State agencies and local hotels and restaurants are on the hunt for more Hawaii-grown produce, but only a small number of our farms conform to USDA guidelines.

Twice a week, Kuilima Farm workers are in the fields by about 5 a.m. They huddle over rows of crops, the picking lit only by the headlights of an ATV and a small floodlight. 

The team then takes its harvest to its new washing and packing facility. Leaves are dumped into water-filled tubs before drying in a modified washing machine; root vegetables are cleaned in a refashioned concrete mixer. 

Not long after sunrise the orders are ready to be dispatched. Most of Kuilima’s weekly 1,000-pound harvest will go to Turtle Bay Resort, though demand for the farm’s produce is increasing because it processes its crops in accordance with federal food safety standards. 

Kuilima is one of only 100 of the state’s 7,300 farms certified under U.S. Department of Agriculture food safety guidelines.

But food safety proponents say certification by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or state equivalents, not only assures customers that farms meet food standards, but they are also key to opening up new markets. 

“The ones that are certified right now, they’re inundated with orders,” Hawaii Agricultural Foundation Dean Okimoto said.

“It really is a marketing tool for farmers,” he said.

At Kuilima Farm on the North Shore of Oahu, on most mornings, a small team of three or four workers harvests greens. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

All farms earning over $25,000 per year are subject to the rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act, a compulsory program. The FDA does not administer certification — it conducts mandatory inspections — and USDA certification programs help assure that farms are adhering to FSMA standards.

As Hawaii’s lawmakers apply pressure on state agencies to increase local food purchasing, a bill submitted in the House and Senate would appropriate $1 million to Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture to establish a USDA GAP training and certification program. These are voluntary audits for producers on how to reduce the risk of contamination during the growing, packing and storing of produce and cost $132 an hour minimum, according to the DOA.

Another bill would create a task force to analyze imported food and its treatment under FSMA rules.

  • ‘Hawaii Grown’ Special Series

Institutional Markets

The stakes for local producers could be substantial.

Hawaii’s Department of Education purchases about $45 million worth of food annually, with the lion’s share coming in the form of processed food from the mainland.

But DOE has been charged with increasing its spending on food from Hawaii’s farms up to 30% by 2030. It only managed to reach 6.2% for 2022, according to a report to the Legislature.

Reaching that 2030 goal will require overcoming issues of supply, staffing and food safety.

Kuilima Farm grows runs a farm tour operation alongside its crops and hydroponics. (Photo courtesy: Kuilima Farm)

“If the DOE isn’t able to comply with this 30% food thing, it’s not necessarily going to be their fault, there just aren’t enough (certified) farms,” said Kevin Kelly, executive director of North Shore Economic Vitality Partnership.

North Shore EVP is one of few places in Hawaii that provides USDA certification training for farmers.

But market-driven legislation is exactly what Hawaii’s farmers need to increase production, Kelly adds, locking in demand and potentially providing income to farmers for crops before they are even planted.

“Legislative markets really don’t go away. They’re great,” Kelly said.

Going Big

For Kuilima, adhering to the FSMA rule meant enrolling in a certification process, building a packing facility and installing all the necessary infrastructure to make sure they could sell directly to Turtle Bay Resort as well as other locations.

The fledgling operation currently uses a small refrigerator for its products, but it has a 200-square-foot walk-in fridge to accommodate the anticipated growth in demand.

Pono Pacific Land Management oversees 483 acres of land, including Kuilima Farm, which follows regenerative agricultural practices. Pono Pacific is also landlord to the surrounding farmers who typically follow conventional farming methods.

At Kuilima Farm’s wash-pack facility, staff process up to 1,000 pounds of fresh produce per week and are hoping to increase that exponentially. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Ramsey Brown, Pono Pacific Vice President of Diversified Agriculture, says he hopes to bring surrounding farmers in with Kuilima Farm as it develops its customer base with new restaurants and hotels and via a Community Supported Agriculture program. But access to those markets will require them to become compliant with FSMA and certified.

Many farmers continue to balk at the cost of certification and general demands for documentation.

“You can keep accepting cash and doing cash transactions and not tracking anything for the reasons you might be doing that,” Brown said in an interview. “But for the short-term gain, is it worth the long-term risk of not being food safety certified?”

States such as New Mexico have recognized the teething issues for farmers and have implemented their own food safety practices tailored to institutional spending.

New Mexico’s Approved Supplier Program, which is not quite as onerous as a USDA certification, could be a model for a local stopgap, according to Kelly.

New Mexico’s alternative program was developed for small-scale producers that find the USDA program intimidating or too costly.

A similar program, which cost New Mexico $200,000 to run this year, could also be implemented in Hawaii.

“It could be seen as a step towards food safety certification,” Kelly of North Shore EVP said.

For Brown, obtaining food safety certification is about increasing Kuilima’s market and productivity and “getting ahead of the curve” before it becomes more widely adopted.

“Just because the farm isn’t certified, doesn’t mean they’re doing anything wrong,” Brown said.

But uncertainty may mean potential customers still end up going elsewhere.

“If you do it, then you’re going to have a business rather than like some subsistence kind of thing,” he said.

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

Correction: This story has been corrected because the original version stated that North Shore Economic Vitality Partnership provided USDA certification to farmers. It provides training.

In addition, the Food and Drug Administration does not certify whether farms meet Food Safety Modernization Act standards, which the previous article inferred. They conduct mandatory inspections.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author