The churning sound of mixing wet cement shovel-by-shovel, two able bodies continuously mixing in rhythmic timing, are met by the words of David Fuertes, “we need ‘em, we make ‘em.” Uncle David is referring to the cement that he and his helper are preparing in order to make a trough for the pigs.
Here at the Palili ‘O Kohala farm in North Kohala, Uncle David captures a time where if you needed something for your family, farm, or business, the drive to Hilo was not always an option. “You broke ‘em, you fix ‘em,” Uncle remembers while feverishly mixing the cement—reminding us that there is a purpose and history in what we today call sustainability.
Palili ‘O Kohala is an agricultural cooperative comprised of primarily Native Hawaiian families. The cooperative is a natural farming learning lab and a producer of taro, pigs, and chickens. Here, families are trained to take care of the land, grow their own provisions, and be part of a cooperative that sells their products as an income stream.
This working farm is one of several farms and businesses that participate in and support the North Kohala Eat Locally Grown community initiative that was created in 2009 in order to “Keep Kohala, Kohala”—to maintain a rural, agricultural lifestyle for its residents. North Kohala has a strategy and goal in its county mandated Community Development Plan (CDP) to produce 50 percent of the food it consumes.
North Kohala is a geographically isolated community located at the end of the road on the northernmost tip of Hawai‘i Island. As you venture to the well-traveled towns of Hāwi and Kapa‘au, you experience the green hills, the magnificent forests, the groves of macadamia nut orchards, and the possibility of a whale sighting off the coast in winter months.
The area has a population of about 6,500 residents in 1,800 households, a blend of seven diverse ethnic cultures—Hawaiian, Japanese, Filipino, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Portuguese, and Caucasian. This rich diversity brings with it the history of each culture, the stories, and the traditions that provide the knowledge for farming and taking care of the community.
In pre-contact times, Hawaiian agricultural systems in North Kohala fed a population of 30,000. During the plantation era, community life was rooted in sharing and bartering from individual homesteads and gathering and hunting from the mountains, gulches, and ocean.
The community today is still rural with 98 percent of the land zoned for agricultural use. In North Kohala, growing, hunting, gathering, and bartering is still alive and well. However, like most of Hawai‘i Island, the majority of the food bought and consumed in the community is being brought in from outside of the state. The increasing awareness in where our food comes from, coupled with the origins of agriculture in the breadbasket of North Kohala, provide a compelling example of where history and community meet.
Andrea Dean, Project Manager of the North Kohala Eat Locally Grown Campaign, expresses her belief in sustaining agriculture and unifying the food system in North Kohala.
“For me, projects that help localize the food system also bring the community together. I think that is the heart of the local food movement. Kohala people have always traded and bartered their food. It is cultural exchange and builds community resilience,” Andrea says.
The campaign’s objectives include expanding agricultural tourism in North Kohala, conducting public education initiatives to increase the market for locally grown food, and expanding opportunity for both the low-income population and the farmers by offering an EBT booth at the Hāwi Farmers Market.
In 2014, the Growing Agricultural Tourism in North Kohala initiative was developed as a way to attract visitors to North Kohala who are seeking an authentic, educational, rural experience in Hawai‘i and to bring an additional revenue stream to the farmers. Nothing brings the agricultural tourism initiative to life more than visiting the businesses that participate in the project.
In the hills of the `Iole ahupua`a (district), is the Kohala Institute at `Iole, a historic property once the homestead of missionaries Ellen and Reverend Elias Bond.
Signing in at the front counter, we are met by Maya Parish, Program Director, whose exuberance immediately stirs an anticipation of what is to come. As an introduction Maya shares, “We are the stewards of 2,400 acres in North Kohala on the island of Hawai`i that includes the historic ahupua`a, `Iole. Our initiatives focus on sustainability, education, arts and culture, and contemplation. We are guided by our core values GRACE.”
G = Gratitude: recognize everything is a gift or a lesson.
R = Respect: be open and truly listen.
A = Accountability: take responsibility for ourselves and the impact of our actions.
C = Courage: act with integrity.
E = Engagement: contribute our gifts to benefit others.
Of course, grace is the distinct feeling that is present as you walk the grounds at `Iole.
The tour explores the connection between traditional and contemporary agricultural practices through experiential learning. Walking through historic lo`i kalo (wetland taro patch), the macadamia nut orchards, and rich vegetation, a deep respect for the `āina and history emanates from the property.
In the past two years of the program, more than 1,000 children have visited the property to learn the importance of culture, sustainability, values, and responsibility. Maya describes the ‘Iole Ag Journey as a way to provide families an experience of Hawaiian farming, perhaps more so than they have in their current environment; an opportunity to reflect on the stories of how their kūpuna (ancestors) grew up; and a vision of their part in perpetuating culture and sustainability.
A few miles outside of Kapa‘au is Hawai‘i Institute of Pacific Agriculture’s main farm and headquarters. The Hālawa educational farm site is located on 25 acres, rich with bamboo groves, extensive banyan tree networks, ancient lo‘i (taro) terraces, and farming operations. As part of a community outreach program, field trips for students K–12 provide workshops featuring the propagation of traditional Hawaiian and Polynesian crops, composting, and harvesting fruit and macadamia nuts. HIP Ag also hosts a two-month adult internship program offering full experiential immersion in hands-on farming and community living experience. Raising their family on the property, Dash and Erika Kur, the Directors of HIP Ag, live the daily life of organic farming while teaching children and adults the benefits of environmentally focused living.
Driving through Hāwi town, we find ourselves traveling up a long windy road, past forested groves, pastures, and a barn, arriving at Lōkahi Garden Sanctuary. Located on 10 lush acres, sits a striking residential holistic healing and wellness center. Richard Liebmann and Natalie Young, owners of the property, have perpetuated ‘lōkahi’ (harmony and balance within and without) in their retreat center, working organic farm, and tropical botanical sanctuary. From the majestic ocean views, sweeping green landscapes, a reflective pond, fresh organic produce, and happy sheep, one can imagine the possibilities of a direct healing experience with the land and elements.
In 2014, Leo and Jeannie-vie Woods opened Kohala Grown Farm Tours and Market in Hāwi. Their engaging commitment to the North Kohala agricultural community is evident as they talk about “passionate sustainability.” Farmers themselves, the Woods imagined having a local market where farmers could sell their goods and local products could be featured.
The Kohala Grown Market is a beautiful example of that vision with fresh produce, coffee, macadamia nuts, and local artisan fare. The farm tours developed as a unique way to enhance the education of visitors while supporting the farmers.
Leo explains, “People can experience each farm, meet the farmers, learn about the products, and take part in food tastings: it’s a win-win for everyone, the guests and the farmers.”
Kohala Grown Farm Tours conclude with lunch at a local restaurant that uses food from the farms visited and a stop at the market to purchase local products. In keeping with the agricultural tourism initiative, this value-added business model allows the farmers to keep farming and visitors to have an experience of where their food comes from.
As the day ends in North Kohala, there is a sense of true community, a fusion of generations teaching each other in equal measure, a cultural respect for the land, and a sustainable model for agriculture production and income. In the preface of the strategic plan for growing the local food system, the authors state, “Relationships are at the heart of a local food system. At the end of the day it is not about the food, it is about the people who grow the food, buy the food, teach our children and teach each other. Growing a local food system is about nurturing strong relationships in order to sustain a healthy and resilient community.”
The Art of Fermentation
For people interested in the health benefits of fermented foods, guests harvest from a private orchard and garden and are then mentored in the art of making probiotic and enzyme-rich fermented foods (including fermented vegetables, kombucha, and beet kavas) at the Always in Season Farmstead perched at a 1,500-foot elevation above Hāwi town. Weekly tours by reservation.
Rio Polynesian Supper Club
North Kohala born and raised Chef Rio Miceli serves up a six course “field-to-fork” menu accompanied by selected wine or beer pairings. The dinner is located at the private farm and garden of Starseed Ranch and begins with a walking tour. Custom dinner by reservation.
The Coastal Oven
Sweeping views of the North Kohala coastline are the backdrop to an elegant multi-course feast with live entertainment in a rustic farm setting. Local producers are on hand to answer questions about the foods used in the meal. Dinners are the last Saturday of each month.
Palili ‘O Kohala
This farm is an agricultural cooperative that uses chemical free Natural Farming methodologies to grow taro, pigs, and chickens. The project is aimed at increasing community food self-sufficiency as well as economic development for Hawaiian families through the sales of value-added products from taro. Farm tours educate visitors about Natural Farming and the cultivation and cultural aspects of taro. Weekly tours by reservation.
Kohala Institute at ‘Iole
‘Iole is a historic ahupua‘a that is home to a historic lo‘i kalo (taro patch), the largest organic macadamia nut orchard in the State of Hawai‘i and a Polynesian agroforestry demonstration. The farm tours include Hawaiian ‘oli (chant) and mo‘olelo (cultural history) as well as locally sourced snacks. Weekly tours by reservation.
Lōkahi Garden Sanctuary
Lōkahi Garden Sanctuary is a working organic farm, garden sanctuary, and wellness retreat that includes extensive vegetable, medicinal and culinary herb gardens, fruit and nut orchards, and small tree forests with native and “useful” trees. Founded by husband and wife health care practitioners, their farm tours can also be paired with spa and massage treatments. Weekly tours by reservation.
Kohala Grown Farm Tours and Market
Tours starts at their market in Hāwi town and transport visitors in their 15-passenger van to select farms that feature exotic fruit orchards, gourmet vegetables, botanical gardens, and traditional Hawaiian agriculture. The market features a premium selection of grown and made on Hawai‘i Island agricultural products. Tours daily by reservation.
In addition to the farm tours and dinners, community events are held seasonally focused on local agriculture, culture, and culinary experiences.
The Taste of Kalo by Palili ‘O Kohala
A favorite local event featuring Hawaiian music, Natural Farming workshops and demonstrations, and an all Hawaiian lunch with food grown on the land. This annual spring event is held at the Natural Farming Learning Lab in Hāwi and is a benefit for the Palili ‘O Kohala project.
The Kohala ‘Aina Harvest Festival
This annual event held in the Fall is a benefit for Hawai‘i Institute of Pacific Agriculture’s youth education programs. The event boasts local, organic meals, music all day, organic gardening workshops, local craft vendors, traditional Kahiko Hula performance, and HIP’s Niu Lani Juice Bar.
The Hāwi Farmers Market
Open Tuesdays and Saturdays under the banyan trees in Hāwi Town across from the Hāwi Post Office. Here, you can talk story with the community residents, find fresh Kohala-grown produce and locally prepared foods, seasonal fresh roasted macadamia nuts from local Kohala growers, Kohala made crafts, and other unique treasures.