Hawaii’s Abundant and Ignored Earth

How people and nature are intertwined on the islands.

  • Maui, Hawaii's road to Hana.
    Photo by Flickr/Allie_caulfield
  • Ulu, breadfruit, in Hana, Maui, Hawaii.
    Photo by Flickr/Forestandkimstarr

To visit Hana, a small, remote town on the island of Maui, most people wake at the crack of dawn, hop in convertible Mustangs, and drive the 45 miles from the regional airport, returning the same day. The highway sinews along the lip of the Pacific, clinging to a verdant cliff, as drivers white-knuckle across 50 one-lane bridges. Maui’s dry western and central regions morph into a lush wonderland, with vines dripping off mile markers, ginger flowers abloom along the mountains, albatross skirting the cliffs, and waterfalls gushing into crystal pools. Drivers new to the highway slow every few feet to snap photos of natural pools fed by springs, elongating a drive that could take about two hours to well over four. But for most visitors, the town itself is uninspiring. It sits in one of the poorest parts of Hawaii, where 59 percent of residents are unemployed, and the per capita annual income runs just over $16,000. But my experience was different.

My journey was the culmination of an interest in island sustainability that had begun some three months earlier in a hotel in Pebble Beach, California. Backed by the setting sun, a cool wind blowing through the lobby, Roy Yamaguchi, owner and head chef of Roy’s Restaurants, smiled uncomfortably as he explained that if there were a disaster in Hawaii, the state might last just four or five days before goods would run out. “Eighty-five percent of our food is grown and produced elsewhere,” he informed us as he waved to an elderly hunchbacked farmer leaving the luau. “Farmers,” he added, “are our rock stars.” But, sadly, “the average age of Hawaii’s farmers is sixtyish.” Yamaguchi built his restaurant empire by honoring the abundance of our 50th state. In his restaurants, he threw open the windows, let the sea breeze inside, served fish caught by local fishermen, and showcased the fruits and vegetables of the tropics.

Yamaguchi’s desire to bring the farm back to Hawaii’s tables was a novelty. Hawaii’s food scene in the 1980s orbited plate lunch spots like Oahu’s Rainbow Drive-In and fast food chains like Zippy’s. Here eaters could score massive plates of roasted meats and gravy (imported from the mainland), two scoops of rice (imported from Asia), and macaroni salad (again, flown in).

Yamaguchi’s desire to return to the land is not a new concept to Hawaii. Ancient Hawaiians constructed triangle-shaped growing regions called ahupuaa. These stretched from the mountains to the sea and are still considered some of the most sustainable ways to grow food in the tropics. Aligned with Hawaiian spiritual practice, where people and nature are intertwined, the ahupuaa followed watersheds. In these wedge-shaped regions, farmers could fish, extract salt, farm taro, or grow koa trees for building material. The ancients also crafted rules about which fish people could hunt during certain seasons, which plants to grow during others. Each family lived and worked within these land units, exchanging, bartering, and trading items and services. The ancient Hawaiians were premiere permaculturists.

But then colonists brought goods from elsewhere, implanting a dependence on nonnative goods. Later, tourism, paired with the decline of farming and the loss of the pineapple and sugar industries, turned Hawaii into a dependent child, importing meat from the mainland, pineapples and sugar from other tropical locations, and even fruits that once had thrived on the archipelago.

Fast-forward to 2016 and, according to a recent study by the University of Hawaii, the state imports 92 percent of its food, including livestock, produce, and dairy — a shocking number to those of us who imagine the state as a sort of Garden of Eden overflowing with fruit, teeming with tropical fish, with edible vines growing over street signs. Unfortunately, while Hawaii has developed into a playground for tourists sipping fruity Mai Tais and diving into heaping plates of tuna, the priority has not been to feed the people who serve those tourists. Instead, the culture seems to have taken on the mainland expectation of cheap imported food sold at Costco or Walmart, paired with a lemon pulled off the tree outside locals’ doors.

7/25/2020 1:32:47 AM

When I lived in Kohala on the Big Island (Hawaii island) in the 1940's and 1950's, the sugar plantation workers who lived in "camps" did a lot to raise and catch their own food because there were basically no stores. One vivid memory is of watching a group of men throw a dead mule off a nearby cliff into the churning ocean below. A rope was tied around the mule's neck. The men above had rifles. When the dead mule attracted sharks, the men shot them. After a while, one man climbed down and hooked each shark in turn, and his buddies hauled it up. Food for all. We ourselves, as haoles straight from the Mainland, also grew our own food. We had an enormous vegetable garden. We raised chickens and traded with the neighbor who raised rabbits. We got raw milk straight from the dairy and beef from the ranch. Strangely, if we wanted sugar we had to buy C&H sugar refined in California from the very sugar we were producing on the plantation. (Thereby hangs a tale.) Now all the sugar plantations are defunct. I understand that the vast fields of HC&S plantation now lie fallow. My father worked at HC&S and strongly advocated for diversification of the crops raised. In the early 1960s, after we left the Islands, new management nixed that idea. It looks as if the new idea was to use the land for hotels and businesses for tourists. The parents of my classmates cut cane in the fields. Many of the children of my classmates seem to be working in low-wage jobs serving tourists.

10/8/2018 8:21:44 PM

More and more people can help bring change and hope and bring back sounder ways of living including growing more foods.

Patrick Olson
1/2/2018 1:08:26 PM

Before I comment, please help me clear up something that is confusing me. When Mr. Yamaguchi called out to an "elderly hunchbacked farmer", were you actually in Pebble Beach? I can't picture that when I remember the tony seaside town. Anyway, Hawaii was once sustainable. The years 1778/1779 might mark the beginning of the end to the Hawaiian way of living off, and within, the land. With almost nine million visitors in 2016, there is no way to feed the hordes, even with some of the most fertile soils in the world. Finally, there are ongoing efforts by locals (Hawaiians) to keep their traditions alive. That encompasses growing food and sustainable fishing, all based on a spiritual connection to the land. Aloha o ka Aina. Patrick Olson P.S. With one exception (maybe two), all the people in your article are haoles. Couldn't help but notice.

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