LIFE project founder Sabina Swift (right) seen here with a coffee farmer on the Big Island. (Photo courtesy of Jari Sugano)
Could you grow a papala? A pipicha? A bitter ball? Maybe not, but you might be able to find one in your local farmers market, thanks to a growing population of immigrant farmers bringing the techniques and products of their native lands to Hawai‘i. But while there’s much that these growers know, there are aspects of starting to farm in a different country, climate, and economy that can be confusing and even daunting.
This is where LIFE comes in. The Local Immigrant Farmer Education Program serves Southeast Asian farmers in Hawai‘i whose small acreage, remote locations, and limited English language skills may make it difficult for them to connect with local growers. LIFE also serves other socially disadvantaged, limited-resource producers, including women and Native Hawaiians. The program is headed by Extension agent Jari Sugano; she and Randall Hamasaki, Maria Diaz-Lyke, Robin Shimabuku, and Glenn Sako are the training members of the group. Recently retired agent Steve Fukuda helped to make the program what it is today; project founder Sabina Swift stays involved, as does Stuart Nakamoto, and in 2010 Ming Yi-Chou and Elsie Burbano joined the team.
On-farm interaction is key to the program’s success. (Photo courtesy of Jari Sugano)
The hands-on aspect of the program is one that farmers appreciate the most. Trainers and growers get out into the fields and prune, spray, and build. At a recent “field day” event, participants were able to take part in building aquaculture grow tanks, while other workshops have shown how to deal with small business taxes, ways to combat insecticide resistance, and the proper care and handling of papayas for shipping to the Mainland. Many of the program’s materials and workshops are translated into the languages of their intended readers, something that has been lacking in previous training programs.
At LIFE’s core is the one-on-one interaction provided by the “Farm Doctor” visits, where an agent meets with individual farmers on their land to “diagnose” any problems with the crops or soil. It’s the interaction, the mutual teaching and learning, that’s important. Clients can participate in the program by conducting “Cooperator-Inspired Field Trials” to investigate planting or agribusiness techniques and share their findings with LIFE, while program coordinators act as resources and aid in collecting and summarizing the data. And one of the program’s stated measures of its own success is the number of participants who are able to start helping others in their community. What better way to reap the bounty of what different cultures can bring to the table?