“Many Hands”: Cultivating Food Security in the Kaua`i Food Forest

Photo ID: Paul Marshall


IN THE BEGINNING, we were hunters, gatherers, and scavengers. It worked well enough that we kept at it for 200,000 years. Then came the era of agriculture. Humans started extensively planting food in the ground only around 7,000 years ago. And perhaps we have now entered a different epoch entirely, one where only a few farm while most get their food from a grocery store. 

It is easy to forget that we live on a tiny chain of islands in the middle of the Pacific with the great abundance of perishables in our local Costcos, Safeways and Foodlands. Our fruit bowls overflow with apples from Chile, grapes from Mexico, bananas from Costa Rica. It is haunting to consider what would happen if the Matson ships stopped sailing. How many of us really know how to till the soil at a subsistence level?


Just past a row of red ti plants, on a road right off Kuhio Highway in Kilauea, grows the Kaua`i Food Forest. Paul Massey and his dog Sage, both undeniably high-spirited, meet me at the entrance and immediately he is concerned about my legs. I have grown gardens, little herb boxes and potted tomatoes, but, like most of us, I have never worked in or even walked through a food forest. I have naively forgotten about the natural occurrence of mosquitos attracted to the moist soil and worn shorts and Locals. Paul lends me a pair of beige work pants and we’re off, Sage leading our pack. 

The Food Forest is not manicured rows of spinach and kale, restrained patches of zucchini and trimmed cucumber plants, nor does it strive to be. At first glance it is a plot of tropical woodland, disorderly with random growth. Then Paul, who plays the role of Food Forest Manager, begins to explain the intentionality of each of the two hundred edible and medicinal plant species that grow in the forest. 

“We’ve created plant guilds that serve a common purpose,” he says (plant guild: think symbiotic relationship), gesturing to three plants which are huge components of the forest. Various colors of Coleus, Sissoo spinach which can act like a living mulch under fruit trees, and comfrey, improving the soil by cycling nutrients and keeping weeds out of beds. “This is a prime example of an agricultural system known as multistory agroforestry: a combination of plants that occupy different positions in the vertical space, from tall canopy trees, understory trees beneath them, shrubs, vines, ground covers, and root crops. Each one of these vertical layers produces a valuable part of the total production of the system, which includes food we eat, soil building organic matter, and habitat for the micro and macro-organisms that really make the ecosystem resilient to the extremes of climate change, like the floods Kaua`i experienced last year, and sustainable in the long term.” 

If it wasn’t already clear, Paul knows what he’s talking about. A certified arborist and resident of Kaua`i for the last 20 years, he has studied at the National Tropical Botanical Garden on island and the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew in the U.K. He is also the host of In The Garden On The Farm, a weekly radio show (Wednesdays, noon-1pm) on KKCR where he is able to both share and learn. 

We walk past a black pepper plant, a pink powder puff, mountain apple, blackberry jam fruit, wing beans, lima beans and a tropical yam growing underground. We stop before an Egyptian Pea tree, growing double overhead and flowering yellow. 

“This is called chop-and-drop,” Paul says, using a machete to cut off low branches of the tree then placing them at the base of a neighbor plant and stepping on them. “The leaf becomes bug food, bug poop becomes plant food, plant food becomes food.” It is living mulch, one plant feeding another. 

A four-year-old cacao tree grows nearby. Paul cuts off a pod and splits it, offering me half. We eat the pulp off the seeds then spit them out wherever — they just might grow. “Cultivating the forest is about compromise,” he says, “When we choose to plant many plants close, for example, it’s an exchange. Protection from strong wind is perhaps more important than full sun.” There are nitrogen fixing trees growing, some plants that supply shade and cool the ground, others that crowd out weeds, more still cycle out nutrients from the soil, a few prevent erosion, and of course there are those that provide food. Suddenly the food forest no longer appears to be growing in chaos but in deliberate harmony. 

Left to Right: Paul Massey, Hunter Beaudreau, Jangee Westphal, Casey Piscura



Photo ID: Paul Marshall

This is not just farming, it is permaculture, a sustainable agriculture. The idea is to cultivate the land with all people, including future people, in mind. Paul emphasizes that this is a long-term project, investing energy into the plot for long-term abundance. He believes it is one of the most rewarding aspects of the food forest, the years of commitment it requires. Several of the trees he has planted will take a decade or more to bear fruit. This is a patient person’s game.

Before this specific land had ever been tilled, it was almost certainly the innards of a dense forest. And because Polynesian settlers tended to subsist along the coast and lowlands until the point of resource diminishment, the uplands may not have been touched for a great deal of time. In 1863, the land was sold to Charles Titcomb by Kamehameha IV and it grew sugarcane from 1880 to 1971 then guava from 1977-2006. The parcel was then purchased by Bill and Joan Porter and cleared, then rested as two acres of mowed grass for five years. Now christened Wai Koa, the land became the site of the Kalihiwai Community Garden in 2009, when the future food forests’ nonprofit Regenerations first got involved to assist in the design.

“The garden design, which initially included both vegetable plots and a mixed fruit and bamboo orchard, was conceived at a two-week permaculture design course that I helped to produce. A local nonprofit, Mālama Kaua`i, had secured the lease for the land where the garden and the forest were eventually developed,” says Paul, “The idea of larger scale plantings never left my mind and I continued advocating for its creation throughout the community.” After years and a series of community discussions, a large-scale planting was at last achieved in December 2012 and the food forest was born.

It is a fact that the Hawaiian islands are overly dependent on food imports. It is a service to the community to provide a venue where people can find inspiration and education on how to establish and maintain a food producing system of their own, increasing their food security. For this reason, the food forest always has been and forever will be entwined in the community of Kilauea, of Kaua`i, and of Hawai`i. It intends to serve as an educational demo site where visitors can become proficient in subtropical agroforestry techniques through hands-on experience and even take home cuttings or seeds to start their own baby food forest.

Photo ID: Paul Marshall


“It is a living, breathing organism that demonstrates our evolving techniques arrived at through experimentation and a keen observation of the interrelationships of the plants and soil,” Paul says. “The food forest is also a living seed bank, generating an ever-increasing diversity and quantity of planting material for establishing these elegant food and soil building systems in backyards and farms around the island.”


While visitors can explore the food forest any day of the year, weekly workdays are held every Saturday from 9am-5pm where all are welcome to cultivate the land, get their hands dirty and learn through experience. Green thumbs and novices alike can interact with the food forest, and, “both figuratively and literally, enjoy the fruits of our efforts,” Paul says referring to the weekly group meal, made with food harvested from the forest. Possible menu items include: wild chicken stew, giant yams, curried coconut soup, and almost certainly pickled vegetables.

At this point, the forest represents thousands of people’s work. Passionate community members and volunteers, the nonprofits of Regenerations, Mālama Kaua`i and Sanctuary of LUBOF, Paul and his right hand men from the beginning, Marshall Paul and Rob Cruz, and all of those who have donated seeds and cuttings; it takes a village to grow a forest.

On our way back to where we began, Paul hands me a rollinia fruit, a relative of the soursop. It is pale yellow and delicate, bruising easily. He tells me it is ready, to eat it soon. We stop briefly so he can pick himself some edible hibiscus, or lau pele; this will be Paul’s dinner tonight, he will steam them. He plucks the leaves tenderly, like this plant is an old friend. After so much time and energy spent in the food forest, perhaps it is. “I’m in love with this place and what it keeps revealing to us,” he says. [eHI]