MOLOAA, Kauai — The area around the Moloaa Irrigation Cooperative’s hilltop water tank, whose surrounding vegetation is controlled by a small herd of aggressive, inquisitive goats, is the new headquarters for Kauai’s newest and perhaps most innovative food hub project.
The new hub, organized by local nonprofit Malama Kauai, is joining a statewide movement that, essentially, abandons the idea that small Hawaii farmers should see selling their products to supermarkets as their most important objective.
Food hubs operate as an interface between farmers and customers, allowing farmers to concentrate on farming and creating a seamless ordering system so consumers can order food online for delivery or availability at central pickup points. It can also facilitate the production of value-added food products like jams and jellies.
With COVID-19 fears continuing to change shopping behavior, farmers are moving increasingly to a commercial model based on custom shopping experiences, access to increasing varieties of food products and home delivery.
Megan Fox, Malama Kauai’s CEO, added that the new operation will also be a post-harvest facility. Food hubs have grown to do much more than be an aggregator and distributor, she said.
In addition to continuing to distribute food bags to people who need them in the community, Malama Kauai is about to launch holiday gift packs to promote the development of what will be called the Moloaa AINA Center. The center will include a processing facility, offices and meeting space and a central, mobile certified kitchen.
The model is similar to projects already established in many parts of the state. Maui and Oahu are especially strong locales, Fox said. Food hubs are quickly moving online, accepting electronic payments from food stamp recipients and credit card payments from other customers, with home delivery or scheduled pickups at prearranged sites increasingly the norm.
The idea, Fox said, is for community agriculture to find its own way to scale and not for marketing dynamics to be dictated by the supermarket concept. It would reorganize food production and distribution so customers could get what they need directly — or nearly directly — from farmers.
Fox is not trying to simply redefine “supermarket.”
“In my world,” she said, “that’s not the goal.”
Fox sees vastly expanded potential for interisland food distribution and possibly even export markets for crops like ginger and turmeric.
“There are a lot of people doing big things quietly,” she said.
The food hub model seems to be holding its own despite what might, in non-COVID-19 times, have been a major setback in the Hawaii Legislature this year. Two bills — one in the House and another in the Senate — would have set aside funds for a statewide complex of food hub demonstration programs.
Sen. Mike Gabbard, who represents Kapolei and was one of the introducers of the Senate bill, said the legislative effort, which involved cosponsors in both chambers, ground to a halt on March 16, when COVID-19 shutdowns began to overwhelm Hawaii.
In June, with the state budget clearly in crisis, sponsors pulled both of the bills abruptly after Gov. David Ige warned that Hawaii was in no position to fund anything new.
Keith Ranney, manager of the Maui Hub, said the momentum behind changing Hawaii’s food supply model has gotten so strong that the trend is, at this point, unstoppable — even without the aid that might have come from the failed legislation.
Ranney previously worked for Hawaii Farmers Union United and helped draft the legislation. The farmers union, which has a major presence on every island, was a key proponent of the legislation.
“We’ve basically been operating without any significant funding,” he said. “But this concept is picking up in popularity nevertheless.”
Fox said the hilltop now dominated by the water tank will eventually house a storage and food handling facility and a trailer-based certified kitchen, as well as offices and support facilities. There are, she said, 70 farms in Moloaa — most of them very small family operations. Twenty of them, she said, have already signed up for work within Malama Kauai’s hub operation. The farms here, she said, cover a total of 600 acres.
“They are incredibly diverse,” she said.
While a few farmers, she said, “want to be Costco,” the majority of growers would simply like to rid themselves of the marketing and promotion aspects of their operations and just grow food, realizing that they will never be able to reach levels of scale necessary to be an ongoing supplier for supermarkets and big box stores.
They struggle constantly, Fox said, with the need to control costs and find reliable sources of affordable labor — which they must do without any structured program of farm worker housing. Kauai farmers, Fox said, have an average age just over 56.
But coming up, she said, is increasing awareness of farming among teens and 20-somethings who, she said, “look at food and farming differently. They have a more global view. People don’t get into farming for money. There’s a passion behind it.”
She said a movement is quietly developing to focus at least some high school curricula on agriculture as a way of educating new generations of potential farmers. She said a charter school teacher she knows has had great success teaching Shakespeare using farming analogies and identifying references to agriculture in literary classics as a basis for teaching on broader issues.
“You can teach everything in the garden,” Fox said. She sees a future when entire charter schools are designed around agricultural models.
Farms like those surrounding Moloaa will probably never be able to achieve the production scale needed to be steady suppliers for Safeway, Foodland and Big Save — a Kauai-specific supermarket chain. But some, she said, aspire to play a more regular role in supplying health food stores and even places like the three Whole Foods stores on Oahu.
Amber McClure, who runs Moloaa Bay Coffee — a small farm focused on coffee and cacao — said the movement that Malama Kauai’s new project represents “is the first huge shift that we’ve seen moving toward something that we have all imagined could be a great opportunity.
“Although people do need to be more careful of how they spend their money, they are more mindful than ever of where their money is going.”
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