KILAUEA, Kauai — Back in March, Brad Smith was mulling the impending harvest of several thousand pounds of longan, one of the crops he raises at his 23-acre Viva Rain Farms, spread out among three parcels here and in Moloaa on Kauai’s North Shore.
Little did Smith and his wife, Amy Arnett-Smith know that the entirety of their lives — not just the longan crop — was about to change.
Smith had been anticipating the harvest of the longan, a fruit that is similar to lychee, destined for various farmers markets around the island and restaurants.
Then COVID-19 hit.
The markets were closed by Kauai County authorities and the restaurant business joined the lockdown. The emergency created an immediate threat to many farmers.
But suddenly, a lifeline appeared.
Aina Hookupu O Kilauea, a community nonprofit centered around the Kilauea Community Agricultural Center here, got a $468,000 contract from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of a $1.2 billion national emergency commodity purchasing program.
The program was created under a farm assistance program funded by the CARES Act, hastily enacted by Congress in response to the pandemic. CARES is an acronym for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
The program has already generated controversy. The biggest contract went to Texas-based Borden Milk Co., which received nearly $147 million, even though the firm is in bankruptcy.
USDA also awarded a $39 million contract to CRE8AD8 (pronounced “create-a-date”), a San Antonio wedding and event planning company with no food service experience and lacking a required federal food license.
Other firms with no food background also got contracts, while established produce companies were left out.
But by responding quickly to a USDA notice, Aina Hookupu O Kilauea and one other small nonprofit, Malama Kauai, got vital — if modest — funding.
With their primary sales outlets — farmers markets and restaurants — closed off, many Kauai farmers were in the same boat as the Smiths.
There was plenty to harvest, but potentially no place to sell it. Farmers markets presented another problem, too. Many Kauai farms are very small operations run by families whose members are old enough that they are in the highest risk demographic for COVID-19.
Malama Kauai got a contract for $235,200.
Both organizations proposed buying up the entire inventories of several dozen local farms. Aina Hookupu O Kilauea’s model is to package the produce and fruit in boxes that retail for $20 at a drive-through tent at the agricultural center or are distributed free through other nonprofits on the island.
Malama Kauai’s model involves giving produce to people who need food assistance through distribution points at five schools in a collaboration with the state Department of Education.
“It’s been a lifeline for us,” Brad Smith said one day last week as he dropped off longan and onions to be inserted into produce boxes at the agricultural center. “It’s created a real good opportunity. There are a lot of really grateful farmers out there, because none of us stopped working.
“Running the farm is the same as it was. The weeds are still growing. This time of year, everything is growing so fast on Kauai.”
To Smith, other farmers and Kauai County officials, the crisis that brought the federal emergency funds to the island may represent an unanticipated opportunity in an otherwise horribly destructive pandemic.
Yoshito L’Hote, executive director of Aina Hookupu O Kauai, said that farmers markets are typically patronized largely by tourists. They don’t do much to contribute to the food supply actually consumed by people who live here and their sales volumes are modest.
“I think it’s the wrong approach,” L’Hote said. “We can be providing boxes of produce and going out into each community.”
The program has been distributing at least 1,000 boxes of produce or fruit a week.
L’Hote said there is also plenty of room for creative marketing. He’s started a product line he calls “Burgers for Kauai,” which includes a pound of local ground beef, a taro patty, locally baked rolls, tomato, sprouts, salad and pineapple. It goes for $35 and will feed a family of five, he said.
“Every cent of that $35 stays on our island,” he said.
The scale at which L’Hote’s program can operate, said he and Nalani Brun, director of the Kauai County Office of Economic Development, can demonstrate to farmers that they can broaden their horizons. That applies to the amounts they can grow and brings a far more businesslike approach to the sale and distribution of the crops.
“We’ve been trying to find a way to make this happen for a long time,” Brun said. “It’s a weird silver lining. Right now, the produce boxes are mostly given out for free. The question is if we can market it well enough that, after the crisis passes, people will purchase it.
“Our job is to convince the farmers that there is a big enough market. We’ve got plenty of water and we’ve got a lot of dirt. What’s happening is putting into perspective the role of farming.”
To Megan Fox, executive director of Malama Kauai, the USDA program has made it possible to scale up a local industry that has long included offerings generically lumped together as community supported agriculture programs. Kauai food banks have been involved with such programs for many years, Fox said.
The USDA funding, she said, has expanded the concept into a “much, much larger program.”
It permits Malama Kauai and Aina Hookupu O Kilauea to guarantee they will be able to pay farmers for bulk quantities of food. In Malama Kauai’s case, the organization is distributing 200 fruit and vegetable boxes a day, Monday through Friday, at each of its school sites.
What remains questionable, said L’Hote and Fox, is how much staying power the COVID-19-enabled produce buying has. At the moment, the first contracts received by the two organizations will remain in force for only six weeks. After that, USDA has the option to renew for another six weeks and — conceivably — for future six-week cycles, Fox and L’Hote said.
It isn’t clear when the USDA money will run out and whether the food box program’s existence depends on enactment of a next round of federal COVID-relief legislation. Even if there is such a round, a moment will eventually arrive that will determine if a revitalized economy will support permanent change in ways farmers grow, harvest and sell their crops. L’Hote thinks the farmers are up to the challenge.
“I just don’t see the farm business going back to the way it used to be,” said Markita Smith of Kauai Fresh Farms, one of the producers selling to Aina Hookupu O Kauai. The firm’s products are also available in supermarkets, but Smith said the collapse of the economy and sudden near total absence of tourists on Kauai nearly drove it out of business.
“We took a pretty big hit and our ship was sinking,” she said. “Every farmer on Kauai got clipped at the knees.”
She said her company can’t seek grants and exists to turn a profit, but L’Hote’s organization provided a nonprofit shield that Kauai Fresh could never have fashioned for itself.
She said Kauai Fresh, which grows hydroponically, had to quickly find sources for the same kind of personal protective equipment that are in short supply in hospitals. The company was able to avoid laying off any of its five employees and retained its health insurance benefits.
“I really do appreciate what Yosh is doing,” she said. “We couldn’t be here if it weren’t for him.”
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