Big rain — and Koko — kept me company all night long, and what a wonderful sound it was to hear it pouring down straight and steady, dripping off the eaves, pattering on the taro outside my bedroom window.
The rain had slipped away by morning, although the gold and gray clouds of sunrise offered the prospect of more to come, when Koko and I took our usual walk out into the land of trilling birds, crowing roosters and wind whispering through ironwood trees.
Ran into my neighbor Andy, who cut off our chat to help another neighbor lift her big tire into the back of her pick-up, and when I remarked on his thoughtfulness, he said, well, isn’t that the sort of neighborly thing you’re supposed to do in neighborhoods?
Yes, it is, which is one reason why I like living on Kauai, and in this particular part of it.
We’d been talking about the Kauai Conservation Conference, which we both attended yesterday, although he sat through more of it than I. We both agreed it was alright, and nice to see some people we hadn’t seen in a long time, but it tended to be mostly preaching to the choir, and where were the locals?
Of course, as Andy noted, had more locals come, they probably would have been turned off and left anyway, which led us again to a question neither of us has been able to answer: how do we bridge that widening gap between locals and newcomers, some of whom do have some good information to share, while others are totally off the wall?
That could prove to be a tougher nut to crack than “Can Kauai feed itself?” – the topic of the session I attended. I was curious to learn what Grove Farm, whose VP Neil Tagawa was one of the panelists, had in mind for Maha`ulepu — besides a resort, which wasn’t discussed.
It seems they’ve set aside 1,000 acres — of their 40,000 total on the island – for an ag park, and you might be surprised to learn, because I certainly was, that they’re doing this for “altruistic reasons,” according to Neil.
Yes, that’s right. Oh, you didn’t know that GF has a triple bottom line in everything it does? Economics, of course, are number one, followed by “what’s good for the community and what’s good for the environment.”
Anyway, their altruism is aimed not only at trying to feed Kauai — not everything, mind you, just fruits and some of the veggies — but also meeting one of Neil’s personal goals, which is to have Oahu folks fly to Kauai because we have the “freshest food, the best produce.”
Neil, who admitted he is a "bean counter," and not a farmer, followed that with the observation that one hotel manager had told him that 80 percent of their food costs are linked to transportation expenses, so with rising fuel costs and the weak dollar “we’re going to be in some big trouble real soon.”
Unfortunately, the GF ag park won’t be ready by then, as it’s still in the planning stages and they are going to start with just 300 acres, and first they’ve got to resolve the issue of worker housing, because you just can’t build plantation camps like you used to in the old days.
But no worries, because according to Jillian Seals, who was not on the panel but spoke from the audience, she and her famers-in-training in Kilauea produced 2,000 pounds of food from just 12,000-square-feet of space (she didn’t mention over what time period), so “1,000 acres is more than enough to feed the whole island.”
When panelist Jerry Ornellas noted that while he applauded their efforts, a pound of Manoa lettuce yielded no caloric value, so we need to find ways of producing high calorie carbohydrates, she and Diana LaBedz retorted: according to whose food pyramid, the USDA’s?
This is the kind of stuff that makes me a little nuts. Even the folks I know who have sworn off animal products are still eating legumes, tofu, rice, nuts, soymilk and bread. And none of that is being produced in any quantity on Kauai. It’s great to grow veggies and we could certainly do more of that — as Jerry noted, Kauai had just 200 acres in veggies and melons in 2005 and 800 acres in fruit, a statistic he called “pathetic” — but that ain’t gonna provide the 2,000 calories an average adult needs each day to survive.
And who wants to have GF in control of that 1,000-acre food basket? And if some people think all we need is 1,000 acres to feed ourselves, does that mean go ahead and develop the rest of the island? And what about the tourists who come here and want to eat, too? Come on, let’s get real.
Or as fisherman Jeff Chandler said afterward: "Some of the people in that room, I had to wonder where their heads were at. They have no idea what it takes to get your own food."
The reality is, according to Jerry, that we have 30,000 acres of prime and unique agricultural lands, of which 19,500 are irrigated and just 11,000 are being harvested today. Some 7,000 acres of that is in sugar cane, and another 1,000 acres is in seed corn.
Even if we divided up our biggest food crop, taro, among all the residents, we'd each get just 3 ounces of poi a day.
In fact, no other island in the state of Hawaii has so little land in agriculture. “So much for the Garden Island,” he said.
So what it comes down to is, we’ve got the basics we need to feed ourselves: land and water. But unless we get serious about protecting both, while ensuring that the private landowners who control the bulk of these resources on Kauai have a vision that’s geared more toward producing food than resorts and high-end housing, we’re not even going to come close to putting dinner on the table.
Assuming, of course, that’s even a desirable goal that is shared by a majority of the island’s citizens. And while I am convinced of the former, I am not at all assured of the latter.