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Farmers tap into resiliency and creativity to survive

HFUU convention spotlights local farms, smart soil practices

Sam Ka’ai remembers what it was like when Hawaii longshoremen went on strike for almost six months in the late 1940s.

Toilet paper disappeared, then Carnation cream, used at the time as an ingredient in baby food.

“Everything stopped food-wise because we had become dependent on the Mainland,” Ka’ai said. “Instead of having pua’a in the field or fish in the sea, we had fish in the can.”

It’s why the Hana-born, Kaupo-raised Ka’ai knows firsthand the importance of local agriculture and food security to Hawaii. He was a keynote speaker at the 10th annual Hawaii Farmers Union United statewide convention last week, which, like the farmers it featured, had to adapt to pandemic conditions. Experts on soil health offered remote presentations, farmers gave virtual farm tours and chefs demonstrated dishes in pre-recorded clips.

“The seeds that are being planted from the ripple effects will come from the excitement that people that did attend got to experience,” said Vincent Mina, president of Hawaii Farmers Union United. “I’m very heartened by that.”

Across the state, farmers who’ve long juggled unpredictable weather and markets are now tackling other rising challenges like the pandemic and climate change, using creativity to change their practices and their crops.

“One of the greatest tools and resources that I have to be innovative is the land,” said Bobby Pahia, operator of Hawaii Taro Farm LLC, one of the farms featured at the convention.

Pahia leases more than 300 acres in Waikapu from landowner Mike Atherton and subleases to about 20 other small and large-scale farmers. One of the farmers used to raise hundreds of hogs to help fertilize the soil, but “that went south with the COVID.” So, they pivoted. Now he produces mulch, which benefits other farmers on the land.

“If you can bring somebody to the table who’s gonna benefit everybody over here, brah, I’ll give you land,” Pahia said. “It’s models like that.”

Pahia recently shifted “from strictly for-profit to more of a nonprofit social enterprise model,” where he can sell crops for profit as long as there’s a public benefit. He invests grant money into his farm, then gives one-third of his products to the community, sells the other two-thirds and puts the profits back into the operation so he can keep feeding the community. The pandemic, Pahia said, has really forced farmers to reconsider what they’re doing.

“For me, the whole pivot was this nonprofit thing,” Pahia said. “That’s when the lights came on. I said man, I’m not doing my job as a farmer. Yeah, I’m still helping move the needle, but still, I need to have more of an impact in the community as far as feeding people.”

Lee Lopez and his son Devin, third and fourth-generation farmers in Haiku, have also learned to pivot on their family’s 25-acre diversified tropical fruit operation, Birds With Arms Farms. When Lee Lopez took over his father’s cattle ranch, the land was barren. He started working with soil and permaculture experts to transform the property and found out mangosteens could grow there.

“When Devin was a young boy, I traveled to Malaysia and had all the children eat the fruits on the bus,” Lopez said. “I had a permit to bring back the seeds. And with that I created a mangosteen farm.”

From there he planted hearts of palm after realizing they were high in potassium that mangosteens thrived on, then added gliricidia (a type of legume) that also provided useful mulch that lilikoi liked to grow on. He also started raising worms to help with composting. For the Lopez family, it’s been all about working with the soil and the land, learning what grows well and how to adapt when needed.

“If you believe that health is your greatest wealth and food should be your medicine, then we cannot trust the way that we have been farming prior to this,” Lopez said.

Mina, whose family runs Kahanu Aina Greens in Wailuku, said that one of the blessings of the pandemic is that humans have had to rethink their impact on the environment, opening the door to people who value soil health and what that does to food.

Many speakers during the convention touched on the importance of building up and enriching the soil, and Mina said that HFUU’s goal is to help farmers explore regenerative practices and move away from methods that “are not serving them.”

“Whoever attended had time to spend up in the clouds with world-renowned leaders, talking about all the stuff that we value, so this way when we go back into our trench, our day-to-day ‘waxing on and waxing off,’ we can kiss the walls of that trench, happy to know that the work that we’re doing is honoring the tenets that we were sharing and being educated on,” Mina said.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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