HRDC partnered with the nonprofit Pacific Gateway Center, which helps immigrants, refugees and low-income residents of Hawai‘i gain access to opportunities and services through building skills that lead to self-sufficiency, to host two screenings of “Seeds of Hope” during the month of October, 2013.
The first screening was held on Saturday, Oct. 12 at PGC’s ESL class on 60 acres of agricultural lands in Kunia leased by PGC to immigrant farming families of primarily Thai background. The screening was attended by an audience of over 20 Thai immigrant farmers currently working at that site. These families grow vegetables that are sold by third parties at farmers markets and the swap meet, as well as through other distributors such as Armstrong Produce. As stated by Terrina Wong, deputy director of PGC, one of the motivations for showing the film to this audience is the center’s goal of social, as well as economic integration, and to give them a broader context for the work they are doing.
The presentation was moderated by a staff translator and the film was shown in sections covering the first four chapters, with breaks after each chapter to allow the translator to summarize its contents and permit a Q&A between HRDC Board Chair Alan Murakami and the audience members.
The key points that came forth from this marginalized segment of the farming population with very little public voice were:
- Many similarities between the traditional agricultural cultures of Southeast Asia and Hawai‘i, with the staple/sacred crop being rice instead of taro. Several audience members noted that the same erosion of traditional agricultural practices featured in the film is also occurring in their homelands, due to pressures from economic development and urbanization.
- The difficulty of farming without a stronger, long-term connection to the land. A significant portion of the discussion revolved around the farmers’ challenges in not being able to live on their farmlands and how much easier it would be if they had access to land where they could also reside. While this is possible in Hawai‘i, creating mechanisms for precarious farming populations like this one might further facilitate diversification of the state’s agriculture.
- Connected to the question of a daily relationship with their farmlands is the issue of long-term leases. Because they are on short-term leases, these farmers are unable to consider crops with longer turnaround. They said that leases of 5-10 years, for example, would enable them to grow fruit trees and other crops.
- Another issue they brought up was the difficulty of not managing their own distribution. Primarily because of their language barrier, these farmers are not able to control the terms of their product scale/distribution and must leave these important financial components of creating a sustainable business to third parties. The importance of offering support services and capacity-building skills to these types of populations was underscored as an area of potential growth to strengthen agriculture in Hawai‘i, as PGC can only handle a limited number of clients at a time.
The second film screening was held on Wednesday, Oct. 30, at PGC’s Culinary Business Incubator center in Kalihi. Though it was attended by only 8 people, these included USDA farm resource agent Jason Shintanishi and several beginning/low-income farmers.
- During the discussion following the film, Tuputupu Lopeti from Tonga described the challenges he faces growing tapioca, a Tongan staple starch, on five acres of leased land in Waialua, as part of the Waialua Farmer’s Cooperative. These challenges include the lack of a robust consumer’s market (much of the tapioca consumed by the local Tongan/Samoan population is grown informally on residential properties) and high land/water costs. Lopeti explained that in Tonga the access to land is much easier, though based on a more feudal system of inheritance and assignation, and he noted that his main motivation for farming tapioca is its cultural and familial importance to him. Nonetheless, when asked what his ideal change in the current system would be, he responded, “access to land.”
- Ketsana Phitsamay, a Laotian-born, Hawai‘i-raised young man who is embarking on a venture to raise green tea in Pauoa Valley, said that it was inspiring and also saddening to see the “big picture” of agriculture in Hawai‘i. He said he got the idea to grow tea from a trip to Japan, where he saw how the crop was an effective vehicle for community building, and Phitsamay says his motivations for working with the land are a broader, cultural and community reconnection that he believes can occur in Hawai‘i because of its history. Shintanishi and others observed that tea has great potential as an added-value, commodity crop and that there is still a great need for agriculture to diversify in Hawai‘i.
- Stanley Ching, a realtor active in the Lion’s Club and also part of PGC’s beginning farmer cohort, observed that the biggest hurdles to beginning and low-income farmers continue to be an enormous quantity of regulatory and bureaucratic red tape that many do not have the ability to work through. This was affirmed by Shintanishi, who said that as regulations continue to increase and independent farmers’ capacity to network and innovate are key in determining their success, and he pointed to the Ho family farm as a good example of this. Shintanishi also emphasized that the film’s “inclusive” approach to the discussion about agriculture and food is important to creating a broad-based awareness of the issues in Hawai‘i.