Supporting local farmers by buying local might seem out of reach for most people, either because of cost or convenience, but a local firm is seeking to change that.

Hawaii Grown

Farm Link Hawaii, an online marketplace that connects local farmers and food producers with retail customers, is working on a system that will let Hawaii food stamp beneficiaries order locally grown food online. And the company’s founder and chief executive hopes the system will be in place by year’s end.

It’s just a matter of punching through red tape and logistical challenges.

“The thing is just log-jammed,” said Rob Barreca, who founded the platform in 2015. “If it happens this year, it would feel like a success.”

But Barreca has a track record of getting things done. For instance, Farm Link already has managed to set up a system that allows it to accept in-person payments from Hawaii’s federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which lets users buy groceries using a debit card, known as an EBT card.

Farm Link founder and CEO Rob Barreca
Rob Barreca, founder and chief executive of Farm Link Hawaii, tended to his vegetables on the North Shore farm in this photo from May 2018. Courtesy: Megan Spelman

That itself required three attempts, Barreca said, as well as lobbying members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation to help break through barriers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program.

The result is Farm Link has about 70 customers using the SNAP/EBT cards, representing about 7% of Farm Link’s revenue. The downside is customers can only pick up at Farm Link’s locations on the North Shore and Kalihi, a fraction of Farm Link’s 14 pickup locations.

Barreca says about 150 people have inquired about Farm Link’s SNAP/EBT program, and he figures Farm Link can convert them into customers if they can place orders online using their EBT cards. Hence the latest effort. Big players like Amazon and Walmart have pilot programs to let people use SNAP/EBT cards online, but for smaller players, the logistical and technical challenges are onerous.

The SNAP/EBT program was one thing discussed Wednesday during a Zoom presentation about Farm Link’s work hosted by the Elemental Excelerator, a business incubator that helps grow startups in industries like renewable energy, technology and agriculture.

Also participating were Danya Hakeem, the Elemental Excelerator’s director of innovation, agriculture and circular economy; Dan Carroll, owner of Hua Orchards on Oahu; and Bonnie Chang, a teacher and Farm Link customer.

To open and close an online presentation hosted on Wednesday by the Elemental Excelerator, Paul Isak, a farmer and musician, performed. This piece was also performed previously at the Hawaii State Capitol, proclaiming 2021 “The Year of the Farmer.”

As the Elemental Excelerator describes it on its website, Farm Link provides a solution to a seemingly simple problem that applies to Hawaii and other places: On one hand, there’s significant demand for local food; on the other, there’s insufficient market access for small, local farmers.

But as Barreca described it during Wednesday’s meeting, solving the problem is more complex than simply setting up a few roadside produce stands. The fact that produce is perishable and in some cases seasonal makes selling it, especially online, much more complicated than selling widgets that don’t spoil. Plus, there are numerous types of customers: not just retail but also chefs and caterers. And Farm Link worked with 147 farmers in 2020, Barreca said. He expects that to grow to more than 200 this year.

The COVID-19 crisis has forced the local food system to adapt. During the early days of the pandemic especially, local farmers and ranchers had to pivot from selling to hotels and restaurants to selling to consumers. Entities like Farm Link stepped in to fill the void, connecting producers with customers.

As a result, Farm Link has grown its customer base to 800 from about 35 before the pandemic, Barreca said.

It has also connected with more farmers, with even more to work with.

“We have a huge list of farmers and ranchers we just need to find the time to reach out to,” he said.

Among the customers benefiting from the SNAP/EBT program is Chang, a “self-proclaimed farmers market junkie” who points out that much of Farm Link’s produce is priced comparable to grocery stores. Now, she says, she can direct her benefits back to the local economy.

“When they started accepting EBT it was a huge game changer,” she said. “I felt like I could have a say where my food came from.”

For his part Barreca says Farm Link wants to lower barriers to buying local food – to paradoxically maintain local foods’ special status apart from imported food while making it easier for people to buy.

“We want local food to be special,” he said. “But also want local food to not be special.”

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.

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