Nick Vericella grew up wanting to be a rancher like his grandfather. 

But his grandfather discouraged him, knowing it was a difficult way to make a living. When his grandfather died in his 80s, the 500-acre Big Island cattle ranch he started up in retirement after a career in law enforcement was unprofitable. 

Hawaii Grown

“Do the ranch because you love it,” Vericella’s grandfather had urged. “But don’t rely on that to make your money.” 

Vericella followed his grandfather’s advice — to a point. After graduating from Kamehameha Schools he moved to the mainland to earn an engineering degree. But when his grandfather grew ill Vericella returned to the ranch in Kamuela to help care for him, ultimately taking ownership of his grandfather’s sliver of Hawaii cowboy country in 2017 alongside his wife Miki.

Without the nest egg his grandfather had wanted for him, Vericella and his wife turned to homesteading, growing crops and raising animals to eat. They also explored creative solutions to stop the ranch from bleeding money.

“The problem is the rancher never gets to have any say in the price,” Vericella explained. “You call the broker and you say, ‘What’s the price today?’”

A couple feed dog treats to their pets
A third generation rancher, Nick Vericella and his wife Miki inherited a money-losing cattle ranch that they are slowly transforming into a profitable business. Courtesy: RKT Media/2021

It works like this: A rancher raises cows for about nine months and then sells them to a broker, who ships the animals to the mainland where they are slaughtered before they enter the beef market.

Cattle are Hawaii’s third most lucrative agricultural product, generating about $45 million in 2017, but a shortage of slaughterhouses in the islands and unpredictable market swings make it difficult for smaller operations to profit.

Hawaii is not an easy place to make a living farming.

Affordable land is hard to come by, and much of the available acreage lacks access to water or other critical infrastructure necessary to grow food.

Agricultural pests, a dire workforce shortage and the uncertainties of climate change also rank high on the long list of challenges faced by Hawaii’s food producers.

Not to mention price competition from cheaper mainland imports.

These hardships are reflected in the data. Most of Hawaii’s 7,300 farms are small farms and nearly 80% of them have annual sales under $25,000. Although U.S. Census data shows the total number of farms in Hawaii increased by about 5% to more than 7,300 from 2012 to 2017, the agricultural sector’s total market value dropped from $661 million to $564 million during the same period.

At a time when the barriers to economic success for farmers remain high, the state is pushing for more local food production — and a new generation of agricultural workers is answering the call despite the shaky economics.

“It just comes down to there’s a righteousness to it.” — James Malanaphy, Waimanalo farmer

When Vericella first took the reins of his grandfather’s ranch, he thought he was going to be rich. The broker was paying $2 a pound for his cattle that year.

The next year the price went down to $1.20. A year later, it slumped to 75 cents.

Vericella quickly learned why the ranch never made his grandfather a profit.

Eventually he and his wife seized an opportunity to turn older animals long viewed as a drain on the ranch’s profitability into the basis for a new revenue stream. With the launch of the dog food brand Pawniolo Pets in 2019, they started making money using dehydrated organs from mature cows that the ranch had historically treated as waste.  

The innovation has morphed a small hobby ranch into a viable start-up business.

“I think sometimes generation-to-generation we get stuck in how our grandfather or our father did something,” said Vericella, who is 33. “I knew I couldn’t do it the same way that my grandpa did it and I knew that was OK.”

Farmers interviewed by Civil Beat who’ve launched their agricultural business in the last five years say they’re buoyed by a passion for feeding Hawaii in a more sustainable way than the status quo food system that relies on crops grown thousands of miles away. Among them are visionary 20-somethings who are just entering the workforce as well as established professionals who’ve turned to farming as a career change — one that may not offer big money but provides a chance to live more in line with their ideals.

“It just comes down to there’s a righteousness to it,” said James Malanaphy, 25, who started a vegetable farm on an eighth of an acre in Waimanalo six months ago.

“It would just be really awesome to be a steward to the land while at the same time being able to provide healthy food directly to this community and, in the end, being able to hopefully restore the land and pass it down so it can continue to be farmed by my future children,” he said.

New Farmer James Malanaphy Waimanalo Hawaii Grown
Waimanalo farmer James Malanaphy checks his crops for cabbage loopers, a common pest that feeds on leafy greens. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

Malanaphy acknowledges he was a little naive when he quit his job in engineering to chase his dream of growing microgreens, tomatoes and broccoli in the Waimanalo soil with little more than some basic backyard gardening experience.

“I read some books and I watched some videos from other farmers on the internet,” he said. “But I quickly realized none of that does farming justice once you’re out there doing it and all the difficulties of it clearly come into focus.”

To get started, Malanaphy moved in with his parents and sought mentorship from the University of Hawaii’s farmer training program Go Farm Hawaii.

As a recent graduate of the six-month farmer development program, Malanaphy said his new enterprise, Jimmy Hugh’s Family Farm, has a jump-start on other starter farms. Beyond hands-on farming and business training, the program has granted him access to a coveted three-year land lease, as well as the use of expensive farming equipment that can astronomically drive up the cost of starting an agricultural business.

Even if his farm takes off, Malanaphy faces a towering hurdle to secure a scrap of cheap land and move his farm onto it when his Go Farm lease expires. Scarce access to affordable land equipped with critical infrastructure, such as water, poses one of the most pressing hardships for the state’s start-up farmers.

“It’s like this looming cloud, or maybe more like this black box of mystery,” Malanaphy said. “Right now I try not to think too much about it.”

New Farmers Encounter Challenges — And Help

To achieve Gov. David Ige’s pledge to double local food production by 2030, some local food advocates say young, idealistic farmers like Malanaphy are exactly what Hawaii needs. 

The average farmer in Hawaii is 60, an age that has been rising in recent decades.

The graying of Hawaii’s agricultural sector has led to grassroots movements aimed at driving interest in agriculture as a career among youth. 

“I’m trying to teach young people as fast as I can, as much as I can,” said John Dobovan, a 74-year-old aquaponics farmer on Maui. “So I’m busy collecting interns that want to carry this forward and I’m beating the bushes looking for land and money to grow.”

Across the state there are abundant opportunities to learn how to grow and sell crops.

MAʻO Organic Farms in Waianae trains and mentors youth who work on the farm as interns and apprentices. Established in 2015, the Hawaii Farmers Union United’s Farm Apprentice Mentoring program has developed skills and confidence in nearly 100 aspiring small-scale commercial farmers. The Maui Family Farmer Training Network offers webinars, resources and coaching to emerging agriculture entrepreneurs.

Growing the next generation of farmers and ranchers is also the mission of UH’s Go Farm program, which formed a decade ago to give food producers the practical tools and experience they need to contribute to Hawaii’s food security. 

The farmer development program is open to people of all ages but primarily attracts middle-aged residents looking to change their careers.

With five training sites across four islands — Oahu, Hawaii island, Maui and Kauai — the project has trained over 400 aspiring farmers since 2013. 

Finding affordable land to farm is the biggest hurdle faced by up-and-coming farmers, according to Go Farm coach Pedro Oliveras Jr. But there’s no shortage of other obstacles.

“One of the biggest problems with getting into farming is you can have a degree in business and it still doesn’t translate to how much you need to know in farming to be successful,” Oliveras said. “Basically you’re asking someone to become an entrepreneur and run their own business, but they also need to know how to research their crops, deal with pests and everything else that goes with it.”

It’s a challenge that Malanaphy has already run up against. 

“I do pretty well with anything that deals with infrastructure, equipment and growing the plants,” he said. “Selling the produce and running the actual business, for me, is much more difficult. I’ve been learning more and more how to do it and trying to get more comfortable doing it but I guess it’s just not my skill set. But with the situation I’m in with the business, I definitely can’t hire anyone.”

‘A Different Set Of Expectations’

Finding land to farm was never a problem for Ben Discoe and Rachelle House, who left careers in computer programming and communications to start Ahualoa Grown, a small vegetable, spice and tea farm situated on their 2.6-acre homestead on the lower slopes of Mauna Kea. 

The couple owns the land, living with their two young children in a house that stands alongside rows of crops. 

The husband and wife team earn a tiny profit — about $3,000 per year — working to feed their own family and about 30 nearby neighbors who patronize the Ahualoa Grown booth at a weekly farmers market. 

A farmer and her son sell produce at a farmers market
Ahualoa Grown, Rachelle House and Ben Discoe’s family farm and homestead, sells produce, spices and tea to customers of the weekly Hamakua Harvest Farmers Market, earning just enough to keep the farm that feeds them and their neighbors running. Courtesy: Ahualoa Grown/2021

And while they’re working to grow their profit, Discoe and House said revenue is just one marker of their three-year-old farm’s success.

Just as important to the couple are the contributions the farm makes toward boosting the food security of their remote community. As such, Discoe and House choose to sell most of their harvest to people living within a 10-mile radius.

“The way we live reflects that we’re farming and it also reflects our principles,” said House, who is 43. “It’s a different set of expectations in terms of income.”

One component of the farm’s success is the savings the couple accumulated while working more lucrative jobs in other fields during their 20s and 30s.

“If we wanted to really make a living on farming, we would have to have more land and we have to be growing more, which means we would be looking to lease more land and we would need to hire employees,” House said. “Because of our age and the fact that we had previous careers, we have some security to be OK with making just enough.”

Often, making “just enough” means tough choices, such as selling the food they’d prefer to eat.

“That is my favorite way of summarizing what’s wrong with our food system,” Discoe said. “We have this terrible economic imperative to grow organic broccoli, sell it at $7 a pound and then take that money, go to Costco and buy it at $2 a pound.”

“That’s not how I want to live,” House said, interjecting. “But in all reality I can make more money selling what we grow than I can eating it, and then I can buy cheaper food at the grocery store that’s not local.”

With Niche Products, A Farmer Sticks To His Price

John Dobovan, the Maui aquaponics farmer, was 65 years old when he closed the book on a 40-year career in videography to earn a degree in sustainable tropical crop management from the University of Hawaii in 2015.

He had a goal: Design an aquaponics system to raise rainbow trout — something that had never been done in Hawaii.

In Kula, Dobovan started designing a trout hatchery funded by his student loans. Slowly, he attracted investors. A death in the family sent some inheritance money his way. And with help from the state Agricultural Loan Division, Dobovan built a successful commercial aquaponics system to raise rainbow trout in two years’ time.

“It was the smallest system I could design that could hopefully at least break even, which was my goal — to at least show it could be done,” he said.

Today Dobovan is 74, and his three-year-old Kulahaven Farms is a commercial success. The aquaponics system he innovated is raising about 12,000 rainbow trout that sell mainly to restaurants, such as Mama’s Fish House. The farm also produces 300 to 400 weekly pounds of organic watercress, which he sells to supermarkets on Oahu and Maui. 

Dobovan wants to grow Kulahaven Farms to at least six times its current size. On a larger scale he thinks the aquaponics system he designed could prove to be a big moneymaker, supporting farmers with good-paying jobs, offering an alternative to imported protein on local dinner plates and opening the door to a new Hawaii-grown rainbow trout export industry.

Dobovan underscores two keys to his success — he honed in on a pair of niche products and he set a good price for them, shrugging off competition from cheaper imports.

“I calculated what I had to charge and I stuck to that,” Dobovan said. “And it’s been a tough sell at times because our watercress is a lot more expensive than some of the other stuff that’s out there.”

“But we’re offering unique products — our watercress is organically certified, we’re selling just the very tip of the plant so it’s more like a microgreen than conventional watercress — and we’re able to get our price without feeling like we need to compete with mainland import prices,” he said. “And I mean, any trout that’s brought in to Hawaii from someplace else looks terrible by the time it gets here so I don’t feel that I need to compete with that.”

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