By: Danielle Filjon
Between rows of fresh crops, across acres of eucalyptus trees, lies the lush beauty of Kai Kai Farm. Every season yields a new bounty, and for over 18 years, Kai Kai Farm has been producing fresh vegetables, being the epicenter of special events and cultivating a strong bond between man and nature.
Carl Frost is the co-owner of Kai Kai Farm in Martin County, with his wife Diane Cordeau. Together, they cultivate local flavors and host special events, all on 40 acres of fertile land.
“We don’t make that big a deal about it; we’re just growers,” Frost said.
Florida’s 47,400 farms and ranches utilize 9.7 million acres and continue to produce a wide variety of farm-to-table produce, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture. The trend of smaller farms providing localized supply chains to restaurants have increased. Farmers’ markets exploded, quadrupling over the last 20 years, as reported by the USDA. Taste for fresh and organic produce has grown along with that trend, and many restaurants openly promote the local farms that supply them.
From growing vegetables and maintaining them by hand to selling produce to Florida’s top chefs and eventually to hosting weddings and events, a lot has evolved since Kai Kai Farm was established in 2006.
“There is no average day on the farm. There’s always a wide range of responsibilities,” Frost said. “You never get caught up.”
But their passion for growing and cultivation grew from a very unconventional style of farming while the couple spent some time in Micronesia.
“When we visited the Solomon Islands, we helped the local people to plant veggies on the coral reefs,” Cordeau said. “And we thought, if veggies can grow on coral, then we can do it in soil!”
That journey was also inspiration for how Kai Kai Farm got its unique name.
“In the local language, the phrase ‘kai kai’ means to gather food together,” Frost said.
The couple bought the 40-acre plot that is Kai Kai Farm in 2003, an old citrus grove that was in decline.
“Eventually, we started to experiment and see what could grow in this region and what survived, in one small plot,” Cordeau said.
When Kai Kai Farm grew to a larger scale, the couple hired a crew, and began selling their produce to chefs and at farmer’s markets.
“When you buy food at the grocery store, it doesn’t taste like anything,” Cordeau said. “With our food that is grown in the ground fresh, the customers and chefs tell us it tastes like produce did from when they were kids.”
After the praise that Kai Kai received about their produce, it created a special relationship between the chefs who sourced their vegetables for their restaurants and customers who kept coming back for them at the markets. This is reflective of the increased demand of farm-to-table produce seen across the nation.
“It is a symbiotic relationship that we have with the chefs. Our food keeps their customers coming back, and so they keep coming back to us,” Cordeau said. “Seeing that keeps me going.”
Kai Kai Farm grows mainly leafy greens, broccoli and tomatoes, with minor crops such as turnips and radishes as well. These types of plants grow exceptionally in Florida’s soil and climate.
“It’s hard to beat our greens compared to something that’s shipped in from California,” Frost said, “They have more mechanization, but we pick and care for everything by hand here.”
Sixty-six percent of American consumers say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally sourced foods, according to the National Restaurant Association. Kai Kai Farm has small pop-up restaurant nights where they serve their own produce, but the farm also sells to local chefs around the county.
Kai Kai Farm is also known for its beautiful wedding venue, where in the busy seasons, they host weddings and special events almost every week.
“We start our days then at 7 a.m., running the farm alongside the special events like weddings or birthdays and chef nights,” Frost said. “And those can last up until midnight. We are lucky to get in bed by 1 a.m. after a 12- to 16-hour workday.”
Frost and Cordeau make a good team and delegate responsibilities among themselves and their employees at Kai Kai.
“I mainly handle the running of the farm, maintenance and business stuff like bookkeeping,” Frost said. “My background is in business so I keep the farm running so we can maintain our relationship with the customers.”
Cordeau, on the other hand, deals with deciding what to grow and where and the hospitality aspect of dealing with customers and wedding parties.
“Hospitality is my background,” she said, “and I have always been into plants, so those are my strongest areas.”
After nearly 18 years of growing and cultivating produce, both Frost and Cordeau have been witnesses to the spectacle of Mother Nature and to what their farm has become.
“Pride of ownership,” Frost said, “that is the most rewarding aspect of farming to me.”
For Cordeau, the process of cultivating the crop and seeing the fruit of her labor makes the long workdays worthwhile.
“Putting the plant into the ground, constantly battling with mother nature, then seeing the reaction of the customers when they taste my food, knowing the work of my employees,” Cordeau said, “you can’t let that go.”
As for plans for the future, the couple hopes to host concerts where the food served comes entirely from the farm and that people will want to come to Kai Kai Farm for produce they can’t find anywhere else.
Many farms like Kai Kai produce crop on a small scale to supply local restaurants to ensure that customers get the freshest taste. The fertile land in Florida ranks it near the top in United States for growing certain produce items, so many restaurants are able to align with smaller farms to both meet the demand of farm-to-table as well as support local business.
Surrounded in acres of greenery and prosperity, a dream that started far away has become “Diane’s and my purpose at Kai Kai Farm,” Frost said
“It’s like raising kids or something, your identity becomes that. Our identity has become the farm.”