Catherine Toth Fox: Ag Microgrants Are A Great Way To Support Local Food Production - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

The state is investing in small-scale gardening, herding and livestock operations. It’s a start.

Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture is accepting applications for microgrants up to $5,000 for small-scale gardening, herding and livestock operations to help produce food in areas that lack reliable access to it.

The grants can be used for a wide range of things, from tools and farm equipment to seeds and compost. You can even use the money to buy livestock.

I applied for one in 2021. I didn’t get it.

I wanted to scale up my little home garden and grow vegetables for my neighbors and my mom, who had suffered a stroke and was battling cancer at the time. I had ideas of putting together small CSA-style boxes and distributing them around my neighborhood, which, I found out later, isn’t food insecure. (Meaning we live close enough to stores and supermarkets, and we have access to public transportation to get there.)

So I wondered who got these grants — and, more importantly, how people were using them.

Justin Long, a 34-year-old self-employed farm hand and entrepreneur from a rural area of Kauai, used the $5,000 grant he was awarded to buy a chainsaw and climbing gear to harvest coconuts and a melanger to grind cocoa bean nibs into chocolate.

He also bought seeds, compost, fertilizer and worm castings to restore his 1/8-acre home garden, in which he grows taro, cassava, ginger, eggplant and bittermelon. He trades finished chocolate bars for cacao beans from neighbors who grow the plant but don’t know what to do with the beans.

microgrants Catherine Toth Fox column
Justin Long has used a microgrant he received from the state Agriculture Department to buy equipment needed to harvest coconuts on Kauai. (Courtesy of Justin Long)

And he’s been able to share and sell what he’s growing — a goal he outlined in the application for the microgrant. (He indicated he wanted to produce 300 pounds of food to distribute to the community.)

Gavin Shon, a 27-year-old who leases a 3/8-acre parcel at the University of Hawaii Manoa’s Waimanalo Research Station as part of the GoFarm Hawaii farmer training program, bought weed control mats, insect netting, shade cloth and a drill-powered tiller, which has cut down the amount of time he spends weeding and controlling pests. He was also able to buy everything he needed to start growing microgreens, which he sells in CSA bags and at farmers markets. (He mainly grows lettuce, radishes, kale, carrots and turnips.)

And Emily and Rob Mielke, who live in Kapaa on Kauai with their two young kids, used the money to buy 30 chickens and materials to build a chicken coop and four raised beds for vegetables and herbs on their 3.22-acre property. While they ultimately would love to start an orchard, right now they just want to grow their own food and teach their kids the importance of food security.

“We really want to instill that in our kids, to know how to grow food and eat healthy,” says Emily, 41, who grew up on a beef farm in Minnesota. “This grant … was a huge gift.”

While $5,000 isn’t much when you start looking at farm expenses — a riding mower for an orchard, for example, can run about $3,000, and a commercial upright freezer can cost $5,000 easy — it can help kickstart a new project.

microgrants Catherine Toth Fox column
The Mielke family used the grant to buy chickens and build a chicken coop and raised beds at their Kauai home. (Courtesy of Emily Mielke)

For Long, he was able to experiment with chocolate-making. Now, the father of two is planning a move to Hawaii island where he owns a 46-acre parcel to start his own farm.

The grant “has really pushed me forward into all these projects,” he says. “It’s a lot of work and not that much money, but it fueled my inspiration. My vision is just growing.”

The current application period began in August, marking a second year for the Micro-Grants for Food Security Program. In 2021 nearly 200 grants were awarded statewide. Last year the program had $3 million available for grants, with funding coming from the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the 2018 Farm Bill.

There are several components to food security. At the 1996 World Food Summit, food security was defined as when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Threats to food security include extreme weather, water scarcity, population growth, pest pressure, limitation of available land and rising costs.

Hawaii already spends up to $3 billion a year and imports more than 80% of its food. Local consumers need to be willing to spend more for locally grown food — and willing to eat healthier.

  • ‘Hawaii Grown’ Special Series

Are these microgrants the solution?

Is it enough?

To me, it’s a start. Long is taking fruits — cacao, coconuts — that would otherwise be wasted and turning them into food. The Mielkes are growing their own vegetables so they don’t rely as much on imported produce. And Shon is focused on expanding his small farm, with the goal of making enough money to lease a larger plot of land and grow corn, garlic and fruit trees.

The state is investing money in these projects. We should, too.

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

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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

I wonder whether the microgrants tried to target food hubs - a more efficient, and equitable, way of providing support. The examples given here were individuals - but equipment purchases seem better made by a coop (or similar), where a number of people can benefit, and a core group can deal with maintenance, rather than buying, say a chain saw or tiller used for a week or so, then put up in a shed.

Kamanulai · 7 months ago

Aloha Fellow Farmers- I spent countless hours / weeks working on my grant.I belong to farm boards , currently grow and sell at markets, pay taxes. In the end, it wouldn’t send, just because my farm has no computers, my friends computers couldn’t send it either. They don’t have a walk in. I called them , frustrated, they had no other options to receive it. I was devastated that they didn’t make another exception to see my application. Hoping they soon make their tech side open to receiving from hard working small farmers another way. Mahalo - WildThingsHawaiiFarm

Julia · 7 months ago

Nice article about a good, grassroots program.

Valerie · 7 months ago

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