The closest I get to agriculture in Hawai‘i is my hydroponic garden in my backyard.
So to have been chosen as part of the 15th class of the Agricultural Leadership Foundation of Hawai‘i’s Agricultural Leadership Program is a bit, well, strange for me.
For starters, this program has long recruited people who actual work in agriculture or natural resources management. I don’t think my one-year stint at a flower shop would qualify.
But I applied anyway, partly prompted by my husband, who’s an alum of the program, and partly because I feel it’s my job.
As a reporter and freelance writer, I have long felt the importance of our role in telling stories that matter, about issues that matter. We have the opportunity to engage a broad audience and share with them what’s going on in our communities.
Hawai‘i’s ag community — from farmers to food producers to the folks who buy and consume these products — face unique challenges that really affect all of us.
I mean, if anything, I’m a consumer. And I really, really care about that!
So I applied, got in, and found myself with 13 others — smart, interesting, slightly crazy (as you have to be) — who would be part of this program with me for the next 18 months.
The goal of this statewide program, established by the nonprofit in 1982, is to train and groom promising leaders from Hawai‘i’s agriculture, natural resources management and rural community sectors. The program is designed to provide its participants the necessary tools and skills to be effective influencers of change and leaders in the community.
“It’s not about how to apply the best pesticide or till the ground,” says program director Pauline Sato. “The main goal is to learn about agriculture in Hawai‘i, to understand the breadth of it, and to be better advocates and leaders.”
Our first stop: Hilo, Hawai‘i to learn about Hawai‘i’s rich agriculture history, to hone our leadership skills and to meet farmers, teachers and other leaders in agriculture to get inspired.
Here were some of the highlights:
Last year, longtime farmer and business leader Richard Ha, president of the 600-acre Hāmākua Springs Country Farms, decided to stop growing tomatoes. That was a huge deal since Ha’s farm produced some of the best and most popular vine-ripened tomatoes on the market. His decision stemmed from one simple fact: he couldn’t afford it. The infrastructure where he housed his tomato operation was in much-needed repair, and it would be too costly to fix these greenhouses. So he decided to ditch tomatoes — he sold a million pounds of them a year — and concentrate on bananas, a crop he’s grown since 2002. He also invested about $1 million to use an old plantation-era flume to generate hydroelectricity. The system already generates about 100 kilowatts of energy a day; he uses about 40.
When Lesley Hill and Mike Crowell started Wailea Agricultural Group in 1994, they had been told the only crops that grow in this area are sugar, macadamia nuts and cattle. The pair proved everyone wrong. Today, they grow more than a dozen different crops across 110 acres, including rambutans, mangosteen, yuzu, nutmeg, lychee, jack fruit and durian.
One of their newest crops is the finger lime, a micro-citrus from Australia that boasts an interior pulp that resembles citrus pearls. It’s quickly become a favorite among local chefs who have come out to sample this unusual and playful fruit. The pair planted about 120 trees so far, selling the fruit at $40 a pound.
The mission of Wailea Ag is to be stewards of the land. So it’s no surprise that its main crop — fresh hearts of palm — is sustainable: all of the fronds and outer layers of the tree to back into the beds as compose, enriching the soil and controlling weeds. And the plant, itself, is a non-host to fruit flies.
The Kohala Center‘s Beginning Farmer Training Program, spearheaded by Derrick Kiyabu (formerly of MA‘O Organic Farms on O‘ahu), has already graduated 72 participants, some of whom already have small farms, others who just wanted to see what it would take to grow food commercially. They’re also learning the business-side of farming, from financing to marketing, in this comprehensive, 16-session program. And look at this beet! It’s just one of the crops growing on the center’s 10-acre demonstration farm.
We had a free morning, and a bunch of us jumped in a van — OK, some ran here — to the Hilo Farmers Market, which is open daily. The biggest days, though, are Wednesdays and Saturdays, when more than 200 vendors set up selling everything from artwork to local poi.
We visited a piggery in Mountain View, run by Neena Roumell and Atto Assi, that uses a Korean-based natural farming method. Now, anyone who’s ever visited a piggery knows its distinctly foul smell. But these farms use what’s called indigenous microorganisms — or IMOs — in the soil to break down animal waste naturally, resulting in a lack of smell. It was pretty amazing.
Eric Tanoue, an alum of the program, took us on a short tour of his business, Green Point Nurseries, a second-generation producer and exporter of anthuriums and other tropical flowers and foliage. Here, we learned a valuable lesson: “You want to be price-makers, not price-takers,” Tanoue says. Meaning, Hawai‘i farmers and producers should think about setting a price for their high-quality products — and keep to that standard.
We had the special privilege to visit a rare plant nursery on Hawai‘i Island — the location is strictly kept a secret because of vandalism and theft — to see the efforts of Patty Moriyasu and her staff to save plants native to the island. There are 146 threatened and endangered plant species here, 24 of which already considered extinct in the wild. Though various methods of plant propagation and by maintaining a gene bank of plants and seeds, this group has successfully increased these plant numbers. One example: these folks have already out-planted more than 35,000 Mauna Loa Silverswords at four main sites on the island. It’s mind-blowing.
Joan Yoshioka of the Plant Extinction Prevention Program — and an Ag Leadership Program alum — took us birding along Kīpuka Puaulu (Bird Walk), where we saw ‘apapane and ‘amakihi and learned about the plants in the area. It was nice to get out, stretch our legs and walk — especially if you saw how much we ate over the weekend!
And rounding out our weekend was a visit with Derek Kurisu, executive vice president of KTA Super Stores — my favorite stop in Hilo! — to hear more about its Mountain Apple brand. This is how KTA support local farmers, ranchers and food producers. The program’s first product was fresh island milk, introduced in 1992. Since then, the line has grown to include more than 50 local vendor supplying more than 200 different food products to KTA stores across the island.
To learn more, visit the blogs at Agricultural Leadership Foundation of Hawai‘i, follow on Instagram @agleaderhi, and on Twitter @agleaderhi.