Wednesday, October 31, 2012

New farmers reap rewards as ag partnership bears fruit

By Andrew Gomes

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Oct 27, 2012


Former accountant Souk Hoang of PIT Farms displays carrots and kale — some of the first crops harvested at a unique agricultural park in Kunia.

Souk Hoang’s hands are hard and stained red from dirt, and he works long hours in the hot sun. But praise from customers at the Kapiolani Community College farmers market tells him he made the right move quitting an accounting job in 2005 to become a farmer — making a leap from bean counter to bean grower.
Hoang was among 18 small-farm owners honored Friday for their first harvest in a unique agricultural park on 184 acres in Kunia owned by the Army and a private developer.
The Kunia Ag Park was organized last year by the nonprofit Hawaii Agricultural Foundation, an offshoot of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation.
Today the land is producing tomatoes, peanuts, eggplant, kale, papaya, long beans, carrots, taro and other fruits and vegetables. Many more are growing, including avocado, pineapple, dragon fruit, breadfruit, lemon, lettuce, sapote, longan, yam, banana, tangerine, parsley, mango, lilikoi and sugar cane.
“It’s exciting,” said Dean Oki­moto, a Wai­ma­nalo farmer and Hawaii Agricultural Foundation board member. “We are proud to be growing new farmers.”

Okimoto led a ceremony Friday attended by Gov. Neil Abercrombie, U.S. Sen. Daniel Ino­uye and other local government officials in a tractor garage on the site once owned by Campbell Estate.
Campbell sold 2,400 acres of fallow, former pineapple and sugar cane fields in 2008 for $32 million to Island Palm Communities, a partnership between the Army and developer Lend Lease. The partnership rented most of the land to seed corn producer Monsanto in 2009 and intended to build homes for soldiers on part of the property near Schofield Barracks.

As part of the Monsanto lease, Island Palm required that about 10 percent of the land be made available to local farmers, and the Hawaii Agricultural Foundation found 18 tenants for all 184 acres made available.

The foundation said the arrangement demonstrates what’s possible when large landowners collaborate with concerned organizations focused on helping small farmers and expanding local food production. Oki­moto said he hopes the ag park can be a model for more in Hawaii.
Monsanto cleared the land and prepared it for planting at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars, according to Oki­moto. The company also provides security for the farms.

Ulupono Initiative, a for-profit firm investing in Hawaii ventures focused on waste reduction, renewable energy and food production, contributed $100,000 to improve irrigation infrastructure.
Farmers were offered parcels generally from five to 40 acres.
Pacific Gateway Center, a nonprofit helping immigrants, refugees and low-income residents with job and entrepreneurial assistance, leased 71 acres for 24 clients.

Tin Myaing Thein, the center’s executive director, said the organization previously reached out to owners of agricultural land seeking an opportunity to help clients start farms, but was met with rejection.
“We are so lucky to be here,” she said. “They (Hawaii Agricultural Foundation) took a chance on us. They placed their trust in us.”

Other tenants include established farms such as Ho Farms and Frankie’s Nursery.
Hoang was also looking to grow. He established PIT Farms on two acres in Mililani and raises mostly vegetables. In Kunia, Hoang leased 12.5 acres, and has planted more than a dozen fruits including lilikoi, lychee, papaya and jackfruit along with a bunch of vegetables including carrots, radish, long beans, parsley, kale and eggplant.

Hoang, 45, used to question whether he made the right move resigning as an accountant for Panda Travel. Initially, he said, he missed his comfortable office and other parts of his old job. “Look at my hands,” he said, extending his rough and dirty fingers. Then he glanced at the rows of cilantro, banana and other plants poking up through the red dirt of Kunia, knowing that people enjoy what he grows.

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