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Expo cultivates future Big Island farmers

June 19, 2017 - 12:05am

WAIMEA — During morning registration at Saturday’s Hawaii Island New Farmer Expo, participants picked up their attendance packets. At the same table later in the day, they’d pick up packets of seed: a little bit extra to help them grow.

Organizers of the event at Hawaii Preparatory Academy expected a bus and about 40 people to stop by for the all-day program of panel talks on the business of farming, one-on-one sessions with current farmers. By late last week, more than 115 people had signed up and registration had to be closed.

“It has far exceeded our expectations,” said Nicole Gueck of AgriLogic Consulting LLC. AgriLogic, a Texas-based agriculture insurance company that does outreach and education in Hawaii thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This year, the New Farmer Expo was written into the annual grant proposal.

AgriLogic partnered with the Pacific Gateway Center and the Kohala Center to put on the event.

“I really in my gut felt that this was a needed thing,” said Pacific Gateway Center program coordinator Deacon Ritterbush. “We designed this so we got to hear from people who are actively farming and actively buying the produce.”

“It’s just a huge bowl of knowledge (here),” Gueck said. “A one-stop shop.”

“When I started doing this, there was no infrastructure,” said keynote speaker “Ginger” John Caverly of Onomea Farms and Sweet Cane Cafe. “No one was there to give you a hand or show you what to do or help you out.”

Caverly started farming more than 40 years ago and described his avocation as “probably the highest experience you can have on this planet as a human being. It gives you an opportunity to really connect to Mother Nature and feel who we really are.”

“A lot of people accuse me of being a workaholic, but I just love being at my farm,” he said. At Onomea Farms, Caverly uses Korean natural farming methods and focuses on growing foods that have “sustained humanity,” such as ulu and taro.

“If you plant one little thing and take care of it, it’ll give you so much back,” he said.

Other panels focused on the nitty-gritty of farming, particularly the business side of things.

“Farms are businesses,” said Dennis Boyd of the Hawaii Small Business Development Center. “You have to sustain yourself. That’s what we’re about — helping you develop.”

Booths in the expo portion allowed attendees to talk about crop selection, agricultural loans, agritourism and connecting to consumers.

Maureen Datta started farming on 7.5 acres in Kona in 1979. Since then, she and her husband started Adaptations Inc., which now serves as a sourcing and distribution center for dozens of small farms on the island. The crops then get sent to restaurants, resorts, stores and schools.

Datta said her advice to new farmers would be start slow and incrementally.

“I hope they learn today to grow what’s appropriate for the land that’s around them — don’t try to fight nature,” she said.

Kristen Barney and Emma Ruth are volunteering at Kealaola Farm, an organic farm in Kealakekua. Farm co-owner Barry Levine encourages to “get us more involved,” Barney said during a session break.

“I like learning the business side of it,” she said.

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