Rugged and self-reliant, a rural district leads the way in sustainable agriculture

Story by Catharine Lo
Photos Josh McCullough

Early on an October Saturday in 2010, hundreds of Kohala residents got out of bed and formed a human chain along Akoni Pule Highway. They put their right hands in, they passed a book on down. They put their right hands in, and this happened through the route. That’s right. They did the “huki-pokey” (huki, Hawaiian for “pull together”), and when they turned around, the new library’s shelves were stocked. That’s what it was all about.

Local historian Boyd Bond, the key organizer, rode up and down the 1.3-mile stretch between the new North Kohala Public Library and the old Bond Memorial Public Library, which was named for his great-grandfather and philanthropist, Dr. Benjamin Bond, and built on land donated by his great-aunt Caroline. Boyd was on his bicycle, cheerleading and smoothing out any hiccups. The huki-pokey was inspired, he explains, by King Kamehameha’s 1791 construction of Puukohola heiau, one of the last and largest temples on Hawaii Island—the heiau was built stone by stone, each moved hand to hand by a human chain that stretched fourteen miles.

The huki-pokey participants drove from all over the island to lend a hand. The Lions Club, the zip-line staff and members of the fire department all showed up. Moms swung babies onto their backs and loaded their strollers with books. The Kohala High School football team, in full uniform, filled in the gaps. They responded quickly, like a good defensive line should, when the crowd urged, “Plug that hole!”

The books moved through a receiving line that began with kupuna (elders), followed by high, middle and elementary school students—symbolizing the passing on of knowledge from old to young. At the end of this extraordinary effort, the new library—itself a trailblazer, the first library in the state to achieve LEED Gold certification—was filled with books. The Kohala-born King Kamehameha would have been proud.

“A lot of what happened was on faith,” says Boyd. “We asked people to sign up, and the day before we had 430. Any event organizer in their right mind would have canceled.” The optimum number of participants, he says, would have been twenty-two hundred, the minimum needed twelve hundred. “But I knew this was Kohala. We never sign up. We just show up.” In the end fourteen hundred people appeared to help.

“There’s ‘town’ Kohala and there’s ‘country’ Kohala,” says Lehua AhSam as we jump in the car together and start driving. It was the students in a class she taught at Kohala Middle School, she says, who reiterated the distinction, telling her, “Ho, Miss, you live in da country!”—which makes her laugh, because compared with Hilo, where she grew up, all of Kohala would be considered rural enough to be “country.”

I’ve known Lehua only an hour, but the young Hawaiian has already earned my admiration. Lehua “married into Kohala,” and her deep attachment to the community—her extensive knowledge of its history and family genealogies—makes a huge impression. She has just come from tending three lo‘i (taro patches) that have been in her husband’s family since 1926. The back of her pickup truck is filled with trashcans full of greenwaste. Our conversation about Kohala flows effortlessly, some of it thoughtful reflection, some of it pidgin-fueled banter.

First we pass through “town,” which includes Hawi and Kapaau, Kohala’s two centers of commerce. Hawi’s main strip is a series of brightly painted, plantation-era storefronts, mostly gift shops and galleries. Tourists trickle in and out. In front of the Aloha Man store is the turnaround spot for bicyclists in the Ironman Triathlon. We drive past Shige’s, the gas station and the Nakahara Store, where you can buy everything from char siu to fishing tackle. Continuing east, Lehua points out Takata’s, a ninety-two-year-old institution and Kohala’s biggest grocery store, and Fig’s, a roadside plate lunch place that makes burgers sourced from local ranchers. Kapaau offers more community services—the bank, hospital, police and fire departments, and hardware store. In front of the civic center is the King Kamehameha statue, a popular photo op for visitors.

As big buildings disappear, the road picks up more curves, and the hues of green become richer. We find ourselves in the “country,” passing forested gulches that were once home to many ali‘i (chiefs) and where their descendants still live. The highway ends at Kohala’s main visitor attraction: the Pololu lookout. A handful of visitors and surfboard-toting locals are making their way down the Awini Trail, which leads to a rocky coastline backed by ironwood and hau trees.

From the ridge I gain a real appreciation for the district’s allure as a final frontier. As far as the eye can see, there is virgin earth. Pololu marks the eastern boundary of Kohala, and it is the first in a series of seven windward valleys that have seen very few human footsteps. The cathedral-like valleys, with walls rising to 2,500 feet, were carved out of Kohala Mountain—the oldest of Hawaii Island’s seven volcanoes—by wind, rain and sea. At the mountain’s summit two hundred inches of rain fall annually, creating waterfalls and streams that flow through a coastline of boulders and black sand.

“Kohala is special because it has direct access to windward and leeward resources, along with mauka (mountain) and makai (ocean) resources,” Lehua points out. She lists the sources of the district’s historical abundance: taro production on the valley floors, pig farms and iliahi (sandalwood) trees on the mountain slopes, patches of olona (a plant used to make strong, lightweight cordage) in the rainforest and ‘uala (sweet potato) fields in South Kohala. Culturally, too, the valleys hold great significance. Wakea and Papa, the gods that created Hawaii, hailed from Pololu. And it was to the valley called Awini that Chief Naeole stole away with the infant Kamehameha to protect him from jealous chiefs who sought to kill him after prophesies foretold that he would unify the Islands and establish the Hawaiian kingdom.

View of the beach at Lapakahi 

The birth of Kamehameha was a definitive moment in Kohala’s history, and to this day much community pride is tied to the area’s association with the king, who epitomizes the leadership, spirit of independence and sense of stewardship still alive in the community. Even many Kohala place names are derived from critical points during Naeole’s flight: Hawi, “to breathe with a squeal,” where the hungry infant cried without his mother’s milk; Kapaau, “swimming kapa,” where the bark cloth swaddling the baby was lost in the stream; Makapala, because the warriors’ eyes—maka—became pala, or swollen, following their futile search for the infant.

Kohala, Lehua notes, was a major staging point for Kamehameha’s battles against the Maui chiefs. “Kohala is the southern keeper of the channel that separates Hawaii from the rest of the islands,” she says. From the northernmost tip at Upolu, the current flows most favorably; when Kamehameha’s warriors were returning from Maui, a canoe would be sent ahead to tell the people, “Paiai! Paiai!”: Pound the kalo (taro) so the warriors can eat. “Kohala was always a favored place for alii to go and be themselves and not deal with the rigors of court life,” says Lehua. “In many ways, I think that is what made Kohala so proud—because the people walked among the chiefs.”

To supplement the production of irrigated wetland kalo, Hawaiians developed rain-fed systems to grow uala, dryland taro and other crops. These field systems, unique to Hawaii, were all but abandoned after European contact, and the knowledge of how they were managed eventually lost. Early on a Saturday morning, I meet up with Kehaulani Marshall and Ala Lindsey of Ulu Mau Puanui at their project site on Kohala’s leeward slope. Inspired by the research of ecologist Peter Vitousek, Ulu Mau Puanui was established in 2010 to continue studying rain-fed agriculture and to learn how Hawaiians were able to feed more people than we do today.

Our adventure starts with a short but arduous fifteen-minute hike 2,250 feet up to the top of Puu Kehena for a bird’s-eye view. From here it’s possible to see nine mountains. The rest is ranch land—vast, rolling green pastures that stretch from Waimea inland all the way to the coast, interrupted by occasional patches of shrubs where heavy rains collect. Across the landscape, herds of cattle loll and graze, a perfect snapshot of the scenery you expect to see along Kohala Mountain Road. The striking panorama makes me inhale a little more deeply. This, I realize, is cowboy country.

But beneath this pastoral landscape, LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) maps recently exposed a massive grid of underground mounds and ridges that are invisible to the naked eye, except in the early morning light when shadows reveal grooves in the topography. This is the fifteen-thousand-acre Leeward Kohala field system that once supported an estimated thirty thousand Hawaiians. “The cowboys who worked these pastures were just doing their work, never realizing that this was a big farm that fed a lot of people,” says Kehaulani, who is Ulu Mau Puanui’s executive director. This dryland system is concentrated in a band about seven miles long and two miles wide that receives thirty to seventy inches of rain a year. Cultivating enough food, Kehaulani adds, would have required significant resource management including calculated field rotation and five thousand field hands. She points out trails that run mauka to makai, along which people who lived in warmer areas closer to the coast would hike up to work in the fields.

While we talk, site manager Ala Lindsey brings over some carved stone adzes they have recovered in the fields and on the puu (hills)—ancient tools that were most efficient for planting and tilling the soil. “Us guys called it dirt before. Now we call it soil. Dirt is dirty. Soil is rich with nutrients,” laughs Ala, one of those unsuspecting cowboys who rode over these fields for decades. Decked in a white tank top, weathered jeans and an elaborate belt buckle etched with a horse, he has the rugged, confident stance of a cowboy who knows and respects the land. Today, farming the three gardens they have planted at Puanui has become foundational to his life. He spends so much time here—with his family in tow—that his grandson’s first word was “‘uala.”

We hike back down through knee-high stands of kukuyu grass to one of the gardens, where Ala explains how the system works: The mounds are rocks pushed to either side of the uala bed. Sugar cane that is planted on top of the mounds catches the rain and feeds the plants, “a natural sprinkler system,” he says. The soil in between the mounds is the richest. Through experimentation they’ve learned how the uala reacts to seasonal patterns.

A locational threat surprisingly absent today are Kohala’s fierce mumuku winds, which typically funnel down from the uplands and sweep across the fields, breaking anything that grows over a foot tall. The field walls serve to protect the crops. “Creating a windbreak is not the best way to manage the wind,” Kehaulani explains. “You have to let it through and just slow it down.”

For Kehaulani and Ala, sharing and growing what they’ve learned is the most rewarding part of their work. Students of all ages—from Island schools as well as universities on the Mainland—have come for visits, planting different varieties of uala and testing different mulching techniques. Ala encourages all of his students to plant the cuttings they get from Puanui. “‘Share,’ I tell everyone. ‘Give your neighbor. Give your friend. Give your uncle. Give your auntie.’ That way,” he continues with a sparkle in his eyes, “once they leave here, my plant always living.

For a flavor of Kohala culture, the Saturday farmers market in Hawi is a sure bet. All of the produce is grown within a five-mile radius, and you’ll find homemade treats like pickled pineapple, breadfruit chips, lilikoi kombucha and zucchini bread. Here, old Kohala—descendants of chiefs and missionaries and families of ditch builders, plantation workers, ranchers and paniolo (cowboys)—mingles with new Kohala—entrepreneurs, retirees and veterans, artists and hippies, vacation rental owners and independent farmers. While they often hold very different views—differences that sometimes escalate and inflame issues like public access and rural development—they all share a love for Kohala and a desire to see the community thrive. Three decades after the closing of the sugar plantations, Kohala is still carving out its new identity. What’s in store for the community? I decide to ask social architect Jim Channon, who eats breakfast at the farmers market religiously.

Channon reminds me of a mix between Christopher Lloyd and Donald Sutherland. A retired US Army lieutenant colonel, he is best known for creating the First Earth Battalion Operations Manual, which redesigned military codes to incorporate nondestructive methods of conflict resolution. It was Channon who inspired Jeff Bridges’ character in the movie The Men Who Stare at Goats.

“Kohala is very attractive to iconoclastic people who are the first to run from big cities,” Channon says of the people who have joined the community in the post-sugar era. “Between 1990 and 1996, thirty-two out of the thirty-six mostly empty buildings in Hawi and Kapaau were restored. We went from two to sixteen restaurants and two to eighteen galleries, so we made a tourist destination out of the town to influence people coming here and make a living doing it. The mantra that we accepted in 1998 was ‘Keep Kohala Kohala,’ but it had nothing to do with industry. It had to do with cultural lifestyle. At the core of this concept is the idea that people take care of their friends and neighbors.” Channon argues that a multicultural population mix like Kohala’s offers greater creativity and resilience.

Matter-of-factly, he lists the three guiding principles: One, create gathering places for affiliation to occur. Two, eat local. And three, recognize the genius of the kids. If this is the future of Kohala, it remains aligned with the values of its past.

Certainly the desire to eat local is a priority that shapes the community today. The district’s Community Development Plan sets an ambitious goal to source fifty percent of its food locally by 2018. Practically every household already grows something to contribute to the dinner table. A group called Sustainable Kohala has even set up a seed bank at the library.

“Between consumer desire for ‘local’ and a consistent supply of ‘local,’ there is a big gap,” says Andrea Dean, a community organizer who promotes sustainable ag tourism to help backyard farmers and smaller food producers supplement their income. Andrea also helped arrange for the use of food stamps at the farmers market, which brings an additional $3,500 a month to Kohala growers.

Kohala has numerous independent ag initiatives that have been established to help bridge the gap between demand and supply, and Andrea and I spend a whirlwind day visiting some of them. At Hawaii Institute of Pacific Agriculture, Dash Kuhr and Erika Shickle offer immersion training in cultivating Polynesian crops. At Ohua o na Kiai no ka Keiki o ka Aina, Sao Waefeg takes students to the loi he’s restored on the land where Naeole’s mother once farmed kalo. At Lokahi Garden Sanctuary, Richard and Natalie Liebmann work a farm that includes medicinal herbs, berries, flowers, a citrus orchard, dragonfruit and even pernambuco, the only wood in the world that violin and cello bows are made from.

Bill Wong, the proprietor of Kohala Ditch Adventures, tells me that his ag teacher at Kohala High School, David Fuertes, once handed him an octopus to plant under a coconut tree in the northernmost corner of a grove of a hundred trees that Bill was about to plant. The idea, Bill explains, was that the tentacles of the hee would inspire the roots to spread out and take hold. Today that tree is a little more squat and filled out than all the others—round and fat, like an octopus.

I ask Fuertes, who now teaches Korean-style natural farming at Palili o Kohala, about the diverse range of techniques that Kohala growers practice, from permaculture to agroforestry. “Kohala is a place of independent thinkers,” he replies. Of everyone I meet, he sums up the prevailing attitude of Kohala residents best: “If you want ’em, you make ’em. If you broke ’em, you fix ’em.”

It didn’t take long for me to realize that resilience fuels the independent spirit of the Kohala community, whose members always show up—with their own backhoes to clear the roads after an earthquake, with ukulele to replace one that a little boy lost to a house fire, with meals for a neighbor who fell and broke his hip. It’s in the practice of modern-day paniolo who keep Kohala a national leader in the ranching industry. It’s in the practice of groups like the Kohala Watershed Partnership, which restores native forests so that there will be water for the future. It’s in the practice of the North Kohala Resource Center, which has helped raise some $10 million to fund eighty-seven local initiatives—programs like the Kohala Community Athletic Association, which organizes after-school youth sports, and the Kohala Ark, which shuttles seniors to the farmers market each week.

The Kohala spirit is also found in homegrown moolelo (stories) and mele (song)—many of Hawaii’s most celebrated musicians come from Kohala, including falsetto singer Kindy Sproat and slack key guitarist John Keawe. There’s an olelo noeau (saying) that sets the community’s standard: Lele o Kohala me he lupe la, or Kohala soars as a kite. Lehua tells me that she and her husband, Ashton, want to raise their kids in Kohala because it’s still possible to teach them traditional practices in the same ways that their parents and grandparents learned. Whether it’s fishing or weaving nets, wayfinding or laau lapaau (herbal healing), Kohala still has practitioners. “City people may have broad horizons, but they only know little pockets here and there,” Lehua says. “Kohala people see their horizons like this”—she raises her hands like a goalpost, each arm representing the wall of a deep valley—“but they know every inch in between.”