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A New Crop of Farmers Are Growing Fresh Local Food Through Innovative Methods

A new crop of farmers looks to grow fresh local food by trying new agricultural methods. The result? Mushrooms, goat cheese, microgreens and more.


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Photos: Elyse Butler Mallams 

 

A composter who grows portabella mushrooms; a fourth-generation farmer turning less-than-perfect fruit into farm café fare; and a could-be-retired engineer using aquaponics in Lualualei to grow greens are just a few of the faces of the next generation of Hawai‘i farmers.

 

The past few decades have been challenging for Island farming. With the exit of large plantations, the demand for housing on undeveloped farmland and the high cost of doing business in Hawai‘i, the number of acres devoted to agriculture between 1980 and 2015 has dramatically dropped. A recent report from the state Department of Agriculture showed a decline of 200,000 acres of cropland and 340,000 acres of pastureland, representing drops of 57 percent and 31 percent, respectively.

 

With the limited data available, experts estimate the Islands import about 90 percent of our food and export 80 percent of our agricultural production.

 

But there’s hope. That dependence on imports has created an opportunity for entrepreneurs to contribute to the state’s agricultural industry even on land-scarce O‘ahu. Farmer training programs are filling up. Farmers markets are expanding, offering a venue for small farmers and entrepreneurs to sell their products. The Whitmore Project is revitalizing agriculture in Wahiawā by converting at least 1,200 acres of fallow pineapple land into farms, an agribusiness-technology hub, packaging and processing facilities, and workforce housing. It’s just one of three recent land agreements designed to keep local farmers on farmland. And chefs are showcasing local ingredients, creating further demand for locally grown fruits, vegetables, meats and products.

 

“Young farmers face huge barriers to securing agricultural land,” says Lea Hong, executive director of the Trust for Public Land, adding that ag land can sell for $100,000 or more per acre. “No regular farmer can afford to buy land at that price. That’s why preserving ag land is so important, through conservation easements … or by getting ag land into the hands of organizations that farm the land and create opportunities for the next generation of farmers and community leaders.”

 

Here’s what that next generation of O‘ahu farmers looks like—and why it’s so passionate about growing food and this industry in Hawai‘i.

 

THE GOAT FARMER

Emma Bello

Sweet Land Farm

 AFTER A SUMMER JOB WORKING AT A GOAT DAIRY FARM, EMMA BELLO SWAPPED A CAREER IN THE KITCHEN FOR ONE RAISING GOATS ON HER OWN FARM, SWEET LAND FARM, IN WAHIAWĀ.

 After a summer job working at a goat dairy farm, Emma Bello swapped a career in the kitchen for one raising goats on her own farm, Sweet Land Farm, in Wahiawā.
 Photo: Elyse Butler Mallams

 

BELLO FEEDING ONE OF HER BABY GOATS.

Bello feeding one of her baby goats.

When Emma Bello was a student in the culinary program at Leeward Community College a few years ago, she got a summer job working at the Surfing Goat Dairy in Kula, Maui.

 

That’s when it became clear: “I loved goats,” she says. “I realized I didn’t want to be in a kitchen all day. I knew I wanted to pursue this.”

 

This year, at 25, Bello started Sweet Land Farm, the only certified goat dairy on O‘ahu, which sprawls across 86 acres of old pineapple land in Waialua. Right now, she has more than 115 goats of various breeds, including Alpine, La Mancha, Kiko and Nubian. While most are dairy goats, she does raise a few for meat.

 

Bello produces handmade farmstead goat cheese, called chèvre, aged feta and goat-milk products. She sells various flavors of her spreadable chèvre, including sun-dried tomato, roasted garlic, olive and, the most popular, green onion, at two farmers markets on O‘ahu and at Whole Foods Market in Kāhala and Kailua. Chefs Alan Wong and Ed Kenney buy her plain chèvre for their restaurants.

 

Bello recently started making tomme (a type of cheese), with 13 wheels aging at the farm for 12 weeks. Her mom, Mary, is perfecting her caramel sauce, and farm tours are starting next year.

 

In the meantime, Bello manages a hectic schedule, caring for her goats and milking them twice a day. Right now, she milks about 30 goats in a high-tech milking parlor, which can milk up to 16 goats in just a couple of minutes. (On average, each goat produces between one and two gallons of milk a day.) She’d like to be milking 300.

 

Her parents, Eric and Mary Bello, run an architectural woodwork company but have agricultural backgrounds. (Both majored in poultry science in college and worked at chicken farms. Mary is part of the Petersons’ Upland Farm family.) So, when Bello expressed an interest in farming, they understood the realities but were happy to support her dream. Her parents and her brother, Austin, all work on the farm.

 

 “This is really my dream come true,” Bello says.

 

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