“I farm here with my husband, my parents and my sister,” explains Bam Arsanok. Her family has been growing tomatoes, cucumbers, bitter melon and peppers on two plots totaling eight acres since arriving from Thailand in 2016. “We know all the other farmers,” she says. “We are friends, almost like family.”
Producers like Arsanok lease their land through PGC Farms in Kunia, an initiative run by the non-profit Pacific Gateway Center (PGC). The organization promotes self-sufficiency among socially and economically disadvantaged people on Oʻahu, the state’s most populous island. PGC’s various programs and resources are largely geared toward immigrants, funded by a combination of government, community, and private grants, and revenue from its own revenue-generating services.
In addition to affordable farmland and help accessing capital, PGC farmers receive on-the-job training, financial and regulatory expertise, and language resources, including interpreters and English lessons – all the support that immigrant farmers need to become independent farmers. And by seeding a new generation of farmers, these efforts are also helping to strengthen local agriculture and seed resilience in the island food system.
The agricultural program was born out of necessity in 2012, when PGC was tasked with relocating trafficked Thai and Lao laborers to a Hawaiian farm. Most came from rural backgrounds and chose to stay by establishing an independent livelihood in agriculture.
“But they had no capital, no credit, no business experience,” said Hao Nguyen, deputy director of PGC.
For immigrants and refugees, a lack of educational credentials is often a huge barrier to pursuing business opportunities, Nguyen says, leaving those workers ineligible to rent land from Hawaii’s Farm Park Program, an initiative that promotes agriculture. small-scale farming on affordable state-owned land. .
At the time, PGC did not have agricultural expertise in-house. It took a partnership with two other nonprofits to secure the necessary resources: New Hope Church leased its 176-acre agricultural property in Kunia to PGC, and the Hawai’i Agricultural Foundation provided support and guidance. in the field.
Yet farmers faced a complex and alien landscape of American production methods, regulatory compliance, and business operations. From tapping into financial resources and finding markets, to learning English and paying taxes, they needed support from below.
“We had to establish them not just as farm workers, but as farm owners in a new setting, in a new country,” says Nguyen.
Socially disadvantaged people tend to have many challenges that prevent them from succeeding at work, Nguyen notes. And for new immigrants, the hurdles can be especially steep. In addition to transportation, housing, and childcare supports, access to immigration and language services is often essential to maintaining employment or pursuing education and job training.
In Hawaii, immigrants make up about one-fifth of the population and one-quarter of the workforce. Yet local policies and socioeconomic resources that promote integration are scarce, according to the New American Economy (NAE), a nonprofit research and immigrant advocacy group. Using measures such as economic empowerment, legal support and job opportunities for foreign-born citizens, the NAE’s 2021 report ranks Honolulu — home to nearly 75% of the state — at Ranked 95th out of the nation’s 100 largest cities for immigrant support policies. For organizations like PGC, this deficiency leaves them shouldering a heavy burden when it comes to the economic well-being of the state.
After tourism and defense, agriculture is Hawaii’s largest industry, one in which immigrants play a vital role: they fill nearly two out of every five agricultural jobs and help maintain a rapidly aging profession. Agriculture, Nguyen adds, is also key to building the resilience of Hawaii’s food system, which depends on imports for nearly 85% of its food supply.
In 2016, Hawaii Governor David Ige called for doubling local food production by 2030. Six years later, the state is still far from achieving its goal; Ultimately, the goal will require a lot more output and a strong, well-trained agricultural workforce — a workforce highly committed to the profession, Nguyen says.
Agriculture faces unique challenges in Hawaiʻi. Competition for land is tough and the unique geography lends itself to smaller plot sizes, limiting mechanization. Production costs also remain high despite a decline in the value of island crops.
“It’s hard and intensive work,” notes Nguyen. “A lot of locals don’t want to do that.” In other words, Hawaii’s agricultural labor pool will simply become unsustainable without immigrants.
PGC formalized the agriculture program in 2015, three years after work began. A subsequent change in land ownership – from church to private landowner (a former refugee himself, Nguyen notes, and strongly committed to keeping the plots affordable) – added another 30 acres, expanding the farm to its current size.
Meanwhile, through successful employment, the initial group of farmers completed their resettlement period, allowing them to sponsor family members to join them in the United States.
“About 100 [of them] came in the first few years,” says Than Aye, farm manager and resettlement coordinator. He recalls a busy adjustment period for both reunited families and staff, including enrolling the children in school, setting up on-site English classes and simply integrating the newcomers to the farm and the community.
The second-generation arrivals adapted quickly to their new home, Aye says. “A lot of kids have finished high school and some have started college. A few [have] even got married. And with roots planted in the family business, he adds, they are a hopeful addition to the future of local farming.
About half of the inaugural group still remains in the PGC Farms program. The rest graduated after passing low-income requirements and qualified to lease state land.
The turnover of participants has brought more diversity, Aye notes – the program now includes farmers from Myanmar, the Philippines, Tonga and Vietnam. Given the limited availability of plots, however, applicants currently face a two-year waiting list and must demonstrate financial need, agricultural experience and dedication to the field.
The most recent newcomers, Yolie Tiburcio and Gabino Abuyan, founded Oasis Aloha Farm & Nursery in late 2020. Although the couple came from farming families in the Philippines, both had local retail jobs before to launch the program. They are now cultivating a four-acre field.
“We are so happy because now [after a year] we see it all growing,” Tiburcio says, pointing to the crops commonly grown in their home country – papayas, saluyot, a leafy vegetable, malunggay (moringa) and jicama – which they supply to a handful of island shops and markets. .
The two are eager to acquire their own tractor, which Abuyan says would increase production and significantly reduce labor.
“It takes a lot of patience, but we love it,” says Tiburcio, standing against a vast backdrop of the Waiʻanae Folded Mountains. “It’s so peaceful to work here.”
Although Oasis Aloha and the other farms in Kunia may be small-scale, the data shows that they are the ones driving greater changes to the local landscape. The latest census from the US Department of Agriculture notes an increase in the number of Hawaiian farms, from 7,000 in 2012 to 7,328 in 2017. Almost all of the gains came from those less than 10 acres.
Small producers also have a deep and direct connection to the local food system. The vast majority supply island markets with a diverse range of produce, while larger farms primarily grow Hawaii’s exports such as coffee, seed crops, and macadamia nuts. And as the pandemic-induced explosion of community-supported agriculture programs and food hubs has demonstrated, these small businesses are often more flexible in responding and adapting to local demands.
Nurturing the success of these small farms not only strengthens the food economy, Nguyen says, but also the broader Oʻahu community, reflecting the state’s diversity through food.
“Even with language barriers and different backgrounds, it’s easier for people to communicate through food,” he says. “It’s just a great way to share our different cultures.”