Saturday, April 12, 2008

Musings: Food on the Table

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.


Mauibrad said...

Interesting... But, I think Jillian is not far off. One can survive on much less carbs than you might think.

My goal there is going to be drop the SF and get into gardening.

Aloha, Brad

Anonymous said...

Tofu??? Soymilk???

Come on...Where's the Beef (and pork and lamb and...) and Beer!!!

And the 3500 cal/day "reasonable" diet?

Give me Costco...savior of the islands!

Joan Conrow said...

I never thought I'd say it, Gadfly, but I agree — not about the Costco as savior part, but about the reality of what comprises the daily diet in Hawaii, and people's attachment to that way of eating.

As Jerry remarked: If we're going to feed Kauai, we need a major shift in our diet, and probably for the better. The question is, will people make that shift?

And my answer is, probably not, anymore than they're going to cut down on fuel use, unless they're forced to by high prices, shortages or natural events, like hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunami or what have you.

Anonymous said...

is it the garden island or the farm island. food security is enhanced by folks who can provide for themselves as much as possible. agriculture is such a big word, encompassing so much. ag industry has had so many impacts in the islands for so long that its taken for granted that its a good thing for us; we can't survive w/o it but it is like any other industry with inherit impacts both positive and negative. i think we're at a point where we have to discuss in depth what type of ag our we talking about and willing to support. this is a crucial subject that requires us to bring it to the table and share potluck style what works and serve the community and what does not. jobs and food are critical for our survival and ag provides both but there are limits and we need to find those levels and plan appropriately. very complex subject and no simple solutions for now. gotta get back to the garden and contemplate this one more. aloha aina,.........jt

Larry said...

Maybe it's not so much 'preaching to the choir' as 'choir practice.' Right now, going on about growing one's own food or becoming self-sufficient qualifies one as a fruit or a nut. But suppose the oil got cut off (when Oregon outbids Hawaii for a few tankers of the precious stuff, for example). Then we'll need the folks who know how to sing.

I'm not worried about the gadflys of the world. It takes too much to grow the meat they crave. If they're rich enough, they'll still be able to buy protein produced that way, but for most of us, we'll have to learn how to grow tofu and milk soy.

It will happen when things get bad enough. Until then, there's Costco.

Anonymous said...

Suppose the oil (or alt. energy source like nuke) never gets cut off in any of our lifetimes nor that of our children.

Did you read about the vast oil deposits (many billions of barrels) under Montana and some other state up there? Assuming it is there, it will get mined sooner or later.

I just can't get my arms around these "end of civilization as we know it" scenarios so many small islanders embrace.

I just don't see it happening...certainly not in my lifetime.

You think the govn't won't put a nuke reactor in Hawaii? Assuming oil gets too expensive, it will be forced upon us, or at least those who don't want it, not including me.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't make sense for the average local to grow his/her own food when an hour spent working an average job buys much more than is produced in an hour of growing your own.

Anonymous said...

next time you're in the company of an average group of locals ask what everyone thinks of Costco. Everyone - those with average, not higher, consciousness anyway - thinks it's a godsend.

Anonymous said...

not this local

Anonymous said...

"Higher consciousness." That's great! White people always think they have higher consciousness than everyone else. They show up here telling everyone they should be christians and have calvinist work ethics, now they're telling them they should believe in peak oil and grow all their own food and eagerly show up to our conferences. Thoroughly western notions, every bit of it. No wonder everyone thinks we're assholes.

Mauibrad said...


You might go take a look at the gardens that Gary and Jillian seals are growing and how they are doing it. I think you will be impressed. Maybe even write more about it.

Aloha, Brad

Anonymous said...

My goal is to remain not "most of us".

A tip of the hat to the priviledged elite, as a member of that august body I swear alligence!

To the rest of you, good luck gagging down the tofu and veggie burgers!