Something amazing is happening in Waimea, Hawaii. Native Hawaiians are returning to farming, and driving long-term change for society. Families are coming together, and children are being raised in a culture people take pride in.
It’s all part of a vision of Mike Hodson, president of the Waimea Hawaiian Homesteaders’ Association. He and his wife, Tricia, wanted to bring farming back to the community. But they wanted to teach it in a way their people best learned: Not from a manual, but through hands-on practice, on their own soil.
First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) was the first funder of the “Farming for the Working Class” project, investing in the potential that other funders couldn’t yet recognize.
“We approached the State of Hawaii and the Native Hawaiian community, but we had no traction, and everyone looked at our project as just a theory,” Hodson said. “But First Nations saw what we wanted to do, and they believed in us.”
First Nations provided initial seed money of $45,000 through a grant from the Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative.
“First Nations sees the power of projects that intersect food systems and economic development,” said First Nations President & CEO Michael Roberts. “What Waimea wanted to do was strategic and community-minded, and the impact it would have on Indigenous people is exactly what we look for.”
With funding from First Nations, the project was up and running, and true to Hodson’s vision, the impact on the Hawaiian people has been three-fold. By giving Native Hawaiians a way to work their land while keeping their current jobs, the Waimea Hawaiian Homesteaders’ Association is benefiting farming, families and the future.
Return to Farming and Sustainable Food
Hodson explained that Native Hawaiians come from a culture of farming, where they have fostered sustainability and a true sense of community. But through the years, they had begun to lose this heritage. Their population in Hawaii declined, and they looked off the island for their livelihood and future. Further, many Native Hawaiians were not farming their land, and were forced to return their allotments to the U.S. government pursuant to the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act.
Through the Farming for the Working Class project, families learn to farm again. They start with a hands-on, 17-week training course, where they study farming from “A to Z” and reconnect with their purpose and responsibility for the land.
From there, Waimea helps families build a greenhouse on their property, laying irrigation systems and providing education and tools. The greenhouse model is an imperative part of the program because it decreases the labor involved in typical outdoor farming ventures by as much of 85%. This makes it possible for families to run a sustainable farm in just a few hours a day and not have to quit their “day jobs” to do it.
Through the project, families grow food to feed their families. They generate extra income, and they trade food with other families, thus reducing their own expenses. In addition, Hawaii gets a source of locally grown food, which has become rare in the state, as 90% of food is shipped in from the mainland or Japan.
A Strengthening of Families
Through farming, the project also brings families together. In the recent past in Hawaii, there’s been a weakening of family units. The divorce rate among Native Hawaiians is 60%, and reports show that children from single-parent homes have been more likely to end up in Hawaii’s jails. Further, the stress of money and bills has contributed to high rates of domestic violence, with nine out of 10 domestic violence cases stemming from financial issues.
The Farming for the Working Class project brings families together to work, and adds as much as $20,000 a year to the family budget, reducing the strain of making ends meet.
“People may just see a greenhouse on a piece of land,” Hodson said. “But they don’t see the social impact that greenhouse has. It lets people invest in themselves, and it keeps families together. To me, that’s the number one thing that is occurring.”
New Vision for the Future
Where once there were only two, now there are 45 out of 115 lots being farmed since Hodson began. The project has increased the amount of farmed land by 50% with hopes to increase it 75% in the next 10 years.
Families are generating additional revenue. Income levels are rising, and Hawaii is able to reap locally grown food. Kids growing up in Hawaii have options for staying on the island and building a life. People are returning to their culture of self-sufficiency and self-determination. Families are seeing the therapeutic effect of farming, reconnecting with the earth and working with the soil. And the concept of community – extended beyond the family environment – is being embraced.
“It’s bringing us back full circle,” said Hodson. “Being a whole community is in our DNA. It’s the way our culture is supposed to be.”
In future plans, more greenhouses are in the works, along with a 35-acre community greenhouse, which will be open for use by Native Hawaiians, those on the waiting list for government lands, as well as all residents of Hawaii.
And now more funding is coming in from state and local sources, as other funders see all that’s possible based on Hodson’s vision.
“They didn’t want to fund us before because our theory wasn’t tested. But now we have that credibility, thanks to First Nations,” Hodson said.
Since 2012, First Nations has provided an additional $76,000 to strengthen the Farming for the Working Class project. With funding from the latest grant, Waimea will have the equipment and tools to develop a Farmers’ Market, a concept they’ve piloted through a three-month trial. Through the new market, farmers will have greater control over marketing and distribution, and be able to get more food directly to Hawaii’s chefs, stores and restaurants.
As an organization that has provided grants to more than 50 organizations in Indian Country in the last year alone, First Nations is proud to stand behind this project. “We invest in communities where others often aren’t. We see what they can do. And how it gives people hope,” Roberts said. “Things like Waimea give us incredible return.”
For more information about the Waimea Hawaiian Homesteaders’ Association, go to http://hstrial-wwaimeahomestead.homestead.com/.
By Amy Jakober