Waiahole Dream

SUBHEAD: Culture and agriculture, through the eyes of one farmer on Oahu's windward side.

 By Kevin O’Leary on 3 March 2010 in Honolulu Weekly -

Image above: Small farms in Waiahole Valley on Ohau's Koolau (windward side). From GoogleEarthMaps.

Water runs through Charlie Reppun’s world. It flows through the acres of taro loi that he and his brother Paul work in Waiahole Valley on Oahu’s windward side; it moves water wheels that provide electricity for their off-the grid operation; it somehow even seems to feed Charlie’s irrepressible optimism–which may be the single most important trait a small farmer in Hawaii must possess in 2010.

Meeting up with Reppun is not an easy matter. Phone directions to his acreage ran to half a scribbled page, and this city denizen still managed to end up mostly wandering clueless, eventually crossing a stream over a dubious looking plank and begging a neighbor for help, before being ushered into Charlie’s funky, ’70s-era tin-roof house.

Driving into Waiahole, one passes numerous homemade signs warning that million dollar homes are not welcome, that Waiahole people will fight any developer who tries to mess with their rural lifestyle. From attempts in the 1970s to build a massive marina, condos and 7,000 homes here, to later proposals for golf courses, residents and their allies have rallied around the Poi Factory on the corner of Waiahole Valley Road and Kamehameha Highway, and essentially said “no way.”

In a historic move, much of the acreage held in private hands was purchased by the State in the ’70s, and although it took nearly 20 additional years for actual agreements to be finalized, farmers like the Reppuns now have 50-year ag-leases, at rates that Charlie characterizes as “reasonable.”

Sitting down at his big wooden table, drinking fresh-brewed coffee grown on the property, Reppun gives a nod to the history.

“You know, H-3 was really built to open up Windward to development,” he says. “There was talk of a nuclear power plant in Heeia, a deep-draft harbor for Kahaluu.” Plans scrapped, in favor of what Reppun calls “directed development”–that is, directed to central Oahu and the ‘Ewa plain.

“That’s what the rail project seems to me to be about–urban development along the route,” he says. “But there’s no talk about agricultural development that could be part of the mix.” Reppun is an advocate for the small farmer, but his take on the entire question of food production is broad in scope.

“You say we’re on an island, far from everywhere, but the continent is an island too,” he says. “I’m not so worried about the fact that 85 percent of our food is imported, and what if the ships don’t come–it’s really the urbanization of farmland across the U.S. that worries me. A lifetime on the farm, it seems, has not narrowed Reppun’s focus.

“We get most of our fresh vegetable from California’s Central Valley, which is losing 15,000 acres a year to urbanization… We need to think: is this current system of agriculture, with so few people growing all the food for everybody else, a workable system? I think that if you’re going to have an equitable farming model that works, then way more people need to be involved in food production. The answer may not be with more small farms, but with way more backyard gardening.”

The Department of Hawaiian Homelands recently unveiled a prototype for a backyard aquaponic system, where tilapia and vegetables are raised together in a single small, stand-alone unit–a system UH microbiology professor Harry Ako has called “compact agriculture.” The city could also expand its 10 community gardens, where small plots are provided to the public for a nominal yearly fee.

Reppun worries about Hawaii’s agricultural image generally, and has a suggestion for the State government, an only somewhat tongue-in-cheek proposal for reversing that image and making a statement that would go a long way toward, symbolically at least, promoting self-sufficiency and Hawaiian values.
“Take a look at the State Capitol–there is an immense lawn around that building. Why? Wouldn’t it be an incredible statement if all of that was planted in sweet potatoes and dryland taro? That would be dramatic.”
When Reppun speaks on the subject of food and food production, he sounds as though he is talking about a movement, about being part of something bigger than a single small Oahu farm. His conversation is sprinkled with recommendations of related books and films, like The End of Food by Paul Roberts, Michael Pollan’s books and the 2007 documentary “King Corn.”

On a stroll around the farm, with a perfectly blue sky outlining the Koolau heights behind us, one wonders, does it ever get a little lonely up here? Not really. “We talk to a lot of people,” Reppun explains. “We have a lot of groups coming up here. Next week I have two Kamehameha preschools scheduled, a UH law school class [studying Hawaii water rights law] on Friday, and the entire Punahou 7th grade coming in April.”

And how about all this public attention?
“It’s a good sign–the interest. But also a bad sign–that you have to travel this far to see taro growing. Sometimes it’s almost like we’re becoming a museum. Not a good trend.”
A museum maybe, but one that produces roughly 600 pounds of fresh food a week. Like a lot of small farmers, worldwide, Charlie Reppun’s day-to-day work revolves around a limited piece of the planet. To some, maybe to those of us who live in a big crowded city, his views may seem na├»ve, his voice lost in the shuffle. This doesn’t seem to bother him.
“The way things are going today, my philosophical inspiration is the book Horton Hears a Who, by Dr. Seuss. Horton hears this entire world, that nobody else believes in–they think he’s full of it. And everybody in this little world has to go around and start making noise, so that they can be heard. And it comes down to this one little kid, who’s been fooling around, not doing anything to help, and the Mayor finds him, and the kid lets out a yelp and suddenly they can be heard. So that’s my philosophy: we need to get enough people on board and then things will change.”

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