GoFarm Hawaiʻi gives back

Many businesses and operations had to pivot at the onset of the pandemic and rethink their business strategies. While COVID-19 has had devastating effects on the economic infrastructure of states across the country, farmers in Hawaiʻi and programs like GoFarm Hawaiʻi have taken advantage of the situation. 

Janel Yamamoto is the director of GoFarm Hawaiʻi, a program under UH Mānoaʻs College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR). This program is primarily devoted to educating students on sustainable agriculture and farming while building strong business foundations. 

“When the dean of CTAHR applied for the grant at that time, he felt that a college was able to provide production related support through extension services but that farmers also needed a way to support their business side of their operation so he wanted to provide those types of services,” Yamamoto said. 

Founded in 2003, GoFarm started off with an agro-business incubator program and has developed their school to be a 5 level program where students range from those curious about farming and agriculture to advanced farming entrepreneurs. 

The program takes a multi-phase approach with 5 levels starting with informational classes and agriculture exposure to eventually becoming a commercial agriculture supplier. 

GoFarm played a major role in providing food to local residents at the beginning of the pandemic.  

“They were preparing food to sell or to give so we were still able to continue to meet for field classes. We really wanted to be able to support the community at that time, so we pivoted. At least half of your production we asked that they please donate that to your community,” Yamamoto said. 

Honolulu, Hawai‘i

Go Farm Hawai‘i’s is located in Waimanalo. It is a program under UH Mānoaʻs College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR), primarily focused on educating their students on sustainable agriculture and farming while building strong business foundations.

The importance of locally sourced food became evident as grocery store produce was wiped out and many people were left empty handed.

“People say we import 80%, I see numbers higher than that in terms of produce that we import. I think that the COVID situation has really shined the light on, ‘Yeah, what happens if things can’t get here?’ We see all these shortages… What happens if food can’t get here? We need to learn to become better at being sustainable within our own state and supporting local farmers is what is going to help us get there,” Yamamoto said.

“We need to learn to become more sustainable within our own state and supporting local farmers is what is going to help us get there.” 

While farmers have seen an uptick in local support, the struggle for farmers continues. As the fear surrounding COVID-19 dissipates and people begin purchasing from grocery stores again, the financial impact on farmers is felt across the state.

Honolulu, Hawai‘i

Some locally produced tomatoes grown by students of Go Farm Hawai‘i.

Honolulu, Hawai‘i

Lettuce grown by Go Farm Hawai‘i cohorts.

Honolulu, Hawai‘i

Locally produced Okra produced by the students of Go Farm Hawai‘i.

Honolulu, Hawai‘i

Chard leaves produced by Go Farm Hawai‘i cohorts.

“A lot of the farmers, the ones on our incubation site, are saying they see business actually start to decrease because people are getting more comfortable going back to their former buying patterns, more directly to the supermarket,” Yamamoto said. “So I am hoping there is continued campaigning to spread the word on why local ag is important and why we need to support local farmers.”

According to Yamamoto, it will take more than local support to decrease imported produce and increase locally sourced foods. Farmers within and beyond GoFarm hope to see an increase in government support and funding for the local market. 

“There is a demographic of consumers that still likes knowing who your farmer is and where your food is coming from. So it really was an opportunity for them to show what they can do… I think there is definitely room for our state to do that, for the department of ag in to take part in promoting buying local so I hope that will help,” Yamamoto said. 

Regarding the GoFarm Hawaiʻi program, Yamamoto said she has seen an increase in enrollment from students of all walks of life. Many of them have been inspired by the pandemic to learn practical ways to be sustainable in small ways. 

“It’s interesting just to see the kind of applicants that were coming through. A lot of them were saying their primary goal is to grow a home garden... There is a demand for wanting to create a robust garden for themselves,” Yamamoto said.

 From GoFarm Hawaiʻi to Farm Link

Every week, Gwen Young makes her way toward the parking lot of University Avenue’s notable ice cream shop, Banán. She is about to pick up her groceries she ordered through Farm Link Hawaiʻi.

“I always wanted to buy directly from the farmers but there weren’t a lot of great programs that I found out on the island,” Young said. “Before we would always buy local when we would go to Foodland but now that I have Farm Link I only go to Foodland for the things I don’t get from Farm Link.” 

Young became more concerned about helping local communities when COVID-19 broke out and believes buying local products is a way to do so. 

Honolulu, Hawai‘i

UHM faculty Kasey Barton (L) and local resident Gwen Young (R) has been a Farm Link Hawai‘i for a long time. In this picture, they pose for portrait as they pick up their weekly grocery from Banán parking lot on July 1, 2020.

Honolulu, Hawai‘i

University Avenue’s Banán backend production manager Zane Greenberg brings out a delivery box at the parking lot on July 1, 2020. On a weekly basis, people meet in the parking space to pick up their item from Farm Link Hawai‘i.

Honolulu, Hawai‘i

Farm Link Hawai‘i delivery box with locally produced items.

Farm Link is one of the many digital marketplaces for farmers and its founder was a graduate of the CTAHR GoFarm Hawaiʻi program. 

“One of our graduates started Farm Link Hawaiʻi, which is an online marketplace that connects consumers directly with farmers, and they saw a huge growth in what they were doing so that demand for delivery or pick up really exploded… It was farmers’ time to shine during this situation,” Yamamoto said.  

“I always wanted to buy directly from the farmers but there weren’t a lot of great programs that I found out on the island,” Young said. “Before we would always buy local when we would go to Foodland but now that I have Farm Link I only go to Foodland for the things I don’t get from Farm Link.” 

Young became more concerned about helping local communities when COVID-19 broke out and believes buying local products is a way to do so. 

Farm Link is one of the many digital marketplaces for farmers and its founder was a graduate of the CTAHR GoFarm Hawaiʻi program. 

“One of our graduates started Farm Link Hawaiʻi, which is an online marketplace that connects consumers directly with farmers, and they saw a huge growth in what they were doing so that demand for delivery or pick up really exploded… It was farmers’ time to shine during this situation,” Yamamoto said.  

“It was farmers' time to shine during this situation." 

Similarly to GoFarm Hawaiʻi, Farm Link pivoted their business direction overnight transitioning from restaurant sales to becoming an online farmers market where consumers can have their items picked up or delivered.

Mariah Raftree is the Customer Experience Manager for Farm Link. She dove into the whirlwind that came with running a local operation during a global pandemic. 

“Itʻs a group of farmers that are really interested in trying to help other farmers get their product to the market but we lost all of our customers in one week. All the wholesale customers stopped because all the restaurants shut down and we had to shift our business literally overnight to be able to service the household market,” Raftree said. 

Providing delivery and drop-off services for their customers increased revenue, but also came with new expenses and machinery needed to carry out their new operations. 

“When COVID hit, we realized we needed to be able to deliver to people’s homes because people don’t want to go out of their home, they don’t want to pick up, they don’t want to interact with folks at all and so we ended up getting three additional vans. They are rental refrigerated vans to allow us to immediately implement home delivery… We also had to put the technology in place to do that and as far as having delivery software and delivery drivers,” Raftree said. 

Honolulu, Hawai‘i

Farmer’s choice bag is a surprise package that the customer receives often which contains products chosen by the farmers to create variation.

Honolulu, Hawai‘i

Along with produce, Farm Link Hawai‘i also offers dairy products.

An overnight feat

The increase in customers brought opportunity for Farm Link to expand, but it did not come without its challenges. 

With smaller margins, it is hard for companies like Farm Link to stay afloat in comparison to large corporations that absorb most sales. While the pandemic brought an influx of sales to Farm Link, it also brought a reasonable amount of stress.

“We went from a staff of four core people essentially to now a staff of 18 people. We are a small business. We work on razor thin margins because we are moving local foods so it’s not like we’re going out and getting all this funding to ramp up the business… We are trying to keep our gas on the pedal so we can keep growing,” Raftree said. 

Along with hiring expansions and moving locations came a revamping of the technological infrastructure to meet the high demand. 

“We also had to put the technology in place to do that and as far as having delivery software and delivery drivers. So there were labor considerations right away, there were technology considerations. There’s infrastructure considerations. All of that needed to happen now,” Raftree said. 

The panic that ensued due to the shortage of supplies and produce after the state shut down contributed to the incredible demand Farm Link had to take on. 

“Our system was crashing because we had thousands and thousands of people across the island trying to login. People were really frustrated. Tensions were high. I can’t tell you how many kupuna were crying on the phone just because they’re scared to go out of their homes and they weren’t getting their orders in from Safeway or Costco and it made me feel better about the struggle we were having. If the big corporations can’t get it right, then it makes sense for us to not. Everybody was having a breakdown,” Raftree said. 

Farm Link eventually had to create a waitlist for customers interested in their products to ensure all orders were fulfilled with quality products. 

Companies like Safeway and Costco have the numbers in both workers and products to service their customers online almost seamlessly. Their websites follow the status quo and are easy to use for the common shopper. 

That is not the case for local organizations like Farm Link. The foreign world of online but local shopping in comparison to large grocery store websites was frustrating for Farm Link’s new customers. 

“The frustration levels from customers because our systems were not working was high. Because there was a waiting list. That’s frustrating. Because our systems didnt work the same that Amazon does. That’s frustrating. We as a consumer have been really marketed towards what online shopping should be like and working with small businesses is different,” Raftree said. 

Raftree emphasized that employees at Farm Link are working around the clock to keep the show running. 

“We as a consumer have been really marketed towards what online shopping should like and working with small businesses is different.”

 

The faces behind Farm Link

Farm Link’s operations have expanded over the past few months allowing them to hire more employees, purchase more delivery vans and to occupy a larger packing and distribution space.

Originally renting and using small packing centers around the island, they moved to their new facility in early June located on Waiakamilo road where they now process upward of 500 orders a week - a 733% increase from their previous 60 orders a week. 

In their new commercial space, the Farm Link packers suit up in their insulated uniforms to withstand the cold temperatures of their giant refrigerated space where they organize, pack and distribute the products brought in from farmers.

Zach Galiza is a packer for Farm Link and a soon-to-be delivery driver. He has worked at Farm Link for a few months now and is one of the many that were hired upon the expansion of the company. 

While there is a belief that grocery stores provide a convenience and price point that local farmers cannot, he says that Farm Link is as versatile and innovative, providing products outside of the scope of large grocery corporations. 

“Even though we have some basic stuff that people can buy at regular grocery stores, there’s a lot of things that are not sold that you cannot get. So it is the fact of unique product and then on top of that it is locally sourced,” Galiza said.

Honolulu, Hawai‘i

FarmLink Hawaii packer, training to be delivery driver Zach Galiza carries a box with fresh produces to the check out booth in the working facility at Kalihi on July 8, 2020.

Honolulu, Hawai‘i

Yuda Abitbol is one of the new recruits of Farm Link Hawai‘i and has been working for the past two weeks as a delivery driver and packer. With the increasing demand of local products, the company went from a staff of four core people essentially to now a staff of 18 people.

 Hannah Rocha has worked with the company prior to moving to their new packing center and said that while the transition was hectic, the ease of operating out of a single space has been advantageous for the packers, delivery drivers, farmers and management. 

She has worked for Farm Link for 6 months now and mentioned that working for a local produce company motivated her to shop local herself as she was exposed to the grueling process that farmers face.  

“Looking at local sellers at the side of the road and knowing what they went through for that one piece of fruit, I would much rather pay for the community and that relationship and bond than just corporate machine,” Rocha said. 

“I would much rather pay for the community and that relationship and bond than just corporate machine." 

Honolulu, Hawai‘i

Farm Link Hawai‘i worker, Hanna Rocha, seals boxes with fresh produce in their new working facility in Kalihi on July 8, 2020. She has been working for the company for the past five months.

Honolulu, Hawai‘i

Farm Link facility worker Debi Anderson matches items to the list before putting the produce in the delivery boxes.

Nile Mwalukoma is a packer for Farm Link Hawaiʻi and has worked with the company for a couple of months alongside his fianceé, Jenn Doumel. 

Mwalukoma says what Farm Link does is allow local farmers to thrive by playing the middleman. 

“There might be more demand than the farmer can handle and that’s why this business is so beautiful - offering that intersection between farmer and household. That’s vital. It’s humble work but it's really important,” he said. 

The labor of packing and delivering boxes brought great reward to Mwalukoma as he was able to deliver to customers who feared leaving their houses. 

“I got a strange fulfillment out of it, being that intermediary and bringing them what they need… To bring it to their doorstep and feel the appreciation. It can be far and wide,” he said. 

Honolulu, Hawai‘i

Facility packer Nile Mwalukoma poses for a portrait with a pineapple which he says is one of the most demanded items. According to Mwalukoma, “I got to bring these bags and boxes that we build to the door. Everybody was just really thankful, you really got to complete the whole concept. Everybody is super appreciative.”

In addition to working for Farm Link, Doumel and Mwalukoma do what they can to support local themselves. 

“Being able to consume that came out of ʻAina dirt. Honestly itʻs been enlightening and I feel it in my actions and I feel it in eating something that comes from the land. Itʻs been the best blessing of COVID… To help facilitate that is amazing,” Doumel said. 

It is through workers like these that Farm Link has been able to expand their shopping and delivery days. What used to be 2 days of grocery pick up or delivery is now 4 days due to the fast and innovative transition that Farm Link has been able to achieve. 

Honolulu, Hawai‘i

“It is breaking away so many ties and so much dependence we have to the mainland. We can be sufficient in our own ways,” said Jenn Doumel, Farm Link facility worker as she fetches Thyme leaves from her fiancé Nile Mwalukoma (not in the photo).

Pressing on for a sustainable future

Despite the challenges, Raftree said that she and her team feel extremely grateful for the clientele they have accumulated as well as the long-time clientele that have supported them from the beginning. 

Farm Link is working tirelessly to make their company as available and convenient as possible. This pandemic has brought a window of opportunity for local businesses like theirs to thrive. 

A sustainable future, according to Raftree, is investing in something larger than oneself. 

Subsidized products will always have a name in the game, however she and many others hope that all factors such as fair wage and labor and the ethical side of companies are taken into consideration when people shop.

“The way that I look at it is that we have our cheap food. And if you are shopping at a grocery store, it’s cheap food. It’s subsidized processed. And to grow food in a way that people are making a fair wage, a livable wage and they are not put in bad situations. It’s not like the price is going to come down. It’s going to be where are we going to choose?” Raftree said. 

One way companies like GoFarm and Farm Link hope to promote a sustainable future is by making their products as accessible as possible so that it can fall into the hands of customers who want to support their mission. 

“We are in the final stages of getting EBT set up for the double bucks and we are going to do everything that we can to make our offerings as affordable and to try and be as accessible to as many people as possible,” Raftree said. 

Farm Link and GoFarm have kept farmers afloat in a corporate world. Sustainability is the future and companies like these are imparting that message to their students, workers and customers. 

“We are trying to tell our graduates to re-enforce that message… Show them and continue to spread the message of why it’s a good thing to buy local,” Yamamoto said.

This is the first article of a local farmers and operations series which is the first installment of a new editorial project called, “Recovering Hawaiʻi.” More articles and information to come. 

Editor-in-Chief

Esther Kim is the Editor in Chief of Ka Leo. While she is a Bachelor's of Social Work student, she has a passion for writing and wants to use journalism in conjunction with social work to progress conversations surrounding social justice and equity.

Photos Editor

Shafkat Anowar is currently a junior concurrently majoring in Communications and Business (Management Information Systems). He is passionate about photojournalism. One day, he dreams to join the White House Presidential Press Pool.