bulbs ringed with soft curly green petals appeared at a party, it caused more than a stir for Don and Malia McNabb. The strange looking cactus-bred curio inspired the Ocean View couple to stop growing coffee and pursue something that’s causing a roar.

Rows of dragon fruit can be found on the McNabbs’ sloped 2-acre Tai Shan Farms. It’s a small boutique farm at the 3,000-foot elevation of Mauna Loa that’s surrounded by an ohia lehua forest and tall eucalyptus. Its name means “peaceful mountain” in Mandarin Chinese, Don said.

The 1,000 plants — also known as strawberry pear, mood flower, long gou or pitaya — are trellis-grown and hand-picked. Their fragrant white flowers, about the size of a dinner plate, only bloom at night and fade with the morning sun. The short-lived, delicate flowers are pollinated by bees, which busily make honey in the hives nearby.

It took a couple years for the plants here to produce dragon fruit. The plants were planted in 2007. Don estimated it’s now 45 days from bloom to fruit and there are about 60 blooms per plant. This is the first year the McNabbs are commercially cultivating dragon fruit, of which they are producing seven of the 50 varieties, mostly the white, pink and red kinds. They hope to harvest about 6,000 pounds this year and reach 10,000 pounds next year.

Switching from farming coffee to dragon fruit was a good decision, especially when considering the property’s unique topography and the fruit’s drought-tolerant qualities. There’s also a growing interest in the exotic fruit, which is appearing more often in specialty liquors and drinks, as well as featured ingredients on restaurant menus and on popular cooking shows such as “Top Chef Masters.”

The McNabbs moved from California and Arizona to the Big Island after retirement, with the idea of mostly kicking back at the beach and drinking margaritas. Don, 71, was a trial attorney and Malia, 65, was a retail executive. After much relaxation, they were bored and got into farming. Don’s advice to retirees: “Retry or redo. Don’t retire.”

Malia said the farm has been “an incredible grounding and learning experience.” It keeps the couple healthy and active, both mentally and physically. They’ve also developed a stronger appreciation for sustainable agriculture and deeper understanding of aloha.

Their dragon fruit and other products are sold at local farmers markets and small grocery and specialty stores. Unable to ship fresh fruit to the mainland, the McNabbs began producing a wide variety of jams and jellies at a commercial kitchen in Honomu.

The fruit’s meat ranges from snow white to blood red and is speckled with tiny black seeds. It’s moist with a mild flavor and texture comparable to kiwi, pear, melon or citrus. For the jams and jellies, they mix the dragon fruit’s sweet meat with cane sugar, pectin and other local, organic produce, such as ohelo and poha berries, lilikoi, mountain apple, lychee, Hawaiian chili peppers, ginger and lime. They also offer sugar-free products.

In addition, the McNabbs are making dragon fruit leather and several types of honey. The flavor of the honey depends on what the bees forage on. When all the plants are in full bloom and the McNabbs can visually verify all the bees are on the blooms, they gather their dragon fruit reserve honey. They also make special honey mixtures with cinnamon, ginger or macadamia nuts.

The prices for honey, jams and jellies range from $8 to $25, depending on the size and type, Malia said. The couple is planning to eventually make tea out of the petals and fruit chutneys. Some of the product ideas, as well as the logo redesign, have come from participants in the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF, who stay at Tai Shan Farms.

The McNabbs have been a part of WWOOF since May. WWOOFers work on participating farms in exchange for room and board for days, weeks or months at a time. Besides working at Tai Shan Farms, the WWOOFers run the McNabbs’ farmers market booth.

When the McNabbs purchased their Ocean View property in 2006, it was covered in bees. Two years later, they noticed the bees were dying. Knowing bees are important pollinators for flowers and agricultural crops, the McNabbs decided to support them on their farm. Today, they have roughly 1 million healthy bees, despite having a 20 percent hive loss last year.

The loss was caused by mites, beetles and wax moths. The latter two are under control, but the mites require constant attention, a powdered sugar dusting and neem pesticide. Don expressed gratitude for the support, including knowledge and assistance, his farm has received from the state Department of Agriculture.

The biggest challenge the McNabbs have endured while growing dragon fruit is the nasty cactoblastus moth, considered one of the Department of Agriculture’s best examples of biocontrol success. The moth prevented the spread of the prickly pear cactus and other cactuses on the island, but it also has a liking for dragon fruit. The McNabbs spray weekly for the moth.

Gus, Guido, Gabrielle and Guinevere make up the gaggle of geese charged with keeping the weeds and other pests at bay. However, the feathered foursome occasionally slip up and eat the low-hanging fruit. Their pink stained beaks often give them away. Another pest controller is Koko, a black Russian terrier, that also serves as a guard dog and newspaper collector.

For more information, visit taishanfarms.com.