Growing future farmers: Kohala Center program planting seeds for careers in agriculture
For many people, Saturdays are for sleeping in.
Farmers, even farmers-in-training, operate on different schedules.
On a sunny morning late last fall in Honokaa, downtown Mamane Street was quiet. But up the road on Plumeria Street, a group was filing into a small room of the North Hawaii Education Resource Center.
One by one, each person in the group went around the room and introduced themselves. Some had driven all the way from Captain Cook and Ocean View, waking up before dawn to make the trip for their first day in the Kohala Center’s Beginning Farmer-Rancher Training Course.
The Kohala Center started offering the seven-month course in 2012 as a way to boost Hawaii Island’s pool of would-be farmers and inspire more residents to consider agriculture as a potential livelihood.
Nubuai Khentamentiu had a short commute to the morning class — he lives in Honokaa. Khentamentiu works on a 5-acre farm close to downtown and offers gardening and yard services in the area.
He told the class about the 5 acres and how he had been self-taught up until that day.
“I’ve been learning a great deal and I now feel like it’s time to take it to the next level,” he said.
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There is no substitute for experience in farming, but experience is going by the wayside as the profession undergoes a nationwide demographic shift.
More than 60 percent of all farmers are between the ages of 64 and 35, 33 percent are older than 65 and just 6 percent are younger than 35.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent agriculture census, taken in 2012, showed the average age of farmers had increased steadily during the past 30 years — it’s now 58.3 years old.
The number of beginning farmers — anyone with 10 years or less of experience, by USDA definition — dropped 20 percent from 2007-12.
“We have, over time, developed a more industrial, high-yield (style) of farming,” said University of Hawaii at West Oahu professor Albie Miles, the first guest speaker to address the Kohala Center class. And as farms consolidated into the industrial model, he said, “We’ve lost farmers.”
Agriculture is not just about food, Miles said. It’s about populations and communities. It affects ecology and biodiversity. It’s intertwined with history. In addition to keeping with the national trend of fewer farmers, Hawaii has its own unique agricultural problems to address.
“If we think about the changes in large-scale agriculture … from really big plantation forms of agriculture that provided jobs and were economic engines for rural communities — at the same time, they weren’t producing a lot of food (for Hawaii),” said Kamana Beamer, Kohala Center executive director.
To this day, the state “has an over reliance on imported food and energy,” according to a state Department of Agriculture report from 2014. The same report notes that about 90 percent of Hawaii’s food is imported.
In September, during remarks at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, Gov. David Ige pledged to double local food production by 2030.
Somebody has to grow that food.
“If everyone wants more local food, we need more farmers,” Beamer said.
The demand for farmer education is certainly there, as evidenced by the fact Hawaii Island alone can now support two programs.
Since 2012, about 130 people have gone through the Kohala Center’s training. The fifth cohort wrapped up its class in May and a sixth is expected to start early next year.
GoFarm Hawaii, part of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, also begins its first Hawaii Island program early next year. Hawaii Island is its fifth program site statewide; its training will be done in partnership with the Kohala Center and funded in part by Kamehameha Schools and the Oahu-based Ulupono Initiative.
The Kohala Center started its work as a natural extension of previous agriculture initiatives, such as helping establish the Hawaii School Garden Network and farming co-ops throughout the state.
Last fall’s cohort of the Beginning Farmer class was the largest yet, with 25 people showing up the first day and a few newcomers trickling in during the next sessions.
All had different goals for themselves, as evidenced by their introductions. Some wanted to grow herbs, others wanted to keep bees. Others had land and didn’t know what to do with it. Others had no land at all, but wanted experience. Some were in their 20s, others were nearing retirement.
“You never know who’s going to be a farmer,” coordinator Derrick Kiyabu told the class. Kiyabu guided five cohorts of beginning farmers at the Kohala Center and is now coordinating GoFarm Hawaii. He asked how many people wanted to farm full time. Fourteen people raised their hands.
“Go into it with your eyes wide open,” Kiyabu said.
“There’s no shortcuts,” Glen Teves, a Molokai farmer and an extension agent with the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, said during one classroom discussion. “Everyone wants the one little drop you can put in the ground … what you put in is what you get out.”
“For an individual farmer, you’re part business person, you’re part marketing person, you’re a soil scientist, you’re a laborer,” Beamer said. “I mean, it’s a full range of skill sets. And at the same time, that’s really what we need for local food production in Hawaii: A really highly trained and motivated, and mission-driven people to be able to make a go of it.”
Classes such as the Kohala Center’s are “a mile wide and an inch deep,” Kiyabu said. “But it’s an entry point for people to be able to see for themselves and make decisions.”
Not everyone realizes at the outset, he said, how much science is involved, nor how difficult it can be to access capital and land.
“They don’t take it for granted or think that farming is easy, but they don’t realize (yet) how challenging and complex it is,” Kiyabu said.
Farming is “a tough life,” says Randy Cabral, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau. Cabral worked in the sugar industry for 10 years and the macadamia nut industry for 32. He’s also a rancher.
Startup costs in particular tend to discourage people, Cabral said. The business side of farming is just as important as the hands-in-the-dirt side. It can be difficult to access land, since many available leases are only for short-term tenures. That makes it hard to invest in farm infrastructure.
Still, education helps with access.
“If you’re somebody that’s coming out of another career and wanting to access some of these state or federal programs, you need to have education,” Kiyabu said. “That is a barrier … I think by providing these training programs, it’s one more step to allow people to check the box.”
The Hamakua Agricultural Cooperative, which subleases farmland on the Hamakua Coast, will approve probationary short-term leases to Kohala Center graduates. This enables graduates to gain the experience they need to be approved for a long-term lease or an agriculture loan. Most programs require applicants to have been full-time farmers for two years or part-time farmers for four years.
The Kohala Center class comprises 14 sessions: 10 classroom days, two field trip days and two days at the center’s demonstration farm.
On the second day of class, the group gathered at the 10-acre farm off Lehua Street to learn about soil pH, weeding and crop transplanting. It’s hard to know what can grow on a plot of land without knowing what kind of soil it hosts, and there are dozens of soil types in Hawaii.
Soil gets tested on the mainland for pH levels. Adjusting that pH often means trucking in tons of lime.
“I think that’s one of the challenges of living here, having to bring in all of these amendments,” farm production assistant Zoe Kosmas told the class.
People scribbled in their notebooks.
Many people who enroll in a farmer class are not planning to go all-in. They just want to know how to work with the resources they already have.
“I would say a majority of them want to do it on a small scale,” Kiyabu said. “That fits with national statistics … we have a lot of small farms coming up.”
“It’s part time, part of their household income, and they’re doing it on smaller pieces of land,” he said. “A lot of them are going direct, (selling) through farmers markets and CSAs (community-supported agriculture).”
Class participant Marielle Hampton works part time on an organic vegetable farm in Paauilo in addition to her primary job at the Hamakua Agricultural Cooperative, but said she likely won’t start her own business anytime soon.
“Long term, I do want to farm, but I want to do it on the side, in a way that’s not going to put my livelihood at risk,” she said. “Farming is a very risky business, and if I’m going to get into it, I’m going to have a good situation set up so that I’m not subject to the problems that can come along with the cash flow.”
She decided to enroll in the class because of the chances to connect with and tap the knowledge of veteran farmers and agricultural researchers.
“There are just so many great presenters they bring in,” Hampton said. And she enjoyed getting to know her fellow beginning farmers.
“(You) hear people’s ideas and what they’re doing,” she said. “I think there was a real sense of community by the time we finished, a camaraderie in the group.”
Johannes Seidel of Captain Cook agreed. Seidel, who is from Germany, arrived on the Big Island last year eager to “learn everything” there was to know about farming and land management (he is working toward a master’s degree in sustainable resource management). He took a master gardener class through CTAHR in addition to signing up for the Kohala Center’s program, and works at a Japanese organic coffee farm.
Farming is so broad, Seidel said, that you need to get experienced people to show you around — as well as your own experience: “It’s all blurry in the beginning, and you need to make it clear.”
“If you’re dedicated, and you want to do it, you can do it,” he said.
“Creating that network of young farmers is important,” Kiyabu said. The most valuable part of the class, he said, was the chance for newcomers to learn from old hands during the farm visits and guest talks. Farming has always been about sharing knowledge.
“If you just think about (the 130 people), each one of them over time is going to teach bits and pieces to their friends, and the growth gets pretty major,” Beamer said.
Email Ivy Ashe at email@example.com.
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