Since its inception in 2012, GoFarm Hawaii has offered an unusual path to a career in agriculture.
GoFarm Hawaii is a nationwide program to improve Hawaii’s food security and economy by increasing the number of sustainable agricultural producers.
The beginner education program allows people of all ages to learn about the various aspects of farming in order to become a commercial farmer.
GoFarm Hawaii began in 2003 as a program available to working farmers through the University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR).
The program was originally intended to provide farmers with business and technical assistance. In 2012, management recognized the need to expand the program to include farmer training to teach people how to farm.
“We received inquiries from people interested in moving into agriculture 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 agricultural training. “
GoFarm Hawaii launched its first cohort on Oahu in 2012 and has since grown to five beginner agricultural technician sites on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Island of Hawaii.
The intent of the GoFarm Hawaii program is to help people develop the skills to start a farm or work at a higher level in the agribusiness.
“In order to increase the local food supply and better position ourselves for food security, we really need more food producers,” said Yamamoto. “We hope to influence our food system by teaching all people farming and production skills.”
GoFarm Hawaii has a wide reach, with attendees straight out of college as well as adults looking to start a new business or work after retirement.
“We have a large demographics of people applying for this program, with an average age of around 40,” said Yamamoto. “It’s a life-consuming process so you need to be committed and make sure your family members are all involved.”
In the past three years, 46% of GoFarm students have started a farming business, 19% have taken a job in agriculture, and 19% plan to start a farm in the future.
The Island of Hawaii program began in 2017 and was initially settled on property in Honokaa. In 2020, the program moved to acreage north of Hilo to give students more opportunities to get their hands dirty and grow their own crops.
“We have high hopes for the Island of Hawaii as more people have access to more land here,” said Yamamoto. “We believe there is a future for people to build sustainability and have more commercial farms because the land is so accessible.”
The intensive program is divided into four phases. Participants must progress in turn and complete each phase before applying for the next.
The first phase is called “AgCurious”, which is free and open to anyone who wants to learn more about the program. After the two to three hour course, the participants will receive instructions on how to apply to “AgXposure”.
AgXposure requires an application and a fee of $ 50. In this phase, which comprises four to five weekend days, the students can complete the theoretical and practical courses on the fundamentals of crop production.
Participants in this phase also have the opportunity to visit commercial farms and learn what life could be like when pursuing a career in agriculture.
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 comprises six months of classes that take place on one weekday and one weekend day per week.
The third phase gives participants the opportunity to practice on-farm techniques related to small-scale commercial production and apply the lessons learned in class to build, plant, and maintain a 5,000 square foot property.
Participants must grow produce for a community-based assisted agriculture program (CSA) and meet a sales goal in order to successfully complete this phase.
The graduates of the phase are invited to apply for the “AgIncubator” phase.
During this phase, participants can set up their own independent business for up to three years to grow on a quarter acre of land provided by the program.
Participants must meet certain requirements and follow site rules to continue on the stage, but have access to shared equipment, infrastructure, and ongoing 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 the move to the new location in 2020, GoFarm Hawaii decided to partner with Ho’ola Farms to provide agricultural training, hands-on education and therapy opportunities for veterans and their families.
“We have always had experienced participants, but we had a situation on Oahu a few years ago where a veteran was involved in our program and we thought we needed a way to better serve them,” said Yamamoto. “We realized that working with Ho’ola Farms would be beneficial as they offer workshops specifically for veterans.”
Given the partnership, GoFarm Hawaii decided last year to open its fourth cohort on the Island of Hawaii to military veterans only.
The partnership, unique only in Hawaii County, worked well with four veterans joining the program last year. The cohorts are now open to anyone, but veterans are still encouraged to apply.
Learn to grow
Maricar Souza was one of four veterans who completed the 7-month program and is now in the “AgIncubator” phase.
Souza is currently growing groceries on the Ho’ola Farms demonstration farm and can use GoFarm Hawaii resources to start a business in their homemade groceries, which includes a popular pesto.
“I’ve learned so much about how fresh and delicious vegetables can be when grown organically from our aina,” said Souza. “When I first grew basil the aroma was amazing and I made the most amazing pesto out of it that I have ever made.”
Souza has always enjoyed cooking and spent most of her 26 years in the US Army and Army Reserves as a cook.
Souza spent six years in active service with the Army, including two year-long combat missions in Iraq in 2003 and Kuwait in 2006. She then joined the US Army Reserve for 20 years and retired in 2016.
“I think this program is really great for everyone, but especially for veterans. I really benefited from it in a lot of ways, ”said Souza. “Physically, farming has helped me lose weight and work more with my hands. I am also very satisfied when I finally grow something so delicious from a seed. “
Souza spent her time on the farm learning what materials help get the most growth out of products and enjoyed seeing the fruits of their labor.
While she participated in the program to improve her recipes and learn how to grow fresh ingredients, Souza also looks forward to sharing her newfound education with her family, friends and other veterans.
“After graduation, I always give advice to my mom and other families about growing food in their gardens,” 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 from growing produce and selling food.
“I love doing that and if I can retire in three to five years and make this my full-time job it would be great,” said Souza. “Now I’m going to focus on getting my hands dirty with Ho’ola Farms and growing as much as possible.”
Although Souza has always had a desire to learn agriculture, she was inspired to take the plunge when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the island.
“When COVID arrived, I just thought – what if the barge doesn’t come? What are we going to do? “Said Souza.” It made me start this process because I never have to ask that in an emergency. For our island it is important for all of us to know how to grow things and the aina uses to give something back to ourselves. “
Souza was concerned that the island could not feed itself without the help of the mainland, which is one of the reasons Ho’ola Farms founder and director Emily Emmons chose to partner with GoFarm Hawaii.
“There has been a lot of talk during this pandemic about sustainability and how staying on an island makes us more vulnerable to challenges like food insecurity,” Emmons said. “People look to us, to our island, to develop sustainability efforts, and that’s exactly what this program is doing right before our eyes.”
After attending this year’s county sustainability summit, Emmons realized how many questions could be answered by teaching people the importance of knowing where food is coming from.
“The sustainability conference really showed me that everything comes back to the Aina,” says Emmons. “It’s so important to know where our food comes from. And knowing that veterans grow your food in your backyard is even more special. “
GoFarm Hawaii Program Scholarships are available to veterans at each beginning farm location through Ho’ola Farms.
The fifth cohort from the Island of Hawaii is currently in session and will run through September 7th.
More information about GoFarm Hawaii and Ho’ola Farms can be found at https://gofarmhawaii.org/ and https://www.hoolafarms.org/.
Email Kelsey Walling at [email protected]