Winning the Farm
Kamehameha Schools' Mahi‘ai Matchup gives a boost to Hawai‘i's most promising ag startups
In 2013, after fifteen years working in the tech industry as a successful web designer, Rob Barreca decided to become a farmer. Not just plant some vegetables or join a community garden: Barreca wanted to make farming his profession and lifestyle. So he enrolled at GoFarm Hawai‘i, a statewide program for aspiring commercial farmers that teaches the fundamentals of crop production. While some students—realizing that farming requires much more than a green thumb—don’t get beyond “AgCurious” (GoFarm’s introductory course), Barreca graduated as a ready agricultural entrepreneur. Now all he needed was a farm.
Enter the Mahi‘ai Match-Up Agricultural Business Plan Contest. Organized by Kamehameha Schools and the Pauahi Foundation, the annual competition awards two to three promising farmers a lease on underutilized land, with five years of waived rent and $15,000 to $25,000 in seed money to get their business underway. Among Kamehameha Schools’ holdings are 175,000 acres of agricultural lands. The Mahi‘ai Match-Up (mahi‘ai is Hawaiian for “farmer”) was created to support the institution’s vision of increasing food security in Hawai‘i, which imports roughly 85 percent of its food.
When Barreca heard about the competition, he decided to go for it. At the time he found himself with a huge harvest of purple daikon (radish) he had planted, much more than he knew what to do with. “I called some restaurants and said, ‘Hi, I’m a new farmer. Do you want some purple daikon?’” Barreca recalls, laughing. “And they were like, ‘Okay, yeah, we’ll take 5 pounds.’ But I had 75 pounds of the stuff, so I thought, what can I do to not waste it?”
In 2014, probiotic foods were making headlines for improving digestive health. Kombucha was all the rage and Barreca’s friend Gabe had just taught him how to make kimchi. The solution for the surplus daikon became obvious: Ferment it! Before he knew it, the seeds of his new business were planted. Together with agroecologist Jay Bost, Barreca submitted a business plan for Counter Culture Foods, with the goal to grow produce using organic and regenerative practices. The fresh ingredients would then be fermented to create such flavorful artisanal offerings—with microbial benefits—as Spicy Green Papaya Kimchi, Jicama-Jalapeno Sauerkraut and Crunchy Adzuki Bean Tempeh. Impressed by their proposal, the judges of the Mahi‘ai Match-Up paired the Counter Culture team with a five-acre parcel at Pa‘ala‘a on O‘ahu’s North Shore, and gave them $15,000 to get started. Rob Barreca had his farm.
“In Hawai‘i it is extremely difficult for farmers to get access to reasonably-priced, high-quality agricultural land, with water and long-term tenure,” says Murray Clay, Managing Partner at Ulupono Initiative, a Hawai‘i impact investment firm and primary sponsor for the four-year-old ag competition. As Clay explains it, many farmers are given month-to-month leases, and so the threat of losing their land keeps them from making improvements to support their operations. “What was really attractive to us about the Mahi‘ai Match-Up was the idea that winners not only get prize money, but long-term leases.”
Since the contest’s inception, more than 250 proposals have been submitted. The range is incredibly broad: Crops from mango to moringa; growing techniques from indigenous to high-tech; business models incorporating agro-tourism and finished products. “We are looking for teams of people who want to do something great,” says Kalani Fronda, the Kamehameha Schools project manager for Mahi‘ai Match-Up. “And we’re looking not only at their capabilities, but also how they are going to build community capacity and integrate education and culture.”
The top applicants advance to the next round, where business professionals offer advice and help fine-tune their business plans. Clay, who has been a regular judge, is most interested in the plans that promise to be financially solvent and not rely on grants. “The candidates that go far have clearly thought things out—the demand, pricing, how to get their food to market, whether they have existing relationships they can leverage, what the costs might look like,” he lists, explaining that understanding the big picture makes it easier to be adaptable. “There are always things that are more difficult in execution than in planning. You know for a fact they’re going to run into things they didn’t expect.”
It’s a muggy, late summer day on the North Shore, and Barreca’s wide-brimmed straw hat keeps the sun off his face. “It was full jungle that we bush-whacked through. We actually got lost,” he recalls as we walk around Counter Culture’s certified-organic farm. Today, a year and a half after clearing and planting, a couple acres are divided into neat blocks of crops—among them cabbage, papaya and, of course, purple daikon—separated by irrigation risers.
Through an app that Barreca developed called Farm Link Hawai‘i—an online marketplace and delivery service that connects growers and buyers—Counter Culture (and forty-five other Hawai‘i farms) now sell fresh produce to supermarkets, local grocers, restaurants, caterers and chefs. Counter Culture’s fermented food products are also sold at Whole Foods Markets, Down to Earth stores and Kokua Market.
Getting to this point wasn’t without its challenges though, including discovering that the soil on half their property had a high salt concentration and that a quarter of their land was marshy. But resilience and resourcefulness are essential traits for farmers, who are often at the mercy of external factors—weather, pests, disease, regulations and so on.
“Some people think, ‘Oh, organic farming? Put your tie-dyed t-shirt on, throw the manure out there, and it’s all good,” Barreca scoffs. “But if you want to practice agro-ecological farming, it takes a lot of systems thinking. You have all of these super-complex things interacting that have different timing and behaviors.” For example, his team plants multiple varieties of the same crop to compare yields and attributes. They rotate crops to relieve soil pressure, and promote more biological diversity by planting flowering crops that will attract predator insects to kill pest insects.
Barreca appreciates the creative aspect of designing ecosystems—they’re now breeding ducks that are both food and weed control—and his partner Laarni Gedo is also helping the farm diversify with a new flower arrangement business. “When Laarni got started, she said, ‘Whatever, I’ll plant a couple flowers,’” he recalls, pointing to a colorful burst of zinnias in the field. “And then it was like seeing someone get addicted to surfing—when you can see in their eyes ‘I gotta go surf,’ she was like, ‘I gotta go to the farm. I want to see what my flowers are doing!’”
“We understand that it takes a village. We know that as a landowner we can’t do it on our own. We know we need the farmer. We know the farmer’s so small they don’t have that capacity, so they have to build some type of partnership,” says Fronda, naming the many stakeholders involved in actualizing local food production. “Māla Kalu‘ulu is really a great model for that.” He is referring to the 2015 Mahi‘ai Match-Up winner, whose proposal to recreate a traditional Hawaiian agroforestry system, anchored by ‘ulu (breadfruit), was chosen for not only its potentially scalable growing technique, but also for its proactive approach to creating a market for its farm products.
On a clear morning at the peak of ‘ulu season, which is typically between August and September, I went to South Kona on Hawai‘i Island to meet with Māla Kalu‘ulu Cooperative members Noa Lincoln and Dana Shapiro. Their 3.7-acre parcel sits in the half-mile wide kalu‘ulu, the “breadfruit belt,” that two centuries ago produced 25,000 metric tons of breadfruit a year.
Lincoln and Shapiro met while helping to plan the 2011 Breadfruit Festival, which celebrates the Pacific superfood with workshops on propagation and cooking demonstrations. “From a culinary perspective, ‘ulu is so versatile,” says Shapiro. “You can eat it at every stage, and every stage has different flavors and textures.” Her breadfruit pound cake topped with cardamom ‘ulu ice cream took third place in 2011 (her ‘ulu crepes stuffed with banana won first place the next year)—and she also went on to win Lincoln’s heart. Lincoln, meanwhile, completed his doctoral research at Stanford University on traditional Kona dryland farm systems. They now have a two-year-old daughter, Leia, whose first food was, naturally, ‘ulu.
At Māla Kalu‘ulu, a mango tree towers over the top of the verdant, sloping property, and the limbs of a giant avocado tree are heavy with fruit. In a few years, after the 140 ‘ulu trees they have thus far planted fill in the canopy, the non-natives on the upper acre will be removed. This section will recreate the traditional kalu‘ulu and use neither fertilizer nor irrigation. Understory plants like mai‘a (banana) and noni will utilize the sunlight in the gaps between the ‘ulu.
As their toddler navigates the rocky terrain, Lincoln talks about the coarse soil underfoot and why a multi-layered agroforest is productive here. “Every time it rains, these young lava rocks are dissolving a little bit, and they’re putting out new nutrients, but they can’t hold on to them. So when it rains those nutrients are washed out to sea,” he explains. “With big trees and little trees and ground cover, everything is covered up. Even weeds are good because they capture those nutrients and prevent them from getting washed out. Then when you need to, you harvest up all that green matter and do your new planting.”
The remainder of the property is planned as an “adaptation zone,” where, Lincoln says, “we’re basically substituting plants that fill a similar ecological niche, but have better value density. The adaptation zone is focused on how to make the traditional system as profitable as possible in modern times.” Here, they have planted six varieties of ‘ulu to spread out the seasonality. In place of noni and mamaki as sub-canopy crops, they’re trying cacao and shade-tolerant green teas.
Lincoln is excited about what researchers can learn about how the kala‘ulu functioned two hundred years ago and how it might thrive in the modern economy. But ‘ulu’s rise to culinary stardom has brought more immediate challenges. “All of a sudden people were like, ‘Oh, this is great! It sounds wonderful. Where do I get it?’ And that was the end of the conversation,” says Lincoln. Shapiro quickly saw the need to link growers with buyers, and helped establish the Hawai‘i ‘Ulu Cooperative in July 2016. It has grown to twenty-seven members and expects to clean, peel, core, cut, steam and freeze 40,000 pounds of ‘ulu—making it commercially convenient—in 2017.
Commercial farming is a bottom-line enterprise, but there is a growing recognition among Hawaiʻi farmers that promoting traditional knowledge is a valuable—and economically viable—part of the equation. Kamehameha Schools’ Kalani Fronda has found that Mahiai Match-Up applicants, especially small-farm operations, are increasingly incorporating education and Hawaiian culture as part of their core mission.
“These concepts advocate for the production of foods that fed our kupuna (ancestors) while caring for the land as they did,” says Fronda. “At the same time, these farms emphasize the importance of perpetuating Hawaiian culture for future generations.”
The team of Kaivao Farm, the 2016 Match-Up winner, takes the responsibility of cultural education very seriously. Angela Fa‘anunu says the reason her team applied was to help answer a question: “How can we behave as Pacific Islanders in modern day society?” Fa‘anunu and her farm-partner/sister Kalisi Mausio grew up living a communal lifestyle in Tonga. They moved to Hawai‘i after studying on the continental U.S. She contrasts her childhood with that of her daughter and the twins Mausio recently gave birth to. “For them, I wonder how it affects your identity when you grow up detached from your land?” Fa’anunu asks. “The ocean was our front yard, and in the back we had eight acres of land that we were dependent on—and that was life. We grew up knowing the names of all the plants and animals.”
Located on Hawai‘i Island’s Hamakua Coast, Kaivao Farm will eventually be home to an ‘ulu forest, along with secondary, non-edible plants like wauke (used to make kapa, or bark cloth) and hala (used for weaving). Even while they were still in the planting phase the sisters began hosting school visits, during which students helped plant seedlings and learned about ‘ulu’s role in the Pacific.
Fa‘anunu says she was initially surprised by how many educators were eager to come to the farm. “A basic thing like scraping coconut and making coconut cream, rather than getting it out of a can,” she offers as one example of a Pacific-wide practice that is lost on most Hawaiʻi youth. “This was my everyday practice; I never realized it was worthy of teaching.”
“What I find a lot in Hawai‘i is that most people are disconnected,” she continues. “They talk about the ‘āina (land) from a very intellectual perspective, but few really know what it means to live on the land and take care of it. That’s just the way society is now—for Mahi‘ai Match-up to provide access to land, so people can reconnect … that is amazing.”
"Winning the Farm" appears in the Feb-Mar 2018 issue of Hana Hou!