Touring Sustainable Farms on Hawaii Island
Nate Hayward navigates a 15 passenger van along a rutted farm road in North Kohala. A steady drizzle of warm rain splats across the windshield. Eight foodies huddle in the van’s bucket seats, wrapped in plastic parkas, bouncing in unison. Thick dreadlocks are pulled into a knit Rasta cap, which is topped with a frayed canvass hat. He’s a farmer, tour guide and part owner of Kohala Grown Farm Tours.
“The oldest soil on Hawaii Island is along Kohala, making pasture land in Waimea some of the best in the world,” Nate says. He moved to Hawaii from Vermont 5 years ago. Today, he specializes in open tatura trellising, or trees growing on v-shaped trellises. Nate cultivates 25 species of tropical fruit and three hundred trees such as mango, avocado, lime, breadfruit and durian spread across his five acre orchard.
Nate’s partner, Leo Woods, rides shotgun. His blond dreadlocks are pulled through a ball cap and twisted into a huge bun at the back. Leo farms vegetables on 2 acres and fruit on 4 acres. He and his wife own the Kohala Grown Store, located in the Kohala Trade Center in the heart of Hawi. The store provides an outlet for small farmers and enables Leo to offer what he calls ‘out-of-the-box’ produce, or items you wouldn’t find in a grocery store. Crates lining one wall contain starches such as breadfruit, taro and plantains. With the store and tours, Nate and Leo are peaceful warriors fighting for food security. Embodying activism by lifestyle, the young men enable a closed-circuit system that hopes to produce half of North Kohala’s food.
“We are trying to meet our community’s goal of becoming 50/50,” says Leo, who learned that up to 90 percent of Hawaii’s food is imported. “Fifty percent locally grown food, 50 percent imported. We want to inspire people to eat food that grows really well here by growing crops that Hawaiians have eaten for hundreds of years.”
We pull into Blue Dragon Farm, the view of Hana and the backside of Haleakala are blocked by grey clouds. Noah Hester, executive chef of the Blue Dragon Restaurant, joins us. Nate explains that the farm uses a Polynesian agriculture style called Poly Field and points to a plot with crops such as cassava, pumpkin, coco yam, taro, sweet potatoes, plantain and Dwarf coconut. Ninety percent of the farm’s vegetables go to the Blue Dragon Restaurant. The remaining 10 percent is sold at the Hawi farmers market and Kohala Grown Store. We meander past bananas, edible hibiscus, herbs and tropical fruit trees while Nate gives cooking tips and explains why farming sugarcane is no longer viable.
“The cost of living is so high in Hawaii, there is no way to produce a fundamentally third-world product and pay people first-world wages,” Nate explains. “That’s a problem across the board for agriculture in Hawaii. How do we keep ag land producing local food instead of using a 150 year old export model that does not build up the State?”
The next stop is Healani Orchards, a farm that grows coffee and 600 chocolate trees. We walk between neat rows of 8 year old cacao trees and taste chocolate, fresh from the pod, then sample that same chocolate made into bars.
The coffee berry borer is an agricultural pest that infests Big Island plantations. The beetle destroys coffee cherries by laying eggs inside, and there is a small outbreak at this farm. Nate explains a potential form of biological control that involves spraying trees with mycelium from the cordyceps mushroom, which can be targeted to specific pests.
“The mushroom colonizes the insect and grows mycelium throughout its body, which kills it,” says Nate. “Then the mushroom fruits from the head of the insect.”
At the end of the tour, we sit at a picnic table as rain pounds the tarp above us. Leo prepares ripe fruit which includes ice cream beans, papayas, rollinia, two types of rare bananas, lilikoi, star apple, finger lime, coconut water and oranges with burnished skin.
“People are used to seeing bright-orange oranges,” Noah says, referring to imported varieties whose skin is blemish-free due to the use of pesticides. “They’ve never seen what an actual orange should look like. We used them as garnishes in our cocktails at the Blue Dragon Restaurant, but people sent them back because they thought they were rotten.”
“Their mindset would change if they tried them,” says a guest while wiping sweet juice from his chin.
“That’s right!” Says Noah. “And that’s what the three of us are trying to do.”
Kohala Grown Store and Farm Tours
For more information about small farmers across the state, mark your calendar for Edible Hawaiian Islands Farm Day on May 21 and look for #eHIFarmDay16 across social media platforms.
This is post six of seven of our Big Island trip. For more information, read “Big Island Bounty Tour.”
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All images copyright Daniel Lane/Pono Photo. For more information, visit www.PonoPhoto.com.