Categorized | Agriculture, Featured

Congratulations to the first class of Veteran to Farmer graduates

Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Mayor Billy Kenoi and a host of elected officials gathered to celebrate the inaugural graduation of the Veteran to Farmer program. (Photo by Karin Stanton)

Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Mayor Billy Kenoi and a host of elected officials gathered to celebrate the inaugural graduation of the Veteran to Farmer program. (Photo by Karin Stanton)

Karin Stanton | Hawaii 24/7 Editor

Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Mayor Billy Kenoi and a slate of elected officials showed up to salute the 14 members of the Veteran to Farmer program’s inaugural class.

Department of Agriculture chairman Russell Kokubun and Department of Labor and Industrial Relations director Dwight Takamine – both former Big Isle lawmakers – also attended the ceremony Jan. 5 in Waimea to celebrate the graduation.

All 14 graduates are Waimea Hawaiian Homesteaders Association residents and many are veterans. The class included men and women and ranged in age from their 20s to their 70s.

The program’s goal is to provide participants with technical and business skills to start small agricultural operations, while still holding down full-time employment, Abercrombie said.

“There is no question that Hawaii needs more farmers,” he said. “This graduation ceremony is a very positive sign that valuable sectors of our community – our veterans and homesteaders – have the spirit and motivation to fill this critical need and I am hopeful this course can be replicated throughout our state.

“From the very first day I visited Waimea, I knew this was going to be a spark plug for the new Hawaii and this program is leading the way toward food security for Hawaii,” he said. “It’s an exciting day. And just looking around, you can tell this program has the attention of elected officials.”

Kenoi said he was honored to join the collaborative effort geared to pumping up the island’s food production.

“It makes you feel good to look around this room. When everyone comes together and puts it all on the table, you always have one beautiful luaua,” he said. “It’s hard work this farming stuff. I’m so proud of these guys.”

The students, who began the program in June, have built greenhouses and are eager to begin farming on their homestead land.

“That was pretty neat to graduate today, especially seeing all the kupuna,” said Oliver “Sonny” Shimaoka, a veteran and pastor at New Hope Waimea Christian Fellowship. “I still need to finish up the irrigation, but I’ll be farming tomatoes in three weeks. I’m finding out there are several thousands varieties of tomato. I had no idea.”

Shimaoka said he is especially eager to dig his fingers into the dirt as he already has a market for his produce.

“The Kohala hotels are committed to buying from us farmers,” he said. “It’s like a renaissance of agriculture right here in Waimea.”

Shimaoko’s classmate Ramona Dudoit Noa also is ready to start on a new path. As Noa greeted the governor on stage, she said, “I’m 74 years old and this is the first diploma I ever earned and I’m so excited.”

While the farmers get down to business, the University of Hawaii at Hilo is in the process of formalizing the curriculum so veterans can use their GI Bill education benefits.

“It is inspiring to see the graduates of this program work their way onto a path of success in agribusiness,” Kokubun said. “Many say they want to farm, but the key to this success is in the training, mentoring and collaboration that is part of the curriculum.”

“This program is what workforce development is at its best,” Takamine said. “Creating this opportunity for our veterans to learn agricultural work skills and to feed their families and communities is tremendous.”

The 2012 Veteran to Farmer class included: Shirley Derego; Ramona Dudoit Noa; Robin Jensen; Daniel Kahuanui; Elizabeth Kealoha; Sharon Keliiholokai; Herbert Leong; Howard Nishida; Antonette Reed; May-Liliuokalani Ross; Oliver “Sonny” Shimaoka; Keala Soares; Corinne Weller and Woodrow Young.

The public-private partners supporting the program include the First Nations Foundation, WOW Farms, Rivertop Solutions, the Waimea Hawaiian Homesteaders Association and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands; the County of Hawaii, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the state Departments of Agriculture and Labor and Industrial Relations; and the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Also at the event, Abercrombie announced the award of a U.S. Department of Agriculture High Energy Cost Grant to Rivertop Solutions on behalf of the Homestead Community Development Corporation to construct a bioenergy electrical generation plant in the Waimea Homesteads.

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