Since its inception in 2012, GoFarm Hawaii has offered a nontraditional pathway to a career in agriculture.
GoFarm Hawaii is a statewide program working to enhance Hawaii’s food security and economy by increasing the number of sustainable ag producers.
The beginning farmer training program allows people of all ages to learn about the various aspects of farming to become a commercial farmer.
GoFarm Hawaii began in 2003 as a program available to working farmers via the University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, or CTAHR.
The program originally was meant to support farmers by providing business and technical assistance. In 2012, leadership recognized a need to expand the program to encompass beginning farmer training to teach people how to farm.
“We started getting inquiries from people interested in transitioning to farming and starting their own commercial businesses,” said Janel Yamamoto, director of GoFarm Hawaii. “At the university, there was more talk about the research and science behind agriculture. Many people still needed a farming-first education.”
GoFarm Hawaii introduced its first cohort on Oahu in 2012 and has since grown to have five beginning farmer sites, with agriculture technician training on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii Island.
The intent of the GoFarm Hawaii program is to help people develop the skills to start a farm operation or work within the agricultural industry at a higher level.
“In order for us to increase local food supply and better position us for food security, we really need more food producers,” Yamamoto said. “We’re hoping to impact our food system by teaching all people agricultural business and production skills.”
GoFarm Hawaii has a wide reach, with participants coming directly from college as well as adults looking to start new businesses or wanting to work after retirement.
“We have a huge demographic of people who apply to this program, with the average age being around 40 years old,” Yamamoto said. “It is a life-consuming process, so you have to be dedicated and make sure your family members are all in for the ride.”
In the last three years, 46% of GoFarm students have started a business pertaining to agriculture, 19% have taken jobs in agriculture, and 19% have plans to start a farm in the future.
The Hawaii Island program began in 2017 and was first located on a plot of land in Honokaa. In 2020, the program moved to acreage just north of Hilo to give students more opportunities to get their hands dirty and raise their own crops.
“We have high hopes for Hawaii Island since more people have access to more land here,” Yamamoto said. “We believe that there is a future for people to build sustainability and to have more commercial farms, because the land is so accessible.”
The intensive program is divided into four phases. Participants must progress sequentially and complete each phase before applying for the next.
The first phase is called “AgCurious,” which is free and open to anyone interested in learning about the program. After the two- to three-hour class, participants will receive instructions on how to apply to “AgXposure.”
“AgXposure” requires an application and a $50 fee. The phase, which is four to five weekend days, will allow students to complete the theory and practical coursework related to the fundamentals of crop farming.
Participants in this phase also have the opportunity to visit commercial farms and learn what life could be like if an agricultural career is pursued.
After “AgXposure,” participants are invited to apply for the “AgXcel” phase of the program.
“AgXcel” is a more competitive phase and costs $500. The phase includes six months of classes, which are held on one weeknight and one weekend day each week.
The third phase gives participants a chance to practice on-farm techniques related to small-scale commercial production and apply lessons learned in class to establish, plant and maintain a 5,000-square-foot plot.
Participants must grow produce for a community-based supported agriculture program, or CSA, and meet a sales goal to successfully complete this phase.
Those who complete the phase will be invited to apply to the “AgIncubator” phase.
This phase allows participants to start their own independent business growing crops on one-quarter acre of land provided by the program for up to three years.
Participants must meet specific requirements and follow site rules to continue in the phase, but will have access to shared equipment, infrastructure and continued coaching.
Each phase introduces students to a different aspect of commercial farming, such as business planning, marketing and product development, while allowing them to actively farm.
Partnership with Ho‘ola Farms
Along with a move to the new location in 2020, GoFarm Hawaii decided to partner with Ho‘ola Farms, which provides agricultural training, hands-on education opportunities and therapy options for veterans and their families.
“We have always had veteran participants, but we had a situation on Oahu involving a veteran in our program a couple years back and figured that we needed a way to serve them better,” Yamamoto said. “We realized that working with Ho‘ola Farms would be beneficial since they offer workshops for veterans specifically.”
In light of the partnership, GoFarm Hawaii decided to open its fourth Hawaii Island cohort to only military veterans last year.
The partnership, which is unique to Hawaii County, worked well, with four veterans graduating from the program last year. The cohorts are now open to anyone, but veterans are still encouraged to apply.
Learning to grow
Maricar Souza was one of the four veterans to graduate from the 7-month-long program and is now in the “AgIncubator” phase.
Souza is currently growing food on Ho‘ola Farms’ demonstration farm and is able to use resources from GoFarm Hawaii as a way to start a business involving her homemade food products, which includes a popular pesto.
“I have learned so much about how fresh and so tasty vegetables can be when you growing them organically from our aina,” Souza said. “When I grew basil for the first time, the aroma was incredible, and I made the most amazing pesto I’ve ever made out of it.”
Souza has always enjoyed cooking and served as a cook through most of her 26 years in the U.S. Army and Army Reserves.
Souza spent six years in active duty for the Army, with two yearlong combat tours in Iraq in 2003 and Kuwait in 2006. She then joined the U.S. Army Reserves for 20 years and retired in 2016.
“I think this program is really great for anyone, but especially veterans. I’ve really benefited from it in so many ways,” Souza said. “Physically, farming has helped me lose weight and allowed me to work with my hands more. I’m also getting so much satisfaction when I finally grow something so tasty from a seed.”
Souza has spent her time on the farm learning what materials help produce the most growth from produce and has enjoyed seeing the fruit of her labor.
While she joined the program to improve her recipes and to learn how to grow fresh ingredients, Souza is also excited to share her newfound education with her family, friends and other veterans.
“Now that I’ve been graduated, I’m always sharing tips with my mom and other family when they grow food in their yards,” Souza said. “I also tell the veterans how the program has encouraged me and helped me find a life outside of work.”
Souza hopes to build her business and make a living off of growing produce and selling food products.
“I love doing this, and if I can retire in three to five years and make this my full-time job, that would be great,” Souza said. “Now, I’m going to focus on getting my hands dirty with Ho‘ola Farms and keep growing as much as I can.”
Although Souza has always had the desire to learn how to farm, she was inspired to take the leap when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the island.
“When COVID hit, I just thought — what if the barge doesn’t come? What are we going to do?” Souza said. “It made me want to start this process, because I never want to have to ask that during an emergency. For our island, it’s important for all of us to know how to grow things and use the aina to give back to ourselves.”
Souza was worried that the island could not sustain itself without help from the mainland, which is part of the reason Ho‘ola Farms founder and director Emily Emmons decided to partner with GoFarm Hawaii.
“During this pandemic, there has been a lot of talk about sustainability and how being on an island makes us more susceptible to challenges like food insecurity,” Emmons said. “People are looking to us, to our island, to come up with sustainability efforts, and that’s exactly what this program is doing right in front of us.”
After attending the Sustainability Summit hosted by the county this year, Emmons realized how many issues could be answered by teaching people the importance of knowing where food comes from.
“The sustainability conference really showed me that everything comes back to the aina,” Emmons said “It’s so important to know where our food comes from. And to know that veterans are growing your food in your back yard is even more special.”
Scholarships for the GoFarm Hawaii program are available to veterans at each beginning farm location through Ho‘ola Farms.
Hawaii Island’s fifth cohort is currently in session and will run through Sept. 7.
More information on GoFarm Hawaii and Ho‘ola Farms can be found at https://gofarmhawaii.org/ and https://www.hoolafarms.org/.
Email Kelsey Walling at email@example.com