Land for Food

SOURCE: David Ward (
SUBHEAD: The history of food production, and agricultural land on Kauai is misunderstood by too many.

By Adam ASquith on 3 December 2012 for the Garden Island -

Image above: Apiarist Oliver Shagnasty treats his bees like people. Originally caught in the wild, his "employees" produce an all-natural honey on his small farm on Kauai. From (

This is written in response to the Nov. 14 article in The Garden Island regarding the Kealia subdivision and the comments and questions being raised before the Planning Commission.

Some bizarre politicking aside, the questions raised about agriculture and food production show a deep misunderstanding of this issue that is leading to extraordinarily poor planning decisions.

The crux of the issue is the belief that we need large, contiguous areas of agricultural land, without houses, to conduct agriculture and grow food here on Kaua‘i. This is simply not true and is inconsistent with our history and current operations.

Despite our misnomer of “the Garden Island,” Kaua‘i has some of the poorest agricultural soils in the world. For this reason, during our only period of sustainable agriculture, pre-European contact, almost none of the land currently zoned for agriculture produced food. It was attempted and failed and reverted to sustainable gathering activities.

Most of the current “ag land” is zoned as an historical artifact of the sugar plantations which grew a flavor enhancer and drug as an export commodity, not food.

We did produce pineapple as a food product, but only because it is uniquely suited to our acidic conditions and then only through monumental and unsustainable efforts that have left a terrible legacy in our soils, such as at Moloa‘a.

Even today, the large tracts of “ag land” largely do not produce food. The state land in Mana is leased almost exclusively to multinational corporations that produce not even consumable commodities, but patented products. The Robinson and Grove Farm properties also are largely dedicated to product production. The A&B land produces coffee, another drug for export. The Knudsen property in Kahili and the state land in Kalepa are mostly dedicated to biomass fuel crops.

The rest of the area within these large parcels is cattle pasture. While these ranches are locally owned food operations, virtually all these animals are shipped to the Mainland as an export commodity.

Why the above activities and not food production on large tracts of land? The reasons are legion but include the facts that the soils do not support it, the economics does not support it, the management and administration of the lands does not support it, politics does not support it and history does not support it.

Then where did our food come from when we fed ourselves? And where does it come from now on Kaua‘i?

The answer is: small farmers on small parcels.

The typical farm size of a Hawaiian family in 1850 was about 2 to 3 acres. The typical farm size in the 1950s to 1980s in places like the Wailua Homesteads and Kapahi was about 5 to 20 acres. These small family farms could flood the local markets and routinely shipped to Honolulu. They also generated enough income to purchase the land and put kids through college.

Today, 90 percent of all farms in Hawai‘i are less than 50 acres and the great majority are less than 10 acres. A survey on a recent Wednesday of the Kapa‘a Sunshine Market revealed that the average farm size of vendors is 2 acres.

The 180-acre Kunia Ag Park on O‘ahu provides 5- to 10-acre parcels for farmers, surrounded by 2,000 contiguous acres of corporate product production. Kamehameha Schools’ Punalu‘u Ahupua‘a Farms will offer 1- to 10-acre parcels. Kaua‘i County’s own plan for the Kilauea Ag Park would provide parcels of 1 to 7 acres in size.

So with all the facts showing that our local food always has, and currently does, come from small farms, and large land owners rarely allow for small farms, why do so many of us instinctively shout “Preserve our ag-lands!”?

Well, because it is not the “ag” part that we are interested in, it is open land. More specifically, we don’t want to see houses blighting that open land we have been enjoying for so long. In addition, conventional planning wisdom dictates that we should live in high density residential areas and drive to open land if we want to farm it.

In this upside-down world, where our community’s food, values and dollars are all imported, real farmers just shake their heads at this confusion.

Corporate product agriculture requires large tracts of land and is good for our community. It provides many direct jobs, supports many small local businesses, and increases the local velocity of money. There are good reasons to preserve large contiguous tracts of agriculture zoned lands, but growing food is not one of them.

I encourage you to go to a farmer’s market, or stop at a local farm and ask the history of the land that they farm; they will know it. You will find that almost all of them have gained the privilege of offering you locally grown food, as a result of the breaking up of large tracts of land.

Please talk to a farmer, and then develop an informed opinion on the subdivision of ag-zoned lands.

• Adam Asquith of Kapa‘a is a scientist, educator, taro farmer and hoa aina.


1 comment :

Gelfling said...

I've heard that Kauai has some very depleted and abused soils, but also that everything grows like crazy here! Somehow both things are true, but how can it be?

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