PRESERVING AGRICULTURE IN HAWAII

Article by Julie Yaste

agriculture

The Hawaii Agriculture Research Center is working to keep agriculture alive in the Islands

For centuries, Hawaiians were self-sufficient, able to live off the bounty of the ocean and the fertile land, harvesting the plants and livestock they had brought with them across the Pacific, such as taro and chickens. When Captain James Cook first landed on Hawaii in 1778, he found a place rich in culture and not lacking in natural resources.

But with the introduction of Western culture, Hawaii started to change. Soon Kamehameha the Great united the Islands into a single kingdom, and then began trading with colonial powers.

Within 100 years of Cook’s landing, Hawaii’s landscape and culture had changed dramatically. Foreign investors planted large sugar plantations across the Islands to take advantage of the tropical climate, and immigrants from around the world were employed to work the land.

The different sugar plantations were always searching for the best strain of sugar to grow and harvest. So they came together in 1895 to fund a research center to find the best varietals for Hawaii.

Sugar production declined over the past 50 years, and, in 2016, the last sugar plantation closed on Maui. But the research center that the industry initially funded has morphed into the Hawaii Agricultural Research Center (HARC), located in Kunia and Maunawili on Oahu. The now nonprofit organization works to research agricultural techniques to promote viable farming in modern Hawaii.

Left: A cacao plant growing in Maunawili. Right: Ripe coffee ready for picking at the Maunawili farm.
Left: A cacao plant growing in Maunawili. Right: Ripe coffee ready for picking at the Maunawili farm.

 

“As the plantations closed, they asked, what could they do to replace it,” says Tyler Jones, Maunawili station manager. “While sugar declined, that opened up space to work on other crops.”

The question of what to do in post-plantation agriculture is at the heart of HARC’s research. Along with a small staff, Jones works on developing new agricultural techniques that will benefit local farmers in the wake of Hawaii’s plantation past.

One of the projects Jones and HARC has focused on is finding ways to commercially grow and cultivate koa wood. Koa, meaning “warrior,” is a strong native hardwood in Hawaii. It’s incredibly valuable as a building material for canoes and furniture, but it’s also the traditional material to make ukulele and has been adopted to make guitars and other instruments.

It’s illegal in Hawaii to cut koa trees on government-owned lands. Because of this, koa is hard to come across, and very expensive. But, Jones explains, “On private land, people can grow and harvest koa.”

The problem is that it’s not the easiest tree to grow commercially. It’s susceptible to fungus, so HARC has been working with generations of koa trees to try to determine which koa family lines are more naturally resistant to fungal growth.

HARC has also worked to see if it could be beneficial to intersperse koa trees with other crops, such as cacao and coffee. The result is a small batch of chocolate, and a larger crop of coffee that is being sold as Maunawili Farms Coffee.

“This is our first commercial crop this year,” says Jones. Previously, the coffee was just to show proof of concept. Additionally, the farm at Maunawili holds trainings and workshops to show local farmers its process.

HARC also aims to assist local agriculture through affordable housing. “One of our focuses has been preserving agricultural housing in Kunia. It’s the last remaining plantation village in Hawaii,” according to Jones.

The housing project is a way both to preserve some of Hawaii’s plantation history, and to help with current housing shortages.

Even though HARC is currently selling coffee and a small amount of honey when available, as a nonprofit, making money through coffee or honey production isn’t the goal. The goal is to do research and development that will perpetuate agriculture in Hawaii’s future, even as land costs and the cost of living increases.

“Ultimately the purpose of this is not to grow and sell coffee,” says Jones. “We use it as a demonstration space for farmers.”

For more information about HARC and where to purchase Maunawili Farms Coffee, visit www.harc-hspa.com