Growing and healing: Hilo nonprofit provides veterans with green space of their own

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One day just about two and a half years ago, a neighbor gave Emily and John Emmons a fern.


One day just about two and a half years ago, a neighbor gave Emily and John Emmons a fern.

John took it to the backyard, and, with help from his two daughters, then ages 4 and 6, gave the new plant a new home. They dug through the crumbly dirt, poured water on the soil and watched the fern grow.

He had recently received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, eight years after his return from two Army tours in Iraq as a counterterrorism expert, and one tour in Afghanistan as a Department of Defense contractor. The initial return had brought a traumatic brain injury diagnosis.

Digging in the dirt with his daughters was one way for John, 41, to work through the PTSD, as well as a way to connect with the family.

The fern in the backyard was soon joined by a lime tree. Next there were pineapples and papayas.

The girls had rabbits and guinea pigs living in a backyard hutch. They fertilized the plants with “guinea magic,” as Emily Emmons calls it.

The Emmons’ younger daughter, Lydia, saw her guinea pigs eating fresh vegetables and reasoned that she probably should, too.

Without realizing it, the family had built an oasis in their backyard.

“We want to share it with everyone else,” Emily Emmons, 34, said during a recent talk story session at Ho‘ola Farms, a 43-acre stretch of former cane land just outside Paukaa.

The farm was founded last year as a way to help the island’s veteran community access the same resources John Emmons had found in his backyard, allowing people “a place to reconnect with themselves and the earth,” as he put it.

Emily said she was also empowered to share the farm’s message in part by her work as a fellow for the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, which provides advocacy, resources and support for military caregivers.

In January, the farm became a nonprofit organization. As many younger vets come to the farm as older ones, Emily said. There are about 20 regulars, and about 50 in the Ho‘ola Farms community.

The overall goal is not just to open up the land to veterans, though. It’s to create a space for everybody, for family plots and community gardens, for permaculture and agricultural training.

“We wanted it to be inclusive of the whole community, because that’s how you heal veterans,” Emily said. “We’re not afraid to talk about challenging issues or PTSD. It’s a safe, peaceful place.”

The land Ho‘ola Farms leases is owned by Kamehameha Schools. The group is also partnering with organizations like the Kohala Center, the Rotary Club of South Hilo, and the Hawaii Food Basket. Earlier this month, the Food Basket picked up its first harvest of bananas from the farm to distribute from its warehouse.

A group from Polestar Gardens, the Pahoa-based retreat organization, came by for a session of building planter boxes. The Hawaii National Guard Child and Youth program brought a group of 20 keiki to do community service.

The land itself is in a healing process as well: the board of directors expects it will take another two or three years to clear the cane grass and prepare the soil so that it’s ready to grow crops.

They are committed to using natural methods to do so. A team of sheep and goats from Aina Pono Livestock and Land Maintenance cleared 8 acres of land. Cane grass becomes mulch. Guinea magic makes appearances.

The question, Emily said, is how to make the property “the best we can without intensive land mess-ups.”

Wednesday afternoons are for weedwhacking. The board hopes to get a field and bush mower soon to help the clearing process along.

“If you look at it as one big piece, it can get overwhelming,” said board president Josh Honsberger. Honsberger served 12 years as a Marine and is now, like John Emmons, medically retired. “We’re working on little pieces at a time.”

Some acreage is being sublet: the Malama Aina Foundation is working on 2 acres to grow medicinal herbs, for example.

From the main entrance to the farm, a blue sliver of Hilo Bay is visible in the distance. A plot where John Emmons is cultivating a type of pepper has several rows of short green plants, some with tiny peppers already showing.

The opportunities presented by the farm and the land are too many to count, he said.

“We’re healing every day that people show up, to know that it matters,” Emily said.


To learn more about Ho‘ola Farms, visit or email

Email Ivy Ashe at

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