Take a close look. Do you see anything different with our 2015 spring cover?
When you see what’s changed please tell us in the comment section below. We will GIFT a complimentary 1 year print subscription to the first person who notices what’s different!
The theme of the spring issue and one of our favorite subjects, GROW. To see things grow, emerge, mature and to experience all phases of growth is satisfying.
Our cover is a spring salad created by chef Noah Hester of The Blue Dragon Restaurant on Hawai’i Island. We asked chef Noah to create a 100% locally sourced salad course for an edible Event – a dinner to support post-production expenses for the full-length documentary, I Am Haloa. To take it a step further chef Noah worked with his father, Ron Hester to turn a fallen mango tree on the farm into serving bowls for the salad. The cover photograph reminds us of spring, new growth and that all things are possible.
A special mahalo to the photographer, Anna Pacheco.
Written by Catherine E. Toth Photography by Patrick Kelley
You wouldn’t expect lettuce growing on a tennis court.
But that’s exactly what you’d find at the Grand Hyatt Kaua‘i Resort & Spa in Po‘ipu–.
The hotel converted one of its 4,000-square-foot tennis courts into a greenhouse, growing several varieties of lettuce such as green and red oak leaf and Lollo Rossa that will be used by the restaurants on-site. It expects to produce 100 pounds of greens a week, with plans to grow different crops, including tomatoes and herbs, by the end of the year.
And while many hotels boast flourishing gardens, even edible ones, this one is different: everything here is grown hydroponically, without soil and using nutrients added to the water to grow the plants. This method, when done right, is more efficient in terms of water and land use while minimizing the need for pesticides.
The restaurants here benefit, too, with fresh produce grown steps away from their kitchens.
“Sustainability is important on many levels and for many different reasons,” says Matt Smith, executive chef at the Grand Hyatt Kaua‘i Resort & Spa. “Most often overlooked is the idea of being sustainable from a financial standpoint. For obvious reasons, growing our own lettuces supports a healthier (profit and loss) statement … And when looking at the hydroponic farm from an environmental perspective, it’s easy to see how much it can help us lower our impact on the environment. I often like to refer to the way our grandparents ate and produced food. They only ate what was in season and typically within a 100-mile radius. This had a tremendous amount of benefit on the local economy, the environment and the health of the people in the community.”
Hydroponics and aquaponics — a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics, where fish effluent water is used to grow the vegetables — are both soil-less systems. Despite the actual technology being thousands of years old, these systems are quickly gaining in popularity with both backyard and commercial farmers. Growers can grow more plants in these systems, getting higher yields per square foot. This is an attractive benefit for farmers without much land or growing in areas with poor soil quality. Placing these systems in controlled environments, you can grow crops all year long.
“The cleanliness, ease of operation, consistency of product and current demand from consumers for high-quality produce are reasons why these two methods are so popular,” says Jensen Uyeda, a junior extension agent for the University of Hawai‘i’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, who helped build the hydroponic greenhouse at the Grand Hyatt Kaua‘i Resort & Spa.
“I think there is a larger push from the college and industry to educate the public about these growing systems,” Uyeda adds. “The education provides potential growers the ability to make informed decisions as to what type of systems to construct and how to operate them.”
It especially makes sense in Hawai‘i, experts say. The islands are geographically isolated and dependent on imports. (The state imports about 85 percent of its food.) Natural resources are limited. Cost to do business here is high.
So it’s no surprise that farms here are trying hydroponic and aquaponic systems — some exclusively — to grow their vegetables.
Waipoli Hydroponic Greens in Upcountry Maui grows about 180,000 plants year-round in hydroponic greenhouses, producing up to 15,000 pounds of specialty lettuces a week. Kawamata Farms in Waimea on the Big Island churns out more than 20,000 high-quality, hydroponically grown tomatoes every week.
Kunia Country Farms, focused on growing greens using aquaponics, started five years ago on a two-acre plot in Kunia just a few miles from Wahiawa– on O‘ahu’s central plains.
Today, the farm produces about 5,000 pounds of lettuce a week, growing three different head lettuce varieties and 10 salad types. Its healthy leafy greens are being fed the nutrient-rich effluent from thousands of tilapia growing in nearby tanks in a farming method that’s both sustainable and responsible. The plan is to add more grow beds and ramp up production in the next few years.
To Jason Brand, of Kunia Country Farms it’s important to run a financially successful farm in a sustainable way. Meaning, generate revenue without taxing the environment. He feels that aquaponics is the way to go.
The farm uses far less water than traditional soil-based farms and no fertilizers, as the fish waste provides the adequate nutrients for the plants. And soon, it will install solar panels to sustainably meet its electricity needs.
“Our goal was to reduce the cost of food and solve our food dependence,” says Brand, who started the farm with Cary Takenaka and Scott Wo. “That’s how we got into aquaponics … It’s a sustainable way to help reduce Hawai‘i’s food dependence on the Mainland and imports. And the farm helps to grow employment in rural O‘ahu.”
Sustainability was the draw for Monica Bogar, who runs Napili Flo Farm in Napili, north of La–haina– in West Maui. She grows mostly baby greens — 20 different types depending on the year — watercress and edible flowers in closed-loop aquaponic systems for Maui chefs like Sheldon Simeon, Isaac Bancaco and Jojo Vasquez. Right now, she’s got pea shoots, purple radish, red miso, cilantro, dark opal basil and salad mix growing in her greenhouse.
She liked the fact that she could recycle the water, ditch the fertilizers and pesticides, and grow her own vegetables and protein in aquaponics.
“I’m about utilizing everything more than once and not wasting,” says the 37-year-old mother of two. “Wasting is a huge thing for me. We should be giving back to the earth more than we take.”
Lee Bryant of Mays Wonder Gardens in Hale‘iwa says he uses, on average, 90 percent less water than traditional dirt farming on his 30-acre hydroponic farm, one of the largest in the state. And since his farm is located about 1,000 feet above the North Shore, he says he has very little issues with pests. In fact, he’s gone three months without spraying anything. And when he does use pesticide, he uses only lightweight, certified organic sprays.
“If I had to spray with restricted-use pesticides,” he says, “I wouldn’t continue the business. I’d go and do something else.”
But these systems are not without their own challenges.
According to Uyeda, there are water and electrical costs associated with both hydroponics and aquaponics. Nutrients aren’t cheap and fish require protein-rich feed that can be pricey, too. Commercial farmers have the typical challenges of land costs,competition with cheaper imports and production consistency.
But that shouldn’t — and likely won’t — stop farmers from exploring soil-less options.
“These systems should be used as another contributor to Hawai‘i’s food security, but we still need to maintain our large conventional and organic farming systems, which currently provide the bulk of our food supply,” Uyeda says. “In terms of lettuce production and leafy green production, (soil-less farming) may be the best system. I think that there may be more producers in the future that will utilize suboptimal lands for food production with these systems as the land costs are usually lower than prime ag lands.”
Bryant says the initial startup cost for a hydroponic farm the size of his — he harvests up to 10,000 heads of lettuce a day, five days a week on 10 acres of land — is very high compared to a traditional soil-based farm. And since he has no power at his farm, he has to run five 15,000-watt generators around the clock.
But alternative energy has eased that cost. He’s already installed solar and wind on the farm, which has dropped his energy consumption by 35 percent.
For Dan Ching, who runs Ili‘ili Farms on two acres of land in Lualualei Valley in Wai‘anae on O‘ahu, the benefits of growing his vegetables in aquaponic systems far outweigh the challenges.
“Aquaponics uses less land, less water, less fertilizer and less labor than soil farming,” says the 66-year-old retired structural engineer. “And it’s a faster turnaround.”
A few years ago, Ching started his farm with his wife, Mei, to stay healthy and keep busy after retirement. Today, the farm produces Mānoa lettuce, Shaghai bok choy, watercress, green onions and cilantro sold at Whole Foods, Foodland and Down To Earth. Solar panels keep his electrical costs to a minimum. And since he’s using fish effluent to grow his plants, he’s able to get his produce USDA organic-certified. (Hydroponic produce can’t get that designation because you have to add chemical nutrients to the water.)
And though he touts the benefits of aquaponics, Ching doesn’t see this method as entirely replacing soil-based farming.
“I think aquaponics is best kept small, on an acre or more, and spread throughout communities,” he says. “Backyard and community aquaponics are good. Commercial aquaponic (operations) need a lot of capital to startup. It’s not for everyone.”
Fred Lau, owner of the 18-acre Mari’s Gardens in Mililani on O‘ahu, one of the largest hydroponic and aquaponic farms in the state, took on the challenge of running a large-scale commercial operation. He sees these soil-less methods as the future of farming in Hawai‘i and around the world.
“Traditional farming can’t stay the same,” he says. “We’re way more intensive than what (traditional farmers) can do because of these systems. There’s no weeds, no need for tilling, no need for fertilizer, and there’s no downtime in growing. We actually get substantially more cycles than a dirt farmer.”
Across a few acres in Mililani, Lau grows dozens of rows of Mānoa lettuce, flourishing in grow beds of black cinder. Nearby are tanks and troughs of thousands of tilapia and Chinese catfish.
He also grows other varieties of lettuce, heirloom carrots, kale, beets, radishes, green onions, watercress, ong choy, arugula and Okinawan spinach. And in greenhouses are cherry tomatoes and Japanese cucumbers. His produce is sold at Whole Foods, Down To Earth, Kokua Market, various farmer’s markets and in CSA boxes. They can also be found on the menus of Poke Stop, Honolulu Burger Co., and at the restaurants at the Halekulani Hotel.
What Lau is doing at Mari’s Gardens has inspired other farmers — including Ching — to consider soil-less methods of growing food.
David Morgan, director of agricultural operations at Kualoa Ranch in windward O‘ahu, visited the Mililani farm recently and is toying with ideas to set up an aquaponics system at the ranch. Right now, Kualoa has an aquaculture program, growing tilapia, oysters and shrimp. Growing vegetables using the effluent water makes sense to him.
“I think now people are starting to figure out how to control things a little better so you can optimize growth on both ends of that production cycle,” he says. “My interest in aquaponics has definitely been rising lately.”
HYDROPONICS VS. AQUAPONICS
Hydroponics is a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions in water, without soil. Plants are grown with their roots in the mineral nutrient solution only, or in an inert medium, such as perlite or gravel.
Aquaponics is a food production system that combines aquaculture and hydroponics in a symbiotic environment. The waste from the aquatic animals — fish, crayfish, prawns — are used to provide nutrients to the plants. The byproducts are broken down by nitrogen- fixing bacteria into nitrates and nitrites, which are utilized by the plants as nutrients. The water is then re-circulated back to the aquaculture system.
Written by Kelly McHugh Photography by Cedric Angeles and K. Johnson
“Let’s reframe the tourist industry: if you really want to experience Hawai‘i, taste Hawai‘i.” —Jack Johnson
With two hands in his backyard garden, trimmings in a pile and happy as a clam, Jack Johnson begins his two-month hiatus from touring the globe as a musician (a promise he made to his wife, Kim), doing exactly what he plans to do: cultivating edibles while spending some QT at home with his family.
In every sense of the word, Jack Johnson is cool. Born and raised on the North Shore of O‘ahu to modern surf legend Jeff Johnson, he became the youngest invitee to make the surfing finals at the Pipeline Masters at 17. Within a week of the contest, he was recovering from a near fatal accident in the water and swiftly developed a passion for guitar. He and his then-girlfriend, Kim, wrote songs in his UC Santa Barbara college dorm room as he earned a degree in film and she, in education. Jack credits Kim with nearly every achievement, from managing tours and selling more than 15 million albums worldwide to topping the national U.S. Billboard charts three times to co-founding and running the couple’s nonprofit Kōkua Hawai‘i Foundation – which aims to help protect the environment and educate the next generation of stewards of their island home, Hawai‘i.
But we’re not here to talk about the surfing, filmmaking, Grammy nomi nated musician Jack Johnson; we’re here to talk about food.
Where did the passion stem from to create Kōkua Hawai‘i Foundation? Why does it matter?
If I go back, everything I do has stemmed from a partnership with my wife Kim since we were 18 and met in college. We were always together at that point, and anything one of us was working on, whether it be homework or trying to write a song, the other was giving input. A couple of years into the music career, when Kim had taken over as my tour manager, we saw that we had the potential to draw a lot of people together to raise money and awareness about an important cause. Inspired by friends like Neil Young doing the Bridge School benefit concerts, we thought “what else can we do to help?” We combined our background and interests – she as a teacher and me as a former camp counselor – and created the foundation with our friends. We support farmers markets, give healthy snacks in the schools that are locally grown, run farm visits and teach kids that by eating food that is sourced nearby that is so fresh and so good, you can do something good for yourself and do something good for the environment. It really just came from being inspired to help Hawai‘i. You look at the statistics and think that if you can start at a really young age and help them learn about what’s good for them – and make it fun – they will grow up seeing this as a positive experience.
Tell me about a memorable moment for you while building this program. How do you know when it’s working?
Yesterday I was teaching a garden lesson – “the scientific garden” at my kid’s school. The class was separated into four groups, each with their own gardening plot and soil composition (e.g. regular soil, mulch, precast), all planted with green beans. It was the last day of the lesson and we were comparing and contrasting results and the kids were just having so much fun, laughing as they were discovering the differences. These days, the negative about the future of our planet is poured on – we really want to take a positive, fun approach- then as they grow older it’s something they want to return to.
So by making it fun, you’re making it memorable?
As soon as they have fun you know they’ll start learning. I remember one of the first times in the schools when we were developing a curriculum for nutrition and garden-based learning, using native and canoe plants. When we first started doing the lessons, the kids were digging for bugs. One kid found a huge centipede, which threw the whole direction off but then gave me a great chance to improvise, because now I’m talking about worms, centipedes, decomposers and how they all work together in the garden. Everyone’s squealing “ewwwww!” – but they’re having fun. These are the great, real learning experiences.
What is the future of food sustainability in Hawai‘i? How do we compare with some your worldwide tour communities?
We used to bring one person along with us on tour as the head of our catering, while most bands bring out a full staff with pre-planned meals. Our person would be in charge of the local catering. Everything would have to be sourced within a certain distance of where the venue was, so they would find the local farmers market and create a menu. We don’t have to do that anymore because every town we go to has a great group already doing this work; caterers sourcing locally from farmers markets. Awareness of local farmers has really grown over the years.
The tricky part for Hawai‘i (in terms of the future of food sustainability) is tourism. It is a powerful industry. So many people want to visit and a lot of land that should have food grown on it is under pressure to be rezoned and developed. Something I always try to say when I’m asked by local tourist magazines about how visitors can be more environmentally friendly is to support local farmers! If you are stocking up your fridge, store up at farmers markets. A lot of tourists just don’t realize that we import everything. Let’s reframe the tourist industry: if you really want to experience Hawai‘i, taste Hawai‘i.
If we separated processed foods from fresh, locally grown foods – do you think we would still consume 85 percent imported?
No, I don’t think so; I see such a growing number of people interested in supporting farmers markets, and I see those farmers markets popping up more and more.
What would you like to see for Hawai‘i?
Best case scenario: more people are growing food on their own property – and it doesn’t even have to be about the number of plants or acres, just that it’s happening in more households; that more people are opening their minds to the fact that it can be here. More farmers markets, direct to consumer. More food being grown.
How can the Kōkua Hawai‘i Foundation help make that happen?
As the kids in our school programs get into high school, they start to take action – the greatest action you can take- by making environmentally conscious decisions about their food choices. Our friend Ed Kenney, who is on our board, brought the idea to our attention to work together with kids at different stages of their development. He works with MA‘O (an acronym for “Mala ‘Ai ‘Opio,” which means “the youth garden”), using the produce in dishes at his restaurant (Town) and supporting their fundraisers. Together, we’re getting more locally grown food in Hawai‘i, impacting health, economy and environment, and getting more farmers on land that might otherwise be lost to development.
And as for you, where do you take the family to eat on a night out?
Last night we ate matzah ball soup – some Jewish friends had us over and we learned about Hanukkah. On special occasions we love to eat at Town or at Kalapawai Caf. & Deli in Kailua, for my sister. There is so much good food there, risotto, desserts, root dishes, beets; everything is locally grown. We love taking the kids to Luibuenos for Mexican food. For a long time I had my kids convinced that the picture of Elvis on the wall was Luibueno and he was going to come out and sing songs about his burritos.
How do you plan to spend your first break in two years?
Except for a board meeting that I have in a few minutes, I’ll just be surfing, spending time with the family and catching up on gardening. Because of the last 15 years of my music career, my garden always goes to weeds while I’m away and I just want to focus on my garden. I want to see this thing come to fruition.
Written by Shannon Wianecki Photography by Elena Rego
For thousands of years people have cherished the fruit of the cacao tree: the source of chocolate. Ancient Mesoamericans believed that cacao possessed divine properties and incorporated it into their sacred rituals, feasts, medicines and monetary systems. The species’ Latin name, Theobroma cacao, means “food of the gods.” Who can argue with that? Today, lovers worldwide exchange chocolate as edible tokens of their passion. And in Hawai‘i, farmers sow cacao seeds in hopes of reaping lucrative rewards.
The first cacao trees arrived here in 1850, courtesy of botanist William Hillebrand, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that local growers began capitalizing on this promising crop. A small but increasing number of cacao farmers now cultivates around 100 acres across Hawai‘i. Their harvest is still too slim for the National Agricultural Statistics Service to track, but that’s likely to change. University of Hawai‘i researchers estimate that cacao could ultimately cover up to 3,000 acres statewide, generating $34 million annually. That would rank it among Hawai‘i’s top crops alongside sugar, seeds, macadamias and coffee. That’s just where it belongs, according to some island farmers.
“We’re the pioneers,” says Pamela Cooper. Eighteen years ago, she and her husband Bob left North Carolina for Hawai‘i Island. When the Coopers surveyed the mature, productive cacao trees on their new six-acre orchard in Keauhou, they knew they’d struck gold. Pamela laughs, “The chocolate had plans for us.” Their retirement morphed into a second career: launching their business, Original Hawaiian Chocolate, and with it, a new industry.
The Coopers invested $1 million turning a farm shed into a chocolate processing factory. Then they set about building a market for their product. “It was our vision to see the Islands become the Napa Valley of chocolate in the United States,” says Pamela. “Bob travelled to all of the islands encouraging people to grow cacao. To our delight, they are!”
Hawai‘i is the sole place in the U.S. where cacao can grow, as the heat-loving tree thrives in the tropical belt. At 21 degrees north of the equator, Hawai‘i is nicknamed “the North Pole of cacao.” While it may be a little chilly, the Islands’ northerly location confers certain benefits. Beans grown here tend to have higher cocoa butter content. Plus, major cacao diseases haven’t made it to Hawaiian shores.
Slender, droopy-leafed cacao trees produce yellow or scarlet pods that emerge straight from the trunk. Crack one open to find wet, feathery pulp surrounding clusters of beans. The pulp is sweet, but the beans are bitter. To create the confection everyone knows and loves, chocolatiers must ferment, dry and roast the beans, winnow away the husks, and grind the resulting nibs into a liquid—and that’s just the beginning. Chocolate making is truly both science and art.
As Hawai‘i’s nascent cacao industry develops, local companies devise unique business models. Some produce single-origin chocolate from beans they grow; others collect the best beans from Hawai‘i and elsewhere and hone their chocolate-making techniques. In 2012, local cacao aficionados formed two organi zations: the Kona Cacao Association, which produces the annual Big Island Chocolate Festival, and the Hawai‘i Chocolate and Cacao Association, a statewide group of nearly 100 cacao growers, confectioners and educators. The extremely cooperative bunch shares expertise, seeds and equipment.
From the start, the Coopers supplied cacao seedlings to anyone willing to grow, with an agreement to buy back the beans. They now source beans from 27 neighboring orchards, in addition to their own. At the Original Hawaiian Chocolate farm, the Coopers make chocolate from bud to bar. They ferment cacao beans in slatted mahogany boxes, dry them in the sun for 30 days, and store them for two years before further processing. They discovered the last step by accident; their initial crop had to wait while they constructed their factory. “That was an ‘A-ha!’ moment,” says Pamela. “Like wine, cacao beans continue to develop their flavor in storage.” The end result is 100-percent Hawaii chocolate, available as hand-poured bars or blossom-shaped bites.
On the opposite end of the archipelago, Tony Lydgate produces small batches of single-origin chocolate at Steelgrass, an eight acre family farm above Kapa‘a on Kaua‘i. Lydgate has published scientific research on cacao and participates in University of Hawaii field trials to determine which varietals grow best. “We be lieve cacao offers tremendous promise for the island of Kaua‘i,” he says. Unlike the Coopers, Lydgate doesn’t own a factory. Instead, he’s investing in more trees. He’s planning on increasing his orchard tenfold, from 300 to 3,000. His five-year plan is to establish a cooperatively owned chocolate processing plant on Kaua‘i.
Each island yields cacao with slightly different characteristics. Terroir, the wine industry term that describes how landscape affects a grape’s flavor, applies equally to chocolate. The state’s largest cacao grower, Waialua Estate Chocolate (a subsidiary of Dole Food Company) manages 20 acres on O‘ahu’s north shore. The 13,000 cacao trees planted along the loamy banks of Kaukonahua Stream produce beans with hints of dark cherry, berry and raisin. They’re sent to San Francisco for processing by one of the best chocolate makers in the business: Guittard. The finished product finds its way onto the menus of top restaurants.
Chocolatier – Someone who makes chocolates, such as those dipped, nutty, or cream-filled confections.
Confectioner – Professional that makes confections, which are food items that are rich in sugar and carbohydrates. This can include sweet pastries, sugar candies and chocolates.
Chocolate Maker – Someone, or a company, that buys and roasts cocoa beans and grinds them into chocolate.
Two of the most lauded local chocolate makers, Manoa Chocolate and Madre Chocolate, don’t own farms. Instead, they purchase premium cacao from Hawai‘i, Latin America and Africa and perfect the hallmarks of good chocolate: mouth feel, snap, flavor and finish. Their artisan bars are spiked with ghost pepper, Hawaiian sea salt, quinoa or candied hibiscus. Last year Madre Chocolate partnered with Big Island farmer Gini Choobua to perfect a fermentation method that highlighted the exceptional gooseberry and Brazil nut notes inherent in Choobua’s cacao. The team netted first place in the bean-to-bar competition at the 2014 Big Island Chocolate Festival.
Of all the Hawaiian chocolates, Melanie Boudar’s are the most beautiful. Hand-painted with cocoa butter, they’re irresistible, edible jewels—literally. One of her specialties is sprinkled with 24-karat gold: the “Fruit of the Cocoa” truffle, made with 70 percent dark Waialua chocolate and filled with ganache and cacao pulp. Sweet Paradise Chocolatier, her posh boutique in Wailea, Maui, is Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory hit with a haute couture wand. The glass case gleams with dark squares topped with slivers of starfruit, shiny red hearts bursting with liliko‘i, and green swirly marbles infused with Tahitian lime. Boudar is no amateur; she attended both the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, and Ecole Chocolat in Vancouver. In addition to producing superior chocolate, Boudar takes an active role in sustainable cacao production around the world.
Meanwhile, on the other end of Maui, a relative newcomer to the Hawai‘i cacao scene has big ambitions. “My intent is to make the best chocolate in the world,” says Gunars Valkirs. The retiree- turned-farmer sold off a medical diagnostics business and bought ten acres in Lahaina, Maui. At Maui Ku‘ia Estate, 1,400 cacao seedlings wait in a greenhouse for the windbreak and canopy trees that Valkirs planted to mature. “I’m taking my time, building a forest,” he says. “I’m hoping that Lahaina can produce really great flavor. It has rich, agricultural soil.”
Terroir is important, but Valkirs thinks choosing the right cacao varietal is the key to exceptional chocolate. After he determines which genetics grow best in Lahaina, he’ll plant 30 acres and produce 60,000 pounds of chocolate a year. “I always thought I would be a winemaker. But I decided I didn’t want to live in [wine-growing] areas,” he says. “I love chocolate. I eat an ounce of chocolate every day. It’s more of an obsession with me.”
Each year we ask our readers and the community at large to share with us the individuals, businesses and organizations they feel are making a difference in our food culture and sustainability. Votes come in from across the State and beyond our shores. Here we proudly share the results, giving credit where credit is due. This year is our 9th Annual Local Hero Awards and we added a NEW category by request: Dessert/Pastry.
Hawaii Public Seed Initiative – The Kohala Center Kamuela, Hawai‘i Island
“The Hawai`i Public Seed Initiative is honored to be voted one of Edible Hawaiian Islands “Local Heros.” We are proud to have the opportunity to work with an island-wide network of small farmers, gardeners and interested community members who are dedicated to creating and sharing a source of locally adapted seeds for our diverse island microclimates. This growing movement of seed saving, seed education, and community building are vital to building Hawai‘i’s long-term food self-reliance and survival. We are grateful for the on-going support of; The Kohala Center; our partners at UH CTAHR who guide us in our efforts, Russell Nagata, Glenn Teves and Hector Valenzuela and The Ceres Trust which believes that maintaining genetically diverse, locally adapted seeds is the “lynch pin” for a healthy, sustainable food system. Every seed holds the promise of life, it is the responsibility of all of us to carefully and consciously nurture and protect this precious resource for future generations.”
Favorite Farm or Farmer
James Simpliciano, Simpli-fresh Farms Lahaina, Maui
“I kindly thank you all for voting me as your local hero farmer for edible Hawaiian Islands Magazine. I owe my inspirations to my parents, grandparents, and my friends and family here on Maui. As a keiki growing up in the islands, I always enjoyed growing and eating fresh fruits, vegetables, gathering limu, and diving for tako. It really feels inspiring to farm here on the island, bringing a diverse pallette of foods in colors of the rainbow. I appreciate all the visitors abroad who came and spend a moment in time with us at Simpli-fresh produce LLC. My friends and I have farmed over fi ve years here on the West Maui mountains, creating an oasis of fruit and vegetable forests for the families, school gardens and local restaurants. Our passion is to continue to mentor, educate new farmers, gardeners and visitors. We hope to continue to share our love of farming, by the way we Mālama our ʻĀina for generations to come. Mahalo for being part of our lives.”
Favorite Artisanal Beverage
Big Island Coffee Roasters Mt. View, Hawai‘i Island
“When we first moved to Hawai‘i we were just grateful to be farming in warm weather. But, over the years, as we’ve settled in and evolved as a roasting company, we’ve realized the warmth of Hawai‘i comes from the people living here. There’s an authenticity and sincerity of culture in Hawai‘i that’s so strong it inspires the products you can create and the work you do. For that reason, community leadership, particularly in the coffee community, feels like a supportive side-by-side, step-by-step walk with everyone around us: from farmers to baristas, and customers to colleagues. We’re honored.”
“Thank you to the readers of edible Hawaiian Islands for this wonderful surprise. I am deeply humbled by this honor. I owe it all to the MW Restaurant ‘ohana and our farmers, purveyors, fishmongers, ranchers and dairy farmers who make our job easy. Without them, creating desserts would be very difficult. Every day it is always a joy to work with them and create new desserts.”
Favorite Food Shop
The Locavore Store Hilo, Hawai‘i Island
“We’re so thrilled! Since the beginning, our community has been incredibly supportive of this endeavor and it is all the more encouraging to have their support made tangible with this award. We are grateful and honored to be included with the very people who are our heroes, who we so admire and respect. For us, this award is a testament of the appreciation for and awareness of all of the unique farms and artisans we represent, their tireless creativity and hard work. There is so much ingenuity on the Big Island, and throughout Hawai‘i, we’ve only just scratched the surface. It’s very rewarding to look back on what we’ve been able to accomplish within our community, by bridging the gap between our small-scale, dedicated food suppliers and crafts-people and the wider public. Mahalo nui loa for such a wonderful affirmation! We look forward to continuing growing our work and relationships.”
Favorite Chef or Restaurant
Big Island Brewhaus Waimea, Hawai‘i Island
“The Big Island Brewhaus team is honored to be recognized as a Local Hero. This recognition is especially dear to owners Tom & Jayne Kerns as it was their dream, when opening a brewpub in Waimea, to create a community gathering place that would welcome residents and visitors of all ages. Big Island Brewhaus is dedicated to supporting local farmers, fisherman, ranchers, musicians and businesses; to brewing and bottling (only in Hawai‘i) quality handcrafted beer and handcrafting locally-based food as delicious and diverse as our beer; to recycling and being as ‘green’ and sustainable as possible. That our efforts and the hard work of our crew are appreciated by our community is a great reward in itself.”
The poet moves through light and shadow between spires of green. He steps gingerly on a steep, muddy path over fallen fronds and leaves. He has come to fetch a small potted palm from a protected shelf which he carries back to his house hidden in a palm forest on Maui’s north shore.
It’s been raining hard leaving the narrow path dangerously slick. Even in hiking shoes I have to steady my own step, following behind the poet four decades my senior. “Be careful,” I caution, watching him advance along the path, somewhat overdressed for the tropical climate in a grey flannel long sleeved shirt, navy blue turtleneck, drab olive vest and denim jeans. “Oh, I’ve been on these trails a few times,” the poet answers buoyantly, pushing against a walking stick still holding the potted plant.
The air is cool but humid after a band of early winter rain has doused the coast leaving the poet’s forest resplendent in green pinnate fronds, orange crown shafts, clusters of yellow and red seeds. As we walk toward the house, without turning back, the poet says in a strong, clear voice, “They ask me, ‘Why do you love palms?’” He pauses briefly, then asks no one in particular, “Why do you love your girlfriend?”
A poet rewrites a valley’s history
The house appears from nowhere out of a dense pocket of green, with only the corner of the tiled roof visible, looking like a Japanese country home. We are joined by the poet’s guardian and companion, a stocky legged ruddy orange chow with a pink and black muzzle who woofs protectively at the approaching stranger.
“That’s Pea,” the poet says, introducing his dog. “It’s Hawaiian for bear.”
The poet is W.S. Merwin, one of America’s most celebrated 20th century writers. Author of more than 60 works of poetry, prose and translations,as well as U.S. poet laureate (2010), Merwin has been creating this palm forest with his wife Paula since the late 1970s. This is not only their personal retreat and a world-class palm collection, but now in partnership with the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust (HILT), it’s a protected conservation resource that will endure in perpetuity.
Merwin, who came to Hawai‘i in 1976, began his palm collection the following year. Soon after arriving he found a sloping hillside degraded from years of destructive pineapple farming. Although the soil was in no shape to grow much of anything, Merwin started planting Casuarina (ironwood) trees the day he bought the property. Those trees reinvigorated the battered earth and 30 years later, when the trees had to be removed due to termite infestation, Merwin found they left behind 18 inches of rich, black topsoil.
“The thing is, if you give it life in some particular place, the life wants to be there and it wants to grow. Now the life is all the way down the slopes,” Merwin says, looking out from his lanai on the jungle he grew.
Before coming to Hawai‘i, Merwin lived in the south of France where he first read about soil restoration. At the time he never expected to own land but told himself, “if I do, I’d like to have ruined land and see if I can restore it.”
Together Merwin and Paula have turned the once barren hardpan into a vibrant mosaic and canopy of life humming with bird songs and rustling fronds.
“The one thing that survived if I gave it a little bit of seaweed, manure and compost to begin with,” Merwin recalls, “was the Hawaiian palms – the Pritchardia.” Merwin gathered seeds from collectors in Hawai‘i and gradually built up his collection with palms from around the world. Many of his trees, like the red lemur palm (Lemurophoenix halleuxii) are rare and endangered in the wild.
For nearly three decades Merwin and Paula nurtured their collection alone. Paula says, “For all these years we didn’t have any help at all in the garden…We just had our heads down…working, weeding, planting, collecting. Then about five or six years ago we both looked up and saw what had happened — we were thrilled. We still are — it’s kind of miraculous.”
Today, the forest of over 2,700 palms (over 800 horticultural varieties, 407 species, 128 genera), gets help from a small, dedicated groundskeeping crew, but the Merwins are out amongst their trees daily, pruning and planting, mixing in organic fertilizer or scattering half-rotted woodchip mulch around the trees.
In 2010 the collection was institutionalized as The Merwin Conservancy, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing and preserving forever “the literary legacy, the palm tree collection and the home of W.S. Merwin.” Besides caring for the forest itself, the Conservancy says it was established, in part, to perpetuate Merwin’s works and values in a public forum through research, education and outreach.
Three years later Merwin’s palms were mapped, identified and tagged in partnership with the Kaua‘i-based National Tropical Botanical Garden and Dr. John Dransfield, one of the world’s leading palm authorities.
Explaining the collection’s scientific and conservation value Dransfield says, “This wonderful garden represents one of the richest collections of palms amassed by a private individual. What is so unusual and valuable is the extraordinarily natural appearance of many of the palms, which are growing in rain forest conditions of mixed shade very much as they would in their place of origin.”
Last October The Conservancy established a perpetual conservation easement with HILT, which will monitor and partner with The Conservancy to help with long-term protection and management of the property.
Jason Denhart, executive director of The Merwin Conservancy, says the partnership with HILT will ensure that what he called “Maui’s version of Walden Pond” will never be threatened by future development.
Ted Clement, HILT’s executive director, points out the large concentration of biological diversity on the 19-acre site, saying that “the fact that one of the great environmental poets of our time really walks the walk and puts a real perpetual conservation easement on his palm forest, that’s significant for the national land conservation movement. It shows how significant it is when great minds realize the importance of land conservation and do it on their own land.”
Reciting Merwin’s oft-cited quote “On the last day of the world I would want to plant a tree,” Clement says Merwin embodies the true spirit of a strong conservation ethic. “That quote for me…was always about at the end of the day, no matter how tough things are, even if your world is coming to an end, you always fight for life. You always take actions that promote life… even in the face of incredible odds you just keep fighting for life, you plant another tree even in the face of the final days.”
For Merwin and Paula, each day spent at home among the trees they’ve grown and the soil they’ve restored, is a treasure no matter the weather. No matter how hot, how rainy, or how muddy the path, every day is a good day.
In reflection Merwin says, “This is it. This is the once… I feel so lucky to be here with Paula and this garden.”
In January the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust presented W.S. Merwin with its 2015 Champion of the Land Conservation Award in recognition of his exceptional commitment to land conservation.
What is a Garden?
By W.S. Merwin 1999
All day working happily down near the stream bed the light passing into the remote opalescence
it returns to as the year wakes towards winter a season of rain in a year already rich
in rain with masked light emerging on all sides in the new leaves of the palms quietly waving
time of mud and slipping an of overhearing the water under the sloped ground going on whispering
as it travels time of rain thundering at night and of rocks rolling and echoing in the torrent
and of looking up after noon through the high branches to see fine rain drifting across the sunlight
over the valley that was abused and at last left to fill with thickets of rampant aliens
bringing habits but no stories under the mango trees already vast as clouds there I keep discovering
beneath the tangle the ancient shaping of water to which the light of an hour comes back as to a secret
and there I planted young palms in places I had not pondered until then I imagined their roots setting out in the dark
knowing without knowledge I kept trying to see them standing in that bend of the valley in the light that would come