I love the Upcountry Farmers Market on a Saturday morning, with its flapping white tents, the happy people, the locally grown organic produce that helps you make your food dollars stretch.
I like the relationships with the vendors you see week after week. We go first to Marta, the Guatemalan lady from Coca Farm, for her fine lettuces and kale. Marta is popular for her broad, welcoming smile, so much so that when she went on vacation to her native land last year one of her helpers wore a T-shirt that echoed the refrain of customers: "Where's Marta?"
We then dart over to the booth of Neil Coshever, the Ulupalakua farmer who organized the whole operation in the back of the parking lot behind Longs Pukalani on Kula Highway, with its flowering trees and long views.
A conversation with Neil involves at least several puns and often a well-chosen aphorism from a philosopher or humorist. Neil makes a "Puamana" salad mix of lettuce, herbs and flowers that's a weekly sellout. We like meeting his mother, too.
Then it's a pleasant stroll down the ranks of tents and trucks in front of which the vendors show their wares.
Where's Bobbie, who grows an exquisitely smooth coffee on her small spread in Olinda? Where's Herbert? That's Herbert Shim, the wiry Kula farmer who's been selling his produce at Upcountry markets for decades. Buy something from Herbert, and he gives you something in exchange, a bouquet of flowers perhaps, or more avocados than you paid for. He's the real old style.
There's Otis, with his Haiku citrus and duck eggs. There's Tsang, the guy with the long white hair and Santa Claus beard who sells greens and feral pineapples. There's Uma, with her marvelous Indian food; the kids who grow artisanal lettuce, huge and wild and full of vitality; and the bee recovery people with their jars of honey. We end up at the tent of Escobedo Farms, from which we buy hydroponic tomatoes and big cabbages. They, too, are generous with extras.
Kula has long been the province of farmers.
In 1850 when the gold rush was under way, California had a voracious appetite for Hawaii's potatoes, "Irish potatoes," as they were called, to distinguish them from the common Hawaiian sweet potato. The most popular were those grown in great quantities in the Kula uplands on Maui.
There the soil, although rocky, was rich and loamy, and produced not only potatoes but turnips, corn and melons of excellent quality that had been discovered growing wild.
The Kula potato fields were as large as a mile wide and eight miles long in some places. Lincoln L. Torbert, who had a spread there (forerunner of Ulupalakua Ranch) urged ship captains to visit the Kalepolepo anchorage in present day north Kihei, where the crop ($5 a barrel, up from $1, resold for $30) could be safely loaded.
People flocked to the Kula fields to prepare the ground and plant. Prosperity in the region seemed so assured that Hawaiians called it "Nu Kalifornia."
Heartened by this show of native enterprise, the government of Kamehameha III hired William P. Alexander to survey the region's vast forest and divide it into lots of 1 to 10 acres to be sold to the Hawaiians for $3 an acre. Then a missionary teacher at Lahainaluna Seminary, Alexander was one of the few people in Hawaii trained in surveying.
He moved up to the high blue skies of Kula and set up a tent in a potato field at about 2,500 feet where he prepared to sell 2,000 acres in the ahupuaa of Kamaole, "one third of the whole potatoe region." It is because of this fortuitous sale of government land - a tragedy for the forest - that Kula farmers got such an early start.
In addition, Alexander surveyed the small kuleana of natives, "that they may get allodial titles [free from the tenured rights of a feudal overlord]."
With the assistance of his sons James and Samuel, Alexander began to cut roads through the primeval forest that stretched across the flank of the mountain. It was an old montane koa forest, a wao akua (wilderness where spirits lived), with trees that stood up to 120 feet high with spans of 60 feet, so thick that travelers spoke of having to hack their way to Ulupalakua.
"Father uses swords [the Spanish machete] to cut through the woods," James reported at one point, describing them as two miles wide. "It is terrible hard work. Very often we come home dripping wet," said Sam.
It's about 9 a.m. at the market, and vendors are wrapping up for the day. Some of them have bona fide farms. Others, serious gardens. All are justly proud of what they have coaxed from the land. We are happy to have a relationship with the soil through the people who grow our food.
I hope the County Council, currently considering agricultural zoning tax changes, does what it can to malama these folks. In this era of high gas prices, doesn't it makes sense to encourage a local food supply?
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.