In spring 2012, about a dozen educators and business-people – including land asset managers, agriculture professors from Windward Community College and the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, and extension agents from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) – planted the seeds for what has become one of the largest and most successful beginning farmer training programs in America.
With interest in locally produced food burgeoning, the time was ripe to offer a science-based, hands-on educational opportunity for adults interested in working the ʻāina as a career. From the outset, business planning was a key component of the curriculum.
That July, the group visited farmer training programs in Vermont and Massachusetts to envision how something similar could work in Hawaiʻi. GoFarm Hawaiʻi launched three months later with a free three-hour seminar at Windward Community College. Ninety people attended, proving there was interest in farming as a vocation in the islands.
“Our mission is simple: Enhance Hawaiʻi’s food security and economy by increasing the number of sustainable, local agricultural producers,” said Janel Yamamoto, GoFarm’s director. “Since we began eight years ago, we’ve graduated 381 students on Oʻahu, Maui, Kauaʻi and Hawaiʻi Island. In the past three years, 70 percent of our students have said they plan to become a commercial farmer or enter the workforce in jobs like farm management, agriculture education and food hub management after they complete our program.”
Yamamoto comes from a banking and finance background. Although she’s not “in the dirt” with GoFarm students, she teaches business classes; guides the development of their business plans and marketing strategies; and helps them network with lenders, grant writers, potential collaborators and employers, and other resources.
“They can grow beautiful lettuce and tomatoes, but if they have no idea how and where to sell them for a profit, it would be hard for them to make a living as a farmer,” Yamamoto said. “Understanding financial data and marketing is just as important as knowing how to prepare soil for planting.”
GoFarm has five training sites throughout the state: Hilo, 5 acres; Kauaʻi Community College, 8 acres; UH Maui College, 2 acres; Waialua, Oʻahu, 8 acres; and the Waimānalo Research Station of the UH CTAHR, 12 acres.
These sites offer a phased curriculum, which must be completed sequentially. Courses vary by site, ranging from the introductory AgCurious, where attendees learn about the importance of agriculture in Hawaiʻi and the need for local farmers, to AgBusiness, where they receive training in marketing, cost and pricing analysis, value-added product and agritourism development, and more. Among the topics covered in the other courses are soil nutrients, crop selection, irrigation, farm equipment, weed management, pest and disease control, and post-harvest storage.
Enrollment in AgCurious is free; tuitions range from $50 to $970 for the other sessions (partial scholarships are available, with priority given to military veterans and those who need financial assistance). The time commitment after AgCurious also varies – from four to five weekend days to up to three years when fledgling farmers are running their own businesses. As they progress through the phases, students are expected to apply what they’ve learned, including creating business plans; choosing, planting and growing produce on increasingly larger plots (up to an acre); keeping accurate financial records; and meeting sales goals.
In addition, GoFarm offers a 17-week program at Waiawa Correctional Facility’s on-site farm, which includes classroom and in-field instruction. Inmates grow, harvest and pack vegetables, which are used for their meals. They also learn about careers in agriculture that they can pursue when they’re released.
Not surprisingly, COVID-19 has greatly affected GoFarm’s operations. “Most of our classes and consultations are being done virtually,” Yamamoto said. “Strict social-distancing rules apply for work and instruction in the field. Individuals, organizations and government agencies that have supported us in the past are experiencing their own challenges, which is impacting our funding.”
Still, she remains optimistic, noting GoFarm will be introducing new initiatives within the year, including agritourism and aquaponics workshops and a video series that will show people how to grow some of their food.
“During the pandemic, we’ve seen a rise in inquiries about our program as well as home gardening,” Yamamoto said. “Some people are looking for new careers and others are avoiding shopping at crowded supermarkets right now; instead, they’re looking to connect directly with farmers or wondering what fruits and vegetables they can grow on their own.”
In her opinion, much can be done to buoy Hawaiʻi’s agriculture sector. For example, kamaʻāina can increase the amount of island-grown food they buy; more local products can be incorporated into school meals; and money can be earmarked for, among other things, educating and recruiting farmers, and raising awareness and interest in ag industry jobs.
“Hawaiʻi currently imports 85 to 90 percent of its food,” Yamamoto said. “Crises such as the pandemic can disrupt our food supply and increase food insecurity. It’s crucial that we address our local food issues. Everyone can play a role in supporting agriculture to move the state forward.”
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi has written 12 books and countless newspaper, magazine and website articles about Hawaiʻi’s history, culture, food and lifestyle.
GoFarm Hawaiʻi is supported entirely by grants and donations. To make a tax-deductible contribution online, go to: www.uhfoundation.org/SupportGoFarmHawaii
If you prefer to mail a check, call: (808) 956-3530 or email: email@example.com or for instructions.
To learn more about GoFarm Hawaiʻi, visit their website at gofarmhawaii.org