Growing Future Farmers

Ag tourism, marketing leaders are planting, watering seeds of interest with isle students

KAHULUI – At first glance, it’s hard to recognize the plot of land in Kahului filled with weeds, grass and natural debris. On second look, a couple picnic benches come into view and the nearby area, which was once a thriving banana plantation, becomes slightly more discernible.

However – the only thing Pomai and Lani Weigert see at the Maui High School farmland – is potential, acres and acres of it.

The mother-daughter team of ag tourism and marketing leaders are launching a pilot program to revitalize agricultural studies at MHS, Pomai’s alma mater, in hopes of harvesting future farmers and agricultural enthusiasts for Maui County.

As a result of the MHS farm replanting effort that started last month and two days of agriculture field trips, their efforts are already yielding results.

“Ag and food services have never had registration like how they have now,” MHS agriculture teacher Ian Lowland said. “Instantly the word got around: Cool stuff is going on in agriculture. They’ve been an integral part of all of this.”

MHS senior Sarah Bam said she realizes that agricultural skills are important for all people, especially those living in Hawaii: “Everybody should know how to plant and grow their own food.”

The sought-after speakers and teachers, Pomai, marketing coordinator for Ali’i Kula Lavender, and her mom, Lani, AKL CEO, see the land as an opportunity for a fresh start in planting and growing produce and ornamental crops that benefit the students and the community. They hope to use the pilot program as a model for other area schools that want to renew ag studies.

Under the guidance of AKL owner and lavender farming expert Ali’i Chang, they are working closely with MHS officials and instructor Lowland, who has zero federal funding for his department this year, to revitalize the prime 4.3-acre MHS farm. What Lowland and his students need, the AKL team will try to team with private and public sectors to find.

One of the main priorities for the AKL group is to cultivate the “business of agriculture.” It’s all part of helping students see that there are options awaiting them in agriculture – and a portion of a larger vision to create a sustainable island community, one that must become more independent in a time of great need.

Because, Pomai echoes, there’s no time left to wait for change.

“We’re in dire need of a paradigm shift,” the 28-year-old said. “Old-style plantation farming made parents want to send their kids away, but it’s different now. We need to teach our kids, like, yesterday, that agriculture is important. There’s no other way to have a sustainable community.”

With the urgency to move from fossil fuels and their rising cost, coupled with USDA reports showing the average age of Hawaii’s farmer is 55 and older, the necessity for a new generation of local agricultural participants – from farmers to ag tourism workers and everything in between – is overwhelming.

“As the prices for fossil fuels increase, the ability to import food will decrease,” Lowland said. “So kids being able to create their own food supplies will be critical . . . This will all happen in the student’s lifetime.

Dr. Donna Ching, an extensions specialist at the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaii and program co-director of the Agricultural Leadership Foundation of Hawaii, said top ag employers like seed companies and landscapers want local talent for jobs she said pay “very well.”

“We simply do not have enough students to provide them those human resources,” she said. “A lot of people . . . would much rather hire a local person who wants to stay here and train them with the skills to be able to be successful.”

Last month, the AKL crew launched the first of three initial phases for the school farm: helping replant portions of the ag classrooms’ perimeter with 240 ti leaf. Not only do ti plants symbolize good luck, Chang teaches, but they are an underestimated commercial crop.

AKL also helped organize a recent MHS ag student field trip, where buses of students visited AKL in Kula, Haliimaile Pineapple Co. and University of Hawaii Maui College’s culinary and agricultural departments.

Pomai and Lani said the excursions opened the students’ eyes to food security issues and the importance of locally grown produce and livestock, among other subjects.

Currently, 85 percent of Hawaii’s food is brought from out of state, Ching said, and fewer people grow food than ever before.

“We went from a vast majority of people producing our food to 3 percent of people producing our food,” Ching said. “Now people are realizing a lot of our food is coming from other parts of the world, and as political situations around world become more unstable, we are questioning how dependent we want to be on them.”

Lani said students were also impressed with the culinary side of agriculture and the world-class programs at UH-MC.

“I think when they went on the field trip, they saw how broad the opportunity in agriculture could be for them,” she said. “The misconception is that it’s just about digging a bunch of holes.”

Lani, who also serves as president of the Hawai’i Agritourism Association, listed ag-related areas in which students can find jobs including leadership management, science, culinary arts, hospitality, media, education and more. She emphasized that studying progressive agriculture, such as floral, aquaponics and hydroponics work, will allow students to stay ahead of the curve.

Now, AKL will continue to stick with the school to cultivate relationships with private and public sectors to generate sponsorships with monetary, in-kind and volunteer donations that will help restart the farm, which was once a sprawling banana plantation. They hope the land will yield fruits, vegetables, ornamentals and any other crops that local businesses and farmers may want to help cultivate.

Maui Invasive Species Committee started to clear plots of the farmland recently, Lani said, and she is asking farmers, local businesses – anyone – to sponsor an area, which would entail a day and a half of working with students and providing materials and supplies to plant their plot with a crop of choice. Pomai, who also teaches agriculture at schools across the island through the Maui County Farm Bureau, is hoping to find a bus that can be donated for a mobile farmers market, where crops harvested from MHS’ farm can be brought to local communities that don’t have many local produce options.

At the end of the day, Pomai and Lani share a way of life that’s been passed down for generations, one where living off the land is an integral part of the people. The two view the passion for agriculture as the path to serve their current community – the place and people that helped grow them.

“Agriculture is cultural for us,” Lani said. “We come from an ahupuaa system to ensure there would always be food for all.”

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kehau@mauinews.com.

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ALI’I KULA LAVENDER SUSTAINABLE ALOHA PILOT PROGRAM TO REPLANT MHS FARM

NEEDS: Farmers, businesses, others to donate time, teaching and tools to replant 4.3 acres of MHS farmland, plot by plot. Bus for mobile farmers market.

CONTACT: Pomai Weigert, AKL marketing coordinator, pomai@aklmaui.com; www.aliikulalavender.com; 878-3004

Growing Future Farmers – Mauinews.com | News, Sports, Jobs, Visitor’s Information – The Maui News

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