Keeping the supply chain running: Farmers need support to weather virus

  • Farm workers clear land by hand in Waimea. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo)

  • Farmers are creating new ways to get their produce to market amidst the Coronavirus.. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo)

  • Lettuce grows at a Lalamilo Farm in Waimea. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo)

  • Farmers are finding new ways to get their produce to market amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo)

With hotels and restaurants closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, farmers who need to get their produce to market are relying on the community to keep the supply chain running.

Honaunau Market, a wholesaler that provides produce to restaurants, grocery stores and others on the Big Island, has already lost half of those customers and thus had no choice but to reduce its purchases from farmers.

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“We had to cut our farmers in half,” said Carol Kirihara, owner of Honaunau Market, which has been in operation since the 1980s.

Kirihara’s main customers now are grocery stores, and shopping at those venues by purchasing locally grown produce will support local farmers on the Big Island, she said.

Maureen Datta, owner of the Kealakekua-based Adaptations, which serves wholesale and community supported agriculture customers, seconded that.

“KTA is buying more from local farmers,” said Datta.

Adaptations is a “food hub,” which according to the USDA’s Regional Food Hub Resource Guide, is a “business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of course-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand.”

In addition to their wholesale customers, Adaptations provides community supported agriculture — an alternative food distribution system.

Under the CSA model, members pay in advance for the food they will receive, reflecting the risk that farmers take to plant, tend, and harvest crops. The advance payments helps the farmers tremendously by stabilizing their financial situation and allowing them to concentrate on growing their crops instead of on marketing.

Each week, Adaptations handles produce from 50 to 70 farms, depending on what is in season, said Datta. Over the course of the year, about 170 small family farms take part.

“We have really solid relationships with these growers and want to see them not just survive but thrive and get the recognition they deserve for feeding the local population,” said Datta.

Currently, about 200 families are signed up for Adaptations CSA, which has options ranging from $22 to $35 boxes of produce.

Ipo Cain of Honaunau has been a CSA member with Adaptations for over eight years.

“They are an amazing resource in our community, supporting both the local agricultural community and families who want to eat and support local farms. They bring these two communities together directly which benefits everyone,” she said.

Cain said this service is essential right now because it continues to support healthy eating for families, allowing them stay home longer between food shopping, and creates an additional venue of survival for many small farms who’s other vendors can’t currently purchase from them.

The Food Basket, Hawaii Island’s lone food bank, also its own CSA program called “Da Box.” For $16 per week, participants receive a box of fresh local produce, and the program is open to anyone in the community.

Marshall Akamu, West and North Hawaii operations manager, said it is a great way to support our local farmers.

“You get five to six different types of produce, depending on what the farmers have and what’s in season,” said Akamu. “We get the produce directly from the farmers, and the cost of the program goes straight back into the program.”

Anyone who is interested can sign up on their website at hawaiifoodbasket.org/da-box.

Big Island Farm Direct also recently completed its CSA website at www.bigislandfarmdirect.com and began drive-up deliveries last weekend at Keauhou-Kahalu’u Heritage Corridor parking lot area below the Keauhou Shopping Center.

Zac Hosler, of Ha Farms, started the CSA after losing his resort customers, to which he provided about 1,000 pounds of produce per week.

“It’s either that or go out of business,” he said.

He currently has a handful of farms supporting his CSA, but hopes to expand that number.

“We as farmers here need to work together,” Hosler added.

As smaller farms move to CSAs, the Hawaii Farmers Union United (HFUU) is working to expand the program statewide.

HFUU, which is affiliated with the National Farmers Union and is recognized and provides a voice for farmers in Hawaii, has launched a task force to quickly organize local food production, aggregate existing food hubs and collaborate with certified commercial kitchens, door-to-door distributors and other stakeholders to immediately address the economic impact of food sustainability from the global crisis.

“What the Farmers Union is going to do is leverage our statewide organization to be able to support existing food hubs instantly, create new food hubs and connect the supply,” said Datta, who is the Kona chapter president.

Datta said the union has been working with a food hub in Waianae, Oahu, supplying them with Big Island Produce and sharing information and ideas. That hub went from 12 members to 200 in less than two weeks.

HFUU is currently developing a 12- to 24- month plan for supporting agricultural communities and doubling local food production. To do so, it would aggregate food across islands into food hubs and commercial kitchens, where it will be sorted into CSA boxes of fresh vegetables, fruit, and immune-boosting herbs.

Partnering with food entrepreneurs such as chefs, caterers, and other prepared foods businesses, the program would also prepare family-style dishes and work with current distribution channels, including door-to-door delivery businesses.

Data from the recent Food Hub Pilot Program conducted by Saleh Azizi of the University of Hawaii estimates the current impact from the state’s eight existing food hubs statewide have successfully served all public schools, seven hospitals, and over 200 restaurants. All that came via 660 small-medium farms resulting in $2.7 million in annual revenue.

Hawaii is home to 7,328 farms, of which more than 4,200 are on Hawaii Island, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture. Nearly 90% (6,561) of the farms are under 50 acres and 66% (4,868) are under 9 acres with 78% (5,826) farms being family run.

“The model we are striving for is to shore up the food hubs that exist, create new food hubs where they are needed and connect them all through a statewide coordinator managed through the Farmers Union (HFUU),” said Datta.

Vincent Mina, HFUU president, added “we exhibit the essential effectiveness of our local food systems here in Hawaii, as a global example of how agricultural communities collaborate and cooperate with one another along with partnering with leaders nationally.”

Though not yet available in Hawaii, Datta said she was excited to hear about a pilot program on the mainland allowing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients to pay online using an EBT card for CSA orders. Currently in Hawaii, EBT cards can be used at farmers markets, but not for online CSA purchases. Adaptations Fresh Feast CSA does accept payment with SNAP/EBT, with the restriction being that payment must be made in person every two weeks at the Kealakekua Food Hub.

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However, SNAP recipients can still help local farmers while stretching their shopping dollars through The Food Basket’s “Da Bux” program where participants receive 50% off qualifying locally grown fruits and vegetables, up to $20 per day, at KTA Super Stores. SNAP can also be used for The Food Basket’s “Da Box,” for which recipients only pay $8.

“Now, more than ever before, we need to support farmers and ranchers of Hawaii Island,” South Kona Councilwoman Maile David said about supporting local farmers. “Agriculture is the key to Hawaii Island’s survival of COVID-19 in providing food for our families in this time of need, and when we recover, moving us forward into an economic future of diversified agriculture and cultural self sufficiency.”

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