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Farmers adjust from growing for eateries to public

Groups like HFUU are helping create distribution pipeline

Farmers plant lettuce, onions and choy early Monday morning at Kupa’a Farms in Kula. The farm has turned to putting together produce boxes to survive after its restaurant demand dried up with closures. KUPAA FARMS photo

With recent restaurant and business closures and social distancing orders, harvesting and distributing fresh produce has become more challenging for farmers and for people looking to purchase locally grown food.

The Hawaii Farmers Union United, local farmers and stores are working to maintain that pipeline from the fields to the dinner table.

To address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the agricultural industry, the HFUU has launched a 12- to 24-month plan to support farming communities by quickly doubling and stabilizing local food production throughout the state.

“A lot of our business is local, but a lot of it is hotel and restaurants too, and so having a seamless way to pivot away from that is what we’re hoping to create here with this task force,” said Vincent Mina, president and founding member of the HFUU and Maui County representative on the state Board of Agriculture. “There’s a great demand, and we’re thankful that people are taking care of themselves and are wanting to keep their immune systems strong by eating fresh produce, and our farmers do a great job in producing that.”

The plan involves aggregating existing food across the state into food hubs and commercial kitchens, where the produce will be sorted into community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes of fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs.

Kahului resident Rocky Marquez shops at the farmers market table run by Jaime and Peregrina Barayuga last week at Queen Ka‘ahumanu Center. The farmers market there is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The Maui News / LILA FUJIMOTO photo

Distribution spots on Maui include Upcountry, Central Maui, Lahaina and Kihei, as well as Hana, Mina said Monday. More specifics on hub locations still are being worked out.

“The farmer will only need to deliver it to that particular hub, then the farmer’s done,” he said. “What we’re looking to do is having refrigerated vans set up where people can come and pick up their food at these places.”

To implement the plan, the task force is seeking farmers who want to increase production and sell to food hubs.

Businesses that have commercial refrigeration for inventory also are needed, as well as restaurants and other food entrepreneurs who want to utilize a ghost kitchen model to prepare family-style meals for pickup or for door-to-door delivery. A ghost kitchen is a shared space for restaurants with no traditional storefronts or dining room, according to The Food Corridor website.

Food delivery companies are needed to move fresh produce boxes; other companies are needed to prepare meals for homes and to man pick-up spots. The task force also is seeking to collaborate with food banks, schools and health care providers.

“I think one of the concerns I have is asking the farmers to ramp up production, so we want to make sure the support is there for them to do so,” Mina said. “Cash flow is an issue with our farmers and then as far as being able to ramp up, farmers have their own rhythm.

“We basically create our own rhythm so that we cannot have spoilage, waste of food, produce as much as the market can demand and yet, at the same time, have it to where the market will dictate what to grow and how much to grow.”

Since 1993, Mina and his wife have co-owned the farm Kahanu Aina Greens LLC, which produces microgreens every day. They also farm other longer growing crops.

Farming requires constant attention, he said, which is why the task force aims to market whatever crops farmers and ranchers already are growing and raising.

“There’s some amazing demand right now on island and throughout the state for hubs that are set up already,” he said. “They are getting an unprecedented amount of people signing up to get ahold of local produce, so that’s heartening.”

Most are family farms

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Hawaii is home to about 7,000 farms, with 89 percent of farms considered small operations by acreage. About 78 percent of total farms are family-run.

“The data also shows that these farmers, both locally and nationally, are making less than $10,000 in gross sales,” said Vincent Kimura, an HFUU board member from Oahu. “Every dollar sold at grocery stores, only 9 cents of that dollar goes back to that farmer. So clearly the profits are not in farming.

“And that’s where and why we’re having an issue in rural America because farmers, they go bankrupt. Their debts are the highest ever.”

Kimura, who also is helping spearhead the initiative, said that the HFUU is the largest statewide membership of family farming and livestock operations in Hawaii, comprising about 1,400 members across 13 regional chapters.

The task force was created to “ensure that small farmers and businesses continue to thrive” through the COVID-19 pandemic and amid a global recession, he said.

He noted that the market is slowly “adjusting itself.” The program’s success lies with focusing on ramping up food production, rather than marketing the food, which requires community support.

“It’s really heartening to see that there’s a respect and attention that’s being paid here locally to our farmers,” Mina said. “We’re all looking into the best interest of our family farmers out here in Hawaii to be able to do business, and at the same time is ecological and responsible to be able to continue to produce healthy food for the community.”

Local farms adapt

On Maui, local farms and businesses still operating under social distancing standards or offering CSA produce boxes include Kumu Farms LLC, Haleakala Supah Shots, Lopes Farms LLC and Island Fresh Delivery, among others.

Kupa’a Farms in Kula has been doing CSA shares for over 12 years and recently transitioned away from some of its restaurant business and farmers markets due to the pandemic. They “are pretty much selling everything that needs to be harvested,” co-operator Janet Simpson said Monday night.

CSA shares are currently full, but names are being recorded for a waitlist.

“The restaurant sales dried up in only a few days, so we let people know through social media (@kupaafarms) that we had a CSA program,” said husband Gerry Ross. “There has been a modest downturn in income without the restaurants, but we are still financially viable.”

CSA boxes of seasonal fruits and vegetables are available for $35. Transactions are made with little to no contact; people pay mostly through Venmo or through delivery or pickup while they stay in their cars.

Simpson added that the farm has extra kimchi and lilikoi jam for sale and will have an abundance of kalo.

“I think many of the diverse farms have been able to adjust their business model quickly. I think it is happening here as well as throughout the Mainland,” Ross said. “I think many farmers feel a renewed sense of pride and purpose to be there for the community during these times.”

Ryan Earehart said his Oko’a Farms still is selling fresh, organic produce from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m Tuesdays and Fridays at the Queen Ka’ahumanu Center Farmers Market, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays at Waipuna Chapel in Kula, and from 7 to 11 a.m. Saturdays at the Upcountry Farmers Market in Makawao.

Operations have transitioned into a “no customers” contact farmers market. People point to what they want and a designated vendor handles all of the transactions while wearing protective gear.

“We have been working around the clock to try and make up for all the losses from hotels and restaurant closures,” Earehart said. “We are doing four markets per week still, but it’s not like it was.”

O’o Farm in Kula currently is closed and usually supplies to restaurants, but farmers have agreed to work together on volunteer hours to sell harvest boxes to the community instead, spokeswoman Monica Lodato said Tuesday.

Each CSA style box will contain about 8 to 12 pounds of produce for $40, including leafy greens, root vegetables, herbs and spices and fruits, or whatever is currently growing. Harvest boxes may be ordered online and picked up at 651 Waipoli Road in Kula or from 505 Front Street in Lahaina.

The website is oofarm.com.

Helping the farmers

GoFarm Hawaii is another program that is looking to work with farmers who have produce to sell. The program aims to build a resource and connection for people to access fresh food and keep businesses alive during the pandemic.

It’s a collaborative effort involving the University of Hawaii-Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, Windward Community College on Oahu and UH’s Agribusiness Incubator Program.

According to a news release, the program includes farmer training, a list of resources for farmers, as well as a Find Your Farmer tool — a list of farmers who still are offering access to produce through pickup and drop-off operations.

There are multiple farmers and businesses from Maui listed in the system; they are offering a variety of fruits, vegetables, poultry and meats through pickup or delivery. Recommendations of services that can aid farmers during the COVID-19 pandemic also are being sought, so that they can be added to the website as a resource.

There are five GoFarm Hawaii program sites across Oahu, Kauai, Maui and Hawaii island, making it one of the largest beginning-farmer training programs in the nation, the news release said.

For more information, visit gofarmhawaii.org. GoFarm Hawaii also has a Facebook and Instagram account where farmers can post and promote their produce and themselves.

Foodland supermarket has reached out to local farmers whose business may have been impacted by the closure of restaurants and farmers markets to purchase more of their products for its stores.

“We just need to organize around what’s possible, and I think we’ll be OK in order to supply our state with the food needs that’s required,” Mina said. “It really draws to the fact about how powerful our food systems are, and they just need to have that organizational component, and to let the farmers know there’s an outlet for their food and just to continue to stay focused on growing.”

For more information about the Hawaii Farmers Union United, visit hfuuhi.org. For questions about joining the task force and how to collaborate, email food@hfuuhi.org.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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