Nonprofits have stepped in to help with grant writing but the state agriculture department has been slow to take advantage of available pots of money.

Anna Yamada is desperate to grow more of the produce she sells at her Waianae store, a business she started when the pandemic sunk her 2-acre Lualualei farm.

So when Honolulu last year announced a $3 million grant program designed to inject some capital into Oahu’s agricultural sector, Yamada hoped to get enough money for a down payment on some farmland.

The mother of four’s application was among 61 out of 127 that were unsuccessful, adding to her long list of rejected loan and grant applications. The grants, which require record keeping but not repayment, were for amounts between $10,000 and $50,000.

Grants can be a lifeline for struggling farmers and inject capital into farms that want to ramp up operations but many Hawaii producers do not have the time, resources or the awareness they are even available.

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Anna Yamada in her her Waianae store. The lack of a formal financial footprint hampers her ability to access agricultural grants. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Yamada’s downfall was that her old sublease was secured with a handshake, one that makes her decade of farming experience invisible in the eyes of bureaucracy.

“I was desperate to get land,” Yamada said about the informal arrangement. “We just jumped on that land and started planting and plowing.”

It’s not uncommon for local farmers to be in a similar situation to Yamada. Their finances may be cash-based, or their family finances could be intertwined with their farm finances and badly accounted for.

Many lack fluency in the English language and understanding of the U.S. agricultural sector.

“Most of our small farmers are Thai, Laos, Cambodian, Filipino,” Yamada said in an interview. “They are just people who want to farm but don’t have the resources or don’t know how to get the resources to help them.”

Nonprofits Do The Heavy Lifting

People have been realizing the value of grants following an influx of pandemic-related relief, according to Amanda Shaw of the Oahu Agriculture Conservation Association, which was enlisted by Honolulu to help farmers apply for its program.

While the counties are recognizing food producers need help, the state has not fully capitalized on all the funding it could get from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other sources.

But nonprofit organizations such as OACA and The Kohala Center have managed to leverage tens of millions of dollars in grants for Hawaii’s agriculture.

  • ‘Hawaii Grown’ Special Series

The Kohala Center has brought in grants worth $50 million since 2012 with $1 million in funding. OACA has brought in $4.1 million for more than 200 clients between 2019 and 2022 with $250,000 in operating costs.

The recently announced $30 million Regional Food Business Center was the result of a $10,000 stipend to write an application.

“If we are looking at grants as forms of resources … it makes no sense for many producers to not go after resources that are available to them,” Shaw said.

State Agriculture Director Sharon Hurd has known about the abundance of grant money for years but said the agency has not been able to capitalize fully.

customer Thelma Smith Charlie Kamakeeania Gloria Galano Anna Yamada Lao Sticky Rice farming grant fruit vegetables farm
Anna Yamada, center, bags fresh vegetables and snacks for Lao Sticky Rice customers in Waianae. Hawaii has not fully capitalized on grants that could provide additional support to local producers, advocates say.(Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

State lawmakers, however, appear indifferent to the opportunities.

“They say, what are your needs? So I will write, ‘We need a grant writer to write grants and administer grants,'” Hurd said. “And it never gets funded.”

Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture this year did approve creating a grant writing position but said the $137,000 for the position would need to come from elsewhere.

The sustainability advocacy group Ulupono Initiative will fund that role instead, says Ulupono investments and analytics vice president Jesse Cooke.

“What we do know is there is massive amount of federal funds that have become available to states who apply for these grants,” Cooke said.

Falling Through The Cracks

The cost-benefit of funding grant writing parallels the investment that private companies might make on mainland farming operations.

But Hawaii’s currently fragile food system has made it an unattractive prospect.

“Hawaii’s agricultural sector has been slowly decreasing in size for decades. This slow decline has made it difficult to find investors willing to bet on Hawaii farming and ranching operations,” Cooke said.

The reality is that Hawaii does not have a full-fledged “grant culture,” and could be doing more on several levels, according to Melissa Unemori Hampe of the economic development consultancy Skog Rasmussen.

“People need to understand the basics, the terminology, and they need help,” Hampe said.

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Anna Yamada says she can see more help emerging for farmers but it has been slow to arrive. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

That’s because cookie cutter eligibility rules set by federal agencies often ignore the complexity of Hawaii and there needs to be more fluency across the board.

Shaw of OACA says that ultimately, grants are quickly becoming a standard tool for farmers here, given Hawaii’s niche in the national and global food system, but they do need support landing them.

“That eligibility stuff is so key because if you don’t hit those one or two pieces, then you might fall through the cracks,” Shaw said.

The setbacks with the grant process haven’t quashed Yamada’s desire to grow and supply nutritious produce to her community and to help address the community’s health needs.

And while politicians have raised food security and boosting local agriculture as a priority for the past 20 years, Yamada still remembers what it was like growing up on a central Oahu farm.

Her Laos-born parents, who escaped to the U.S. during the Vietnam War, chose Hawaii so they could farm, in the 1980s.

“Farming back then was incredibly difficult,” Yamada said. “To me, things haven’t changed. The people who need help still need help.”

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

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