Even though mangoes have been grown in Hawai‘i for almost two centuries, and despite the efforts of the HSPA, no one variety of the fruit has yet to become commercially viable for Island farmers on a large scale—though Suiso is encourged that some local grocery stores are beginning to carry Island varieties and are not relying solely on commercial mangoes shipped in from Mexico and Central America. But when it comes to exporting mangoes to the US mainland, Japan and other countries, quarantine restrictions related to fruit flies and the mango weevil make it a cumbersome and complicated task for Hawai‘i’s farmers. And so the mango remains the populist fruit it was originally recognized as in an official 1906 report to the US Department of Agriculture: “The mango is to these islands what the apple is to people of the colder climes, a delicious fruit, so abundant in its season as to be within the reach of all.”
Back on O‘ahu, Mark Suiso is visting Arthur Agena, an animated and energetic 87-and-a-half-year-old (“You gotta remember the half,” he likes to insist) who comes from a line of Okinawan farmers. On his property, Agena raises mostly avocadoes and mangoes. He used to farm vegetables; fruit trees require more space but less maintenance. He also grows bittermelon, which, he explains, is for medicine for his friend. Sharing the literal fruits of his labor brings him a sense of rejuvenation, Agena says.
The seasoned grower talks about the intimate relationship growers have with their trees. “You can feel the tree. You know when it needs help.” With the pride of a contented father, he points to a tall Pope mango tree next to his house that he says is a tree he planted eighteen years ago. He once told the tree, “You the master of this place. You the firstborn. You take care your family.”
Suiso’s mission is to bring back the backyard mango— and not only because of the mango itself. “What’s striking is this energy the trees bring to the community. Try going to newer neighborhoods without mango trees. You’re not going to see that,” he laments. Offering a few examples of what he calls “mango diplomacy,” he illustrates the social value of sharing the home-grown fruit. “I can be the biggest jerk,” he states, “but if I have a box of mangoes from the yard, I’m instantly your friend.”
Suiso believes that there’s a mango Renaissance happening across the Islands and that it’s gaining momentum. “There’s a growing number of mango connoisseurs,” he notes, confident that a prevalent backyard mango culture can be resurrected. “On YouTube I’m seeing an attempt to teach the uninitiated how to peel a mango.” These indicators give him hope that there will soon be many more mango growers. “If you don’t have a tree in your yard, you don’t have a soul. If you have a fruit tree you’re grounded,” he preaches, reminding people of the trade-offs as houses get bigger and yards get smaller. “Anything tree-ripened is gold,” he continues. “It’s hard to get a perfectly ripened mango in a grocery store. You have to go to the backyard.”
This year Mangoes at the Moana will take place at the Sheraton Moana Surfrider on July 21. There will also be a mango festival on the Big Island on July 28 and 29 at the Keauhou Beach Resort.