David Fuertes, one of the directors for Ka Hana Noeau Program, spends his Saturday with the families and youth participating in the program as they work at their taro patches in Hawi. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Debbie Choo, who has been involved with the Ka Hana Noeau program for two years, tends to her taro patch. PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO | SPECIAL TO NHN
Robert Elarco, with the Ka Hana Noeau Program, works in his patch of taro in Hawi. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
The Ka Hana Noeau Program brings families and youth together as they grow taro in Hawi. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Peter Risley and his crew harvest in preparation for the Hawi Farmers’ Market the following day. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Loren Risley harvests carrots at his father’s farm, Peter Risley, in Kapaau. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Peter Risley works on his farm in Kapaau, as he harvests carrots and other produce in preparation for the Hawi Farmers’ Market, held every Saturday. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
The small rural community of North Kohala is looking toward the land and local farmers to provide for its needs as it did for hundreds of years.
In 2008, the North Kohala community set an ambitious goal for itself within its Hawaii County Community Development Plan — to grow 50 percent of its food locally by 2018.
“Building a local food system is based in Kohala’s geography,” said Andrea Dean, Kohala resident and self-described “SocioEcoPreneur.”
Because our community has always been geographically isolated, there is a historical basis for growing our own food and sharing with our neighbors, as well as gathering from the communal natural resources in the mountains and ocean, she said.
“We are intentionally cultivating the traditions and connections of Kohala in order to make this happen,” Dean said.
In order to reach this goal, the community is challenging itself on multiple levels, Dean said. First, there needs to be more locally produced food available. And that requires more farmers, and more land being farmed.
New agricultural ventures are starting up in North Kohala, including a farm at Iole, operated by veteran farmer Peter Risley, a recent transplant from California.
“Why just 50 percent? Why not grow 100 percent of our own food?” said Risley. “We have land, we have water, the climate is good. What’s the problem?”
The key to increasing local food consumption in a small rural community is to have the closest relationship possible between the farmer and the consumer, said Risley.
“I want people to see my face and associate me with the bunch of carrots or beets that they are buying at the farmers market,” he said.
When he was farming organically in California, Risley had not only farmers’ markets to sell his produce, but also large, national distributors that would buy up just about anything he offered.
“The commercial organic markets on the mainland are huge. It’s a completely different food system here in Kohala,” he said. “Farmers markets are pivotal, and the money spent here stays here in the community.”
Another way that Kohala families are being supported in purchasing fresh local food is the new system for using EBT cards, formally called food stamps, at the Kohala Farmers Market.
“About 30 people stopped by to use their EBT card today,” said Karla Heath, filling in for usual EBT manager, Leslie Nugent of the North Kohala Eat Locally Grown Campaign.
The system is simple: an EBT card is scanned, a specified amount is withdrawn, and $1 and $5 “Food Bucks” tokens are distributed to the consumer. These tokens can be used at any farmer’s booth, to purchase both fresh produce as well as value-added products like honey and homemade jam.
“We have seen about 30 families today, and they typically bought between $10 and $40 in tokens,” said Heath.
A third way that the community is striving towards a sustainable food system is education, for both adults and children.
David Fuertes has been involved with local agriculture in one form or another for the past 30 years, working as an agriculture teacher, supporting economic development with the County of Hawaii, and recently as the director of Ka Hana Noeau, a mentorship program for local youth.
With “backward mapping” from the goal of food sustainability, Fuertes had the vision to create a community farm, pulling resources together in collaboration, all with “the aloha spirit.” He also drew upon his own history for an example of successful community planning.
“I remember when I was very young on Kauai, my father was a leader in the ILW union, which was planning for a strike. All the families would need to do without pay for six months,” said Fuertes.
So the community got together, and all 400 people split up the tasks of providing food for themselves. The gardeners went to work growing vegetables, of all kinds: cabbage, beans, eggplant, tomatoes.
“When the strike came, all the families had plenty food, and no one went hungry,” he remembered.
This vision of food self-sufficiency is becoming reality through a non-profit called Kahua Paa Mua, which translates into “building a strong foundation,” the goal of the Malili O Kohala farm on Hoea Road in Hawi. Ten families, each with their own row of taro, can produce 1,000 pounds of taro per family.
The farm is based on an agricultural system called Natural Farming, originated by Korean farmer Master Cho. Natural Farming is a farming method that uses no imported fertilizers or chemicals, rather relying upon the cultivation of “IMO” or indigenous micro-organisms. The families of Malili O Kohala, along with students in the Ka Hana Noeau mentorship program, are learning how to improve the quality of the soil, and create a sustainable local food supply.
Debbie Choo is one of the original 10 families at Malili O Kohala, and feels that the farm is a “tremendous opportunity” to learn about the cycles of life.
“I never knew how versatile the kalo (taro) plant is. All parts of the plant are used. It’s sustainable because you save some parts of the plant, and replant,” she said.
“For me, I love it,” said Robert Elarco, Kohala resident and daily visitor to his taro patch at the farm.
“This is all natural farming, with no pesticides. I call this my church,” said Elarco.
“Our long-term goal is to have 20 acres under production, to create a learning center where visitors can learn about Natural Farming, and a certified kitchen where we can create value-added products,” said Choo.
The importance of including youth in these programs is critical, said Fuertes.
“Not everyone is a farmer,” he said. “We need to slowly rebuild the foundation of agriculture in our community.”
All three Kohala schools have garden programs, and two different mentor programs introduce local youth to farming.
C.J. Garcia is a teenager who has been working at the farm for just two months, but already feels a sense of community in the work.
“We come together as a family to make this loi nice,” he said.
“I feel part of the big picture” of food sustainability, said Junior Elisara. “Planting taro is something that anyone can do.”
The students are able to sum up the most immediate benefit of growing your own food: “When you grow it yourself, it tastes different. It tastes better,” said teen farmer Mark Samante.
For more information about the movement to create a sustainable local food system in Kohala, visit http://kohalafoodhub.org.