Sure, it sounds nice to own a farm.
It conjures up those romantic images of rolling hills and vast, open spaces, with grazing cattle and an abundance of vegetables all glimmering in fairy dust and rainbows.
If it’s one thing I’ve learned being a part of this Agricultural Leadership Program, it’s this: Farming is tough work.
That was never more apparent than visiting the GoFarm Hawai‘i site in Waimānalo this weekend.
GoFarm Hawai‘i is a program started in 2014 by the University of Hawai‘i that trains students in the business of farming. It offers prospective farmers the chance to realize if they have what it takes to be commercial food producers.
It starts with an Ag Curious class, which introduces would-be farmers to the industry. From there, participants move into Ag Exposure, which involves touring and working on commercial farms. This weeds out — no pun intended — the people who didn’t realize how laborious the work can be.
Next, the participants go through a selection process to be part of the official Ag School, a four-month program at several different community colleges that embodies science, business and actual farm experience. Each student is responsible for his own 1,000-square-foot plot.
“They learn that they live and die by their own efforts in the field,” says Steven Chiang, director of UH’s Agribusiness Incubator (below).
And after that, students can move on to Ag Pro, a six-month program where participants work a 5,000-square-foot plot, spending at least 25 hours a week on their little farms, with a goal of selling more than $800 in produce.
“At this point,” Chiang says, “we force them to actually do business.”
But it’s not easy.
In fact, most students don’t get past the Ag Curious phase, realizing that the hard work and long hours needed to be successful as a farmer isn’t something they’re interested in.
And the ones who do continue on are surprised by the science involved, the tediousness of book-keeping, and the frustrations of marketing and selling their products.
There’s just so much involved in farming.
Not only are you concerned about just growing your crops — and that involves pest control, weeding, weather — but you’re also running a small business. So there’s accounting, invoicing, personnel (if you’re lucky enough to hire people), marketing, processing, packaging — and everything else that comes with any business operation.
It’s a lot to do, especially when you’ve bought into the lifestyle of farming and not the business of it.
Jacob Holcomb, a farmer who’s currently in the program, appreciates the hands-on experience he’s getting through the program. He grew a variety of crops to supply a CSA.
“There’s no way to get this kind of experience in that short amount of time with this kind of support,” he says.
Holcomb started the program striving to be organic, not using any pesticides. But that quickly changed when his crops started dying.
“There’s extremes on both ends,” he says. “I don’t want to make something that’s poisonous to my customers, but man, my plants were dying. There’s a healthy middle ground where I can make people happy and healthy.”