UH Hilo alumnus Jake Rodrique thrives in the field of agriculture

Jake Rodrique once thought college wasn’t the place for him. But that all changed through the guidance of a few extraordinary people.

By Kiaria Zoi Nakamura.

Jake Rodrique. Video screenshot from Vulcan Vibe/University Relations.

The academic support specialist at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo’s Agricultural Farm Laboratory in Pana‘ewa once thought college wasn’t the place for him. But that all changed for Jake Rodrique through the guidance of a few extraordinary people. He now holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UH Hilo, and is thriving in the field of agriculture.

Rodrique grew up in Lahaina, Maui, and enjoyed spending a lot of his time in nature. This is how his budding interest in cultivation began: “Growing up I loved the outdoors. I grew up not too far from the ocean and enjoyed the marine world, but also loved going holoholo up in the valley’s and the mountains,” he says. Some of his most memorable experiences include restoring a lo‘i in Waihe‘e and outplanting in a native forest mauka of Ma‘alaea with some family friends.

His alma mater, Lahainaluna High School, had a strong agriculture program that fostered in Rodrique a growing fervor for the field. It was there he tended to a wide array of plants and animals including microgreen beds, eggplant, bananas, goats, pigs, and horses. “These experiences led me to the epiphany that the best food came from the best grown plants and animals, and that solidified my agricultural life path.”

Jake stands near a waterway.
Jake Rodrique takes a break during a vermiculture conference in North Carolina. 2018. Photo by Norman Arancon.

The budding scholar

This budding passion for agriculture wasn’t the only deciding factor in figuring out what he wanted to do after graduating high school. “I was not going to attend college. I did horrible on the SAT and I had no money.” These feelings of discouragement might’ve led him down a completely different path had it not been for the philanthropic support of the late Frances Hinton. Hinton was a world traveler who settled in Lahaina, where she met her husband Warren and owned several successful businesses. They were active in the community, including being founding members of the Lahaina Yacht Club.

Rodrique first met Hinton at the age of ten. Their paths crossed a second time right when he was trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. Rodrique remembers getting a call from her asking to meet up and talk.

“She asked me if I had plans after high school, and I said not really,” says Rodrique. In response, Hinton suggested he attend Maui Community College for a semester to test the post-secondary education waters. If he enjoyed that experience, she wanted to have another conversation with him about going to a university. And then something truly amazing happened: “She wrote me a check for $5,000 dollars and sent me on my way,” says Rodrique. “Safe to say I ran all the way home crying.”

Equipped with enough passion and funding, Rodrique did exactly as Hinton requested. After completing his first semester of college, he knew for sure that he wanted to aim higher and attend a university-level institution. As such, he applied to UH Mānoa and UH Hilo. “I got denied from UH Mānoa, but that was for the better because their agricultural program was not as robust as UH Hilo’s,” says Rodrique who earned his degree from the College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management. He felt that UH Hilo would teach him the “best methods to grow the highest quality of food in Hawai‘i.”

Jake stands on top of the framing of the new roof.
Once a student worker at the UH Hilo agricultural farm laboratory in Pana‘ewa. Jake Rodrique (standing on top of roof framing) is now the education support specialist in charge of the farm’s apiary among his other duties. In the recent photo above, he helps put a roof on the new shelter of the apiary so the farm can conduct labs no matter rain or shine. Courtesy photo.

Upon receiving his acceptance to UH Hilo, Rodrique went back to Mrs. Hinton, whom he describes as “the most amazing and kind person in the world.” She was happy to hear the progress he had made in school. She then funded his entire undergraduate experience.

When thinking back on his time at UH Hilo as a general agriculture major, Rodrique is appreciative for being able to study such a broad field. He says the program “encompassed the whole gamut of agriculture I was looking for,” which incorporated everything from horticulture to aquaculture, chemistry to biology, and agricultural business to financial accounting. “The degree was exactly what I was wanting, which was diversity, and the ability to create a cyclical agricultural process that could give me the base foundation for my path of regenerative agriculture.”

Rodrique graduated with his bachelor of science in agriculture in 2014 and moved back to Maui soon after. His immediate goal was to start farming in his hometown. Unfortunately this proved too costly. So he turned to a career in education.

“I worked at my high school for two years in the agriculture department teaching students all that I knew,” says Rodrique. His main focus was mentoring his pupils on the fragility of their environment, emphasizing that close to 90 percent of the state’s food is imported. He hoped the knowledge gained from his class would inspire students to work toward decreasing that statistic.

Inspired by extraordinary mentors

After doing this for a couple of years, “I decided to sign up for the tropical conservation biology and environmental science master’s program at UH Hilo,” says Rodrique. The idea to return to school sprouted from a conversation with Professor of Horticulture Norman Arancon, a very influential mentor of his. Arancon pioneered research in the utilization of earthworm-worked soil amendments, referred to as vermicomposts, in increasing the growth, flowering and yields of plants such as marigolds, petunias, bell peppers, tomatoes, strawberries and grapes.

While a student in the graduate program, Rodrique traveled to North Carolina in 2018 with Arancon to attend a vermicompost conference. “I remember feeling like a star because I was the graduate student of one of the leading vermicology experts on the planet,” says Rodrique. “It was an experience of a lifetime.”

Four people stand for photo. At right is Jake Rodrique and Norman Arancon.
While a student in the UH Hilo tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program, Jake Rodrique (second from right) traveled to North Carolina with Professor of Horticulture Norman Arancon (at right) to attend a vermicompost conference in November of 2018. Here they stand with two other conference attendees. Courtesy photo.
Group of about 18 students posing for photo. Jake is stretched out in front of the group flashing the shaka.
Jake Rodrique (front left) with his cohort in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program in 2017. Rodrique graduated from the program in fall of 2020. Courtesy photo.

Before even finishing up his master’s degree in fall of 2020, Rodrique was hired to work at the university’s Agricultural Farm Laboratory. He had worked there as an undergraduate and then was officially hired by the state in 2019 to work for the university’s apiary program with Professor of Entomology Lorna Tsutsumi. He now manages the university’s 40 hives and is the point person for students during labs where he facilitates learning and research needs.

He also assists with faculty research projects and outreach projects on various crops such as papaya and sugarcane. The sugarcane research involves looking at two different cane hybrids that were developed in Hawai‘i during the sugarcane era. “We are going to be looking at their potential for ease of growth, and sugar and easily degradable fiber content to make jet biofuel.”

He also has found success as an independent farmer. “My wife and I have started our farming adventure by growing mushrooms,” he says. “We are steadily supplying Island Naturals [health food store in Hilo] with pink oyster mushrooms weekly, and need to increase our production to meet the demands.”

Jake holds a huge pink mushroom.
Jake Rodrique holds a half-pound mushroom from one his harvests after a long day at the UH Hilo Agricultural Farm Laboratory. Courtesy photo.

Rodrique is thankful to get paid doing what he loves, and especially grateful to those who fertilized his ambitious dreams. When reflecting on some of his favorite parts of working on the farm, he says “I get to watch my ideas burgeon, and flourish, or decay depending on the end goal. It’s all around just a fun place to be.”

 

Story by Kiaria Zoi Nakamura, who is earning a bachelor of arts in English with a minor in performing arts and a certificate in educational studies at UH Hilo.