Program provides guidance for future farmers

Vicki Shortell, who worked as an applications systems specialist in the former Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.’s information technology department, plans to farm 3.5 acres at her home in Haiku with what she learned from the Hawaii Farmers Union United Farm Apprentice Mentorship Program. Shortell received a certificate of professional development from the University of Hawaii Maui College, Office of Continuing Education and Training on Thursday. Hawaii Farmers Union United Farm Apprentice Mentorship Program photo

After losing her job with Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., Vicki Shortell plans to establish a farming and food business to sell her turmeric powder, dried bananas and different types of teas.

The former information technology department staffer is on her way to turning her weekend passion on her 3.5 acres in Haiku into a full-time operation. This is possible with help from the Hawaii Farmers Union United Farm Apprentice Mentoring Program at the University of Hawaii Maui College.

On Thursday, the program graduated its second cohort of students — Shortell and 14 others. The apprentices received a certificate of professional development from UH-Maui College’s Office of Continuing Education and Training. The initial program began in 2015.

As the average age of farmers hovers around 60 years old, Hawaii Farmers Union United hopes to “grow a new generation” with its Farm Apprentice Mentorship program, said Phyllis Robinson, the program director.

Robinson worked with a team of expert farm mentors from across the state to create a training program that distinguishes itself for its focus on growing food in healthy microbe-rich soil, according to an announcement. This involved teaching students how to make “soil amendments” to improve the soil, along with Korean natural farming techniques.

The most recent program began last fall, and it allowed students to explore the various aspects of farming on Maui, including land features, water resources, irrigation needs, soil composition and fertility management, propagation, weed and pest management practices, and the business of farming. The classroom experiences were offered through UH-Maui College’s Sustainable Living Institute of Maui. Students also worked with 10 experienced farm mentors to turn classroom learning into hands-on work.

Robinson said that the program, which is free of cost to the students, is sponsored by the county Office of Economic Development, Kamehameha Schools, Lahaina Sunrise Rotary Club and Atherton Family Foundation, among others.

The new generation of farmers aims to protect the environment by, among other things, developing healthy soil with amendments and making compost with what’s available in the fields, Robinson said.

Soil amendments can be made by using brown rice vinegar with plant material or with eggshells in a special mixture, she explained.

Farmers’ overhead costs could be reduced by developing natural methods to improve soil, Robinson said.

She added that, with the cohort working together and the apprentices working with farm mentors, everyone can share resources, including machinery and tools as well as farming and business knowledge. Lower costs would help Hawaii farmers complete against Mainland growers.

Robinson said that the 10 graduates will move on to the program’s second phase that involves the business of farming. The five other graduates either already have their own businesses or wanted to take a break from the rigorous curriculum, which kept students learning on the weekends and sometimes two nights a week.

Shortell, who is 60 years old, said that one of her co-workers joked with others at HC&S that she was too young to retire but too old to be rehired, so she looked to the program after learning about it at a job fair for displaced HC&S workers.

“I’ve been having the time of my life,” Shortell said of the program.

She said she has already been using what she’s learned in her backyard farm. Now, she’s not spending a lot of money on her soil additives and thinks that the cacao plants growing in her nearby gulch are flourishing because of the natural additives she learned to make in class.

And, Shortell has been making turmeric powder for friends and family. The same goes for the dried apple bananas from her trees. She also makes mamaki tea.

If Shortell needed some land for her farming, her former employer’s parent company may be able to help with some of its 36,000 acres of former sugar lands.

Alexander & Baldwin, parent company of the now-defunct HC&S, has a diversified agriculture plan that includes an area for small farmers, company spokesperson Darren Pai said.

A&B is working closely with the county on a new agricultural park suitable for small farms, Pai said. The park will be similar to the one operated by the county in Kula.

Apprentice Sara Mason, 32, of Kula is looking to improve her family farm, which now turns out lychees, avocados and mangoes that are sold at Mana Foods and at a Kula farmers market.

She said the farm was not making any money when her family got involved with it years ago, and she wants to make it more sustainable and establish a business plan.

Mason is moving on to the program’s second phase to see what type of business would be most suitable for the farm and her family.

She is hoping to grow vegetables and fruit trees.

“There is so much this program offers and lots of resources, through the mentors and through the community,” Mason said.

She learned a lot and what to do about soil health and identifying pests and disease.

Mason said she understands the hard work that goes into farming because her father was a winemaker in Northern California, and she grew up around vineyards.

When she moved onto the Kula property five years ago, she wasn’t thinking about farming but, after being on the land and working with it, farming resonated with her.

She said she would like to provide the community with food and healthy products “because there is such a gap.”

While 90 percent of Hawaii’s food is imported, she said she wants to do her part in “fulfilling our needs.”

A new cohort will be selected for another apprenticeship program later this year, Robinson said.

For more information, send email to Robinson at pfierrorob@aol.com.

To learn more about Hawaii Farmers Union United, go to hfuuhi.org.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.