Cover Story

Generation Next: Food Growers

Young Farmers? It’s not an oxymoron. A creative new cohort is working Hawai‘i’s land sustainably, breaking the shackles of food insecurity.

There’s a quiet revolution happening in the dirt, being waged with shovels, patience and purpose. It’s a rebellion against a broken and destructive industrial agriculture system, a reconnection to community and long-term productivity. It’s a youth uprising seeded in humanity’s second-oldest tradition, after hunting and gathering: growing food.

The young farmers profiled here are diverse in their methods, crops and scale. What they share is having found a pono way to produce food for their community. In a field where most practitioners are above middle age, they are making an impact beyond their numbers–as change agents, opinion leaders and teachers.


THE LEADER

Cheryse Julitta Kauikeolani Sana, 23, MAO Organic Farms

As one of five Farm Co-Managers in the Youth Leadership Training Program (YLT) at MAO Organic Farms, Cheryse Sana helps train interns to plant, harvest and pack fruits and vegetables. She also teaches the interns and her community about the importance of fresh and local produce– just as she was educated five years ago when she came to the farm as a high school student.

“In many cultures, a people’s ancestors were connected with the main staple that they ate, like kalo in Hawaii,” Sana says. “You would want to eat something that is honest and has good character. Isn’t it amazing to know that all over the world food is respected in similar ways?” Sana urges people to go to different farms and see for themselves what kinds of practices are used on crops. She also recommends going to your local farmers’ market. “If the people selling the food are the ones who grow it, learn as much as you can about how they do,” she advises.

Working at Mao has made Sana a farmer, an activist, a food critic, a concerned community member, a businesswoman, a leader, a teacher, a student, a role model and a lover of the ‘aina. Her vision for food integrity and sustainability is to simply have more and more people growing their own food. “Our ancestors were farmers and ranchers,” she says. “We wouldn’t be here otherwise. We need to get our communities and the rest of Hawaii ready for a revolution, because it’s coming.”

THE GREENS GUY

Jonny DesRoches, 36, North Shore Greens

Surrounded by 100 raised beds of organically grown baby lettuces of 10 different varieties, Jonny DesRoches scratches his surfer mop and explains his strategy. “It’s more expensive to buy untreated wood [for frames] than just use the ground, but I don’t know what’s been done to this soil before I got here. In my raised beds, I know my soil, seed and fertilizer are organic. They keep the weeds out and it’s easier on your back, so I save money in labor.” DesRoches’s strategy includes picking a high-turnover, in-demand crop. His lettuce is on a three-week cycle, so he can harvest often and provide much more volume per pound. DesRoches provides greens for local cafés and restaurants, North Shore residents, and his wife’s new Peruvian-Japanese fusion food truck, Nikkei.

DesRoches has been farming for seven years, first apprenticing under an older farmer in Pupukea who also used raised beds, and now operates his own farm on rented land zoned “Ag One,” on which he also lives. DesRoches says he believes small farmers will see a day where both their farming and their finances can be sustainable.

“Right now, it’s cheaper to buy food that’s produced chemically, but if you buy food that’s locally, organically grown, you’re supporting people in your community,” he says. “Look at places like New Zealand and you will see that the people there depend on their local food producers, and their support grows farmers’ businesses and farmers actually make a great living. And even though now it’s a little extra to buy organic, when the demand goes up and stays up, the prices for the consumer will eventually go down because the farmer is able to survive.”

DesRoches adds that, if the people of Hawaii empower local food producers to grow more food, we’ll have greater food security, too. “I know I won’t get rich farming, but I will be healthy and the people I feed will be too, and that makes me feed good.”

THE INNOVATOR

Josiah Hunt, 31, Josiah’s Papayas and Hawaii Biochar Products LLC

Eight years ago, when Josiah Hunt took on the challenge of growing organic papayas on a commercial scale, there was no template to follow: The papaya industry in Hawaii had been hit hard by the Papaya Ringspot Virus (PRV), and in the early ‘90s researchers at University of Hawai’i came up with a genetic modification that provided resistance to the disease. Most commercially grown local papayas now contain this genetic modification, since producing GMO-free papayas is difficult and rarely attempted. In order to grow organic papayas–GMO-free by definition–on his four-acre farm, Hunt struggled to develop effective methods on the fly, under constant risk of a very costly failure. When he at first succeeded at building a healthy soil with the help of earthworms, a posse of pigs arrived, demolishing a third of the plants while also eating the worms.

“Several barbecues and an electric fence later, we were back on track,” Hunt says with a laugh. Now, he says, he has established what maybe the first commercial-scale, organic papaya farm on the Big Island in decades.

The hardest part of organic farming, Hunt finds, is “there are so many pests that want to eat your plants, it takes a while to understand how to deal with them. This is knowledge that used to be passed from farmer to farmer, but much of that knowledge has been lost and has to be re-learned. Now, with all of our fancy lab equipment, and access to a ridiculous wealth of knowledge on the internet, it is a problem solver’s dream.”

Fertilizers and amendments are also a big hurdle for organic farmers in Hawaii, because there are very few dairy or chicken farms left to provide local, affordable fertilizers. “An interesting thing to note is that we have managed to do this using 90 percent local fertilizers and homemade compost tea blends,” Hunt says. The reason: He’s also founded a business– Hawaii Biochar Products LLC–making his own organic fertilizers and selling them to other local farmers. Hunt makes a form of fertilizer known as biochar, which he makes from burnt green waste, such as municipal landscaping cuttings, forestry residues, invasive strawberry guava and cane grass, which is 100 percent locally sourced.

THE EDUCATOR

Summer Puanani Maunakea, 25, Ka Papa Loi o Kanewai

As a graduate assistant at Ka Papa Loi ‘o Kanewai (the kalo farm at the University of Hawaii at Manoa), Summer Maunakea greets visiting school and community groups and teaches about kalo and other traditional Hawaiian farming practices. While she spends her days taking care of the loi, Maunakea’s ultimate goal is to provide children with opportunities to grow vegetables and fruits and prepare healthy foods they like to eat in school gardens and kitchens, and at home in bucket gardens.

She was inspired while living in Australia and New Zealand, where Maunakea observed that the communities she lived in recycled and composted almost everything, and food sovereignty was learned young. “In Australia I taught at a preschool,” the young native Hawaiian recalls. “Twice a week a horticulturalist would come to my class and we would plant veggies in raised beds outside the classroom. I learned with little 3- and 4-year-olds about growing food organically, and it was then that I realized the empowering importance of providing these experiences to children at a young age.”

Upon her return to Hawaii, as a student teacher at Nanaikapono Elementary in Nanakuli, Maunakea taught her first-grade students how to make bucket gardens. “There’s always a way to grow some of your own food with whatever space you have,” she says. “Each item you grow on your own or buy from someone who locally produced [means] less dependence on imports and fossil fuels.”

In addition, Maunakea oversees her own organic garden at home where she produces food for her family. “In my ‘ohana, there is a lot of struggle with heart disease and cancer,” she explains. “I wanted to share nutrient-rich foods and prepare them in a way that tasted good, in hopes that, as a family, we would choose healthier eating choices. For me, growing food for my family without chemical fertilizers is pono, the right thing to do.”

THE CREATIVES

Crystal Thornburg-Homcy, 29, & Dave Homcy, 41, Crave Greens

Professional surfer Crystal Thornburg-Homcy and her cinematographer husband, Dave Homcy started their raised-bed, diversified backyard farm on Oahu’s North Shore five years ago. They grow arugula, beets, okra, collards, butter lettuce, kale, radishes, green onion, bhut jolokia chili, swiss chard, taro, pineapple, mint, oregano, rosemary and turmeric. They also have mango, lime, lemon, grapefruit, tangerine, avocado, lychee, cacao and fig trees. Crave Greens provides produce for local restaurants Opal Thai, Cafe Haleiwa and Luibueno’s, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups and other organizations.

“We love being able to be part of the whole process of growing our own food. It has really made us appreciate fruits and vegetables more, by knowing the time, love and work it takes to grow food,” says Dave. Over the years, the couple has gathered information about how to grow organic produce through university classes, volunteering with various organizations, reading books and articles, trial and error, talking with friends and fellow farmers and online research.

“With the desire to bring fresh organic produce to the tables of friends and family, we hope to inspire others to start a small garden in whatever space you have to work with,” Crystal Homcy says. “We are not certified [organic] but we are organic. We make our own compost with garden and kitchen waste, and use worm vermicast for fertilizer and pesticide. We want to show our community that you don’t need a big space to grow your own food, or to give up your daily life, either.”

INVESTING IN EDIBLE CROPS

Neil J. Hannahs, director, Kamehameha Schools Land Assets Division Endowment Group

Hannahs is responsible for a portfolio of about 358,000 acres of agricultural and conservation lands in Hawaii. In the past, as a society with an industrial food model, Hannahs observes, we didn’t care where our food came from, so long as it was on the shelves. Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate (KSBE) aims to change that, both as an educator and a landlord.

“We acknowledge that there’s a very strong grassroots movement towards sustainability and food sovereignty, and we want to pitch in and contribute by putting more of our lands into local food production,” Hannahs says, speaking of an “institutional migration” towards a new Strategic Agricultural Plan investing in more diversified, edible crops. Current KSBE produce-growing tenants on Oahu include Otsuji, May’s Wonder Garden, Twin Bridge and Sumida farms. “Providing food to our educational programs is [also] a goal,” Hannahs says. “While KSBE sometimes buys from our farmers, in order to meet demand for our campuses, we need to resolve supply, consistency and meeting the food safety certification that’s required for school food services.” KSBE is committed to strategically working with farmers to meet local food needs, Hannahs says, adding that he’s feeling upbeat about our prospects for feeding ourselves, based on the student awareness and participation he sees throughout Hawaii. “It’s not just in KS. There are scores of school gardens integrating food into the curriculum, as well as Mao’s wonderful farm internships,” Hannahs says. In other words, we’re bound to be seeing more and more young farmers producing sustainable local food.

NEEDED: LOCAL FARMERS AND FOOD

According to the USDA’s most recent census data on Hawaii’s farmers, the majority of our principal farm operators are 55 to 65 years old. There are fewer than one hundred farmers under the age of 34, and only 300 farmers ages 34 to 44, out of 5,601 farmers, statewide. These numbers stand to grow, since 81 percent of Hawaii residents say demand for locally grown food greatly outweighs the supply, according to a recent Ulupono Initiative poll.

“What we want in Hawaii is to use the Ag land to grow local food for local consumption,” says Annie Suite, co-owner of the Haleiwa, Hawaii Kai and Ala Moana Farmers’ Markets, who says she sees demand for local produce increasing firsthand. “Our biggest use of Ag land in Hawaii is research corn, second is nurseries. A lot of the edible produce that we do grow, like coffee and macadamia nuts, is exported.”

Meanwhile, 85 percent of the food we consume is imported, which translates to $3.1 billion leaving the state; if we could replace just 10 percent of imports with local food, it would generate about $188 million, according to a 2008 report by UH CTAHR.

SMALL FARMER, BIG HURDLES

While Big Ag is busy growing items that are not for local consumption, Small Ag is stymied by the price of land, short-term leases that are not conducive to sustainable farming practices, the cost of labor and the inability to set a realistic price for products at market says Kelly Abbott of the Hawaii Organic Farm Association. For those who seek organic certification, the burden of record keeping and being able to prove that their methods comply with organic standards, as well as the high cost of certification (generally $500-$1,000 annually, depending on size, scope and complexity) is a hurdle as well.

The cost of producing food locally is more expensive than what consumers are used to paying, contends Abbott. “This is because local food is produced at the ‘real’ cost of food production,” Abbott explains. “It is not grown, handled, traded, shipped and sold at wholesale, nor is it subsidized.”

D.I.Y. Farming Tips

All the young farmers advise that local food production is something everyone can do in their yard, on their porch, in a bucket or on their windowsill–in any space available. Most people maintain a landscape anyway, why not have some food in it?

*Find a mentor at a farm or in a school and apprentice under him or her to start.

*Not everyone has the time to maintain a veggie garden, but trees and bushes don’t take much effort. Every yard in Hawaii should have a breadfruit, an avocado, a banana clump, a mango and/or a lychee tree.

*Keep your day job and start small. Pick a crop that is in high demand and can be harvested often.

*Developing markets is your top priority, so maybe start with one restaurant and sell a natural product until you can get an organic certification.