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With its papaya and banana trees, flowering red okra bushes and rows of greens planted near yurts where farmhands live, Waihuena Farm on Oahu’s bucolic North Shore seems like a hippie idyll a world away from bureaucracy.
But to hear Kevin Kelly tell it, the tiny farm in Pupukea is part of a budding movement where mom-and-pop farmers are — surprisingly — actually embracing government red tape.
Specifically, they’re volunteering to adhere to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommended practices covering water quality, food storage and packaging. They’re also agreeing to keep detailed records documenting their activities and opening themselves up to audits to make sure they’re following the rules.
It’s a way, Kelly says, not just to ensure a safer food supply but also to enable small farms to sell to bigger markets and eventually enhance their production enough to feed the whole state.
“It’s a very different model,” says Kelly, president and chief executive of the nonprofit North Shore Economic Vitality Partnership. “But it’s a model that reflects what’s going on in Hawaii.”
“It’s a piece of what each region needs to have as ag moves forward,” said Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, a proponent of developing Hawaii’s agriculture industry.
If Hawaii’s small farms want to grow significantly or sell a major portion of their produce to large wholesalers and distributors, they’ll soon need to comply with new regulations created under the U.S. Food Safety Modernization Act. Designed to protect the food supply from dangerous germs like salmonella, E. coli and listeria, the regulations went into effect for larger farms in January; small farms have to comply by 2020 if they want to sell to big retailers.
That’s potentially a big deal for Hawaii, where the vast majority of farms are small.
Hawaii has some 7,000 farms, but only about 500 had sales of over $100,000 in 2012, according to the latest available numbers from the USDA. Fewer than 150 farms earned $500,000 or more, the agency said. About 1,200 farms, meanwhile, had sales of less than $1,000.
Technically, these small farms won’t have to comply with the new law. That’s because regulations carve out an exemption for farms with that sell less than $500,000 in produce annually and sell most of their product straight to end users like consumers and restaurants. The problem, Kelly says, is that the exemption doesn’t apply in the real world, where people are increasingly concerned about food-borne disease.
“What happens on the ground is much different,” Kelly said.
In many cases, restaurants hoping to avoid lawsuits want assurances that farms they buy from are following best practices for food safety, Kelly said. Insurers writing policies for farmers markets also want to know what steps the markets are taking to ensure the food they’re selling is safe, he said, and food distributors and supermarkets have their own requirements.
The idea, Kelly says, is to address such concerns by certifying that the small farms are growing their produce according to what the USDA calls “Good Agricultural Practices,” or GAP.
While a bigger farm might have the resources to go through the rigorous GAP certification training alone, the USDA has created a program for smaller farms called GroupGAP. It lets small farms create huis that can do the training together, operate under a common quality management program — and pay a nominal fee. Waihuena paid $250 for the training and certification.
In addition, when the time comes for audits to ensure farms are complying, inspectors will pick a random sample of the group’s farms to look at, instead of poring over each farm.
Obviously no one relishes an audit, but Kelly hasn’t had trouble getting small farmers to sign up. He said they generally buy into the the idea that the USDA’s good agricultural practices are just that: good practices.
Kelly certified a cohort of 10 farms on the North Shore last year, ranging from a 100-acre farm to tiny Waihuena. Altogether the 10 farms in the cohort are producing on 328 acres, growing crops that include mint, mango, kale and jackfruit. A second, islandwide cohort of nine farms is now undergoing training.
State agriculture officials like what they’re seeing. No food safety program is foolproof, but the Group GAP program “will deter some of the food safety issues we’ve seen,” said Jeri Kahana, who oversees GAP audits as the administrator of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s Quality Assurance Division. That means checking everything from water quality to procedures for storing chemicals, harvesting methods and even packing, Kahana said.
For example, she explained, “We want to make sure they don’t have lizard poop all over their packaging material.”
All this is a good thing for Waihuena Farm, says India Clark, who helps manage the operation.
On a tour of the farm recently, Clark showed off the modest operations across the highway from the Pipeline surf spot. In addition to bananas and papayas, there were chayote and eggplant, pungent purple basil, kabocha squash plants not yet bearing produce and tomatoes growing under a hoop-shaped roof acquired with a grant from the University of Hawaii.
Being GAP certified means more paperwork, Clark said, but it also means knowing that their produce is safe. To comply with GAP standards, the farm has taken steps like putting in solar-powered refrigerators to store produce, and it rents a portable toilet for human waste, which it keeps outside the growing areas. It also has big metal sinks where it triple-washes produce.
There’s also something new to combat one of Hawaii’s latest food-borne illnesses: rat lungworm disease. Waihuena has invested about $2,500 to build elevated tables set up on a bed of gravel laced with salt to protect its greens from slugs carrying the illness.
Pointing to a binder full of checklists, a farm diagram and training modules, Clark says the GroupGAP program has given Waihuena an organized framework it previously lacked.
“We kind of knew what to do but were just a little relaxed about it,” said Clark.
The farm also has been relaxed about scaling up its business. Waihuena has about 30 acres but cultivates only one, Clark said. It uses a skeleton crew of part-time workers, interns and WWOOFers, a nickname for traveling farm laborers who work for room and board under the auspices of the World Wide Organization of Organic Farms.
The farm sells most of its produce through a community-supported agriculture program that lets people subscribe to buy produce each week. It has about 25 subscribers, Clark said, although the farm also gets walk-in customers, especially during the winter surfing season. It supplements its income with farm tours and special events like dinners, yoga classes and bluegrass concerts.
Beyond ensuring food safety, the broader vision of the North Shore Economic Vitality Partnership, Kelly said, is to prepare farms like Waihuena to sell to bigger markets like grocery stores and buyers that want produce to process into value-added products.
Another part of the vision, he said, is to create a “food hub” that can help identify big buyers so the farmers can spend their time farming instead of marketing. He figures most small farms are like Waihuena, with plenty of unused land they could make productive if they only had someone to sell to.
“We’ll never tell a farmer what to grow, but we’ll tell them what people want to buy,” Kelly said. “And they can make that decision.”
“We want to bring them up to have an equal chance of selling their products,” said Kahana, the state’s agriculture quality assurance division chief.
Kahana said it appears that adopting the practices needed for GAP certification would help the farms to come into compliance with the new federal food safety regulations, which are administered by the Food and Drug Administration, not the USDA.
Whether GroupGAP will result in large retailers opening their stores to small farmers remains to be seen. Although the USDA says GroupGAP certified farms can sell to federal school lunch programs and other USDA commodity purchase programs, big retailers like Costco and Whole Foods are another matter.
The USDA plans to visit Hawaii later this year to explain GAP certification to retailers, Kahana said. And that could help open doors for small farms. But, she said, in the end the retailers are free to chose their suppliers.
“It all depends on who’s buying and what their policies are,” she said.
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