Tag Archives: Jeff Melrose

Could Big Island Feed All Its People Using Traditional Methods?

Sometimes, here on the Big Island, we hear someone say this:

“The Big Island used to feed a population about this size by farming without the use of GMOs, pesticides, and other farming aids, and we can do it again.”

But could we? We examined this from several angles. 

Dr. Bruce Mathews, interim dean of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources, says research shows that in pre-Western contact times, most Hawai‘i Island residents spent most of their days on activities related to agriculture. He says this would be a big shock if we tried to return to a subsistence type of lifestyle.

“I’ve seen a lot of times at the College of Agriculture where people want to spend a day in the field, doing agricultural things, and they end up saying, Gosh, I’ve never worked so hard in my life.”

“It sounds very, very challenging,” he says, “just in terms of the amount of labor to grow all that food without mechanization and without fertilizers. I don’t know how many people today really want to spend a lot of time on drudgery labor. Going in the forest to clear, digging holes, sticking mulch inside them, waiting awhile for everything to rot, and to transplant.”

He says it would be even more challenging these days, because now we have imported diseases, pests, and other invasives.

“I’m okay if people don’t want to use GMOs and chemicals, but I’d want to know who’s going to do all the labor,” he says. “Who’s going to pull all the weeds and control all the pests? Because if you’re going to do that naturally, you’re going to have to be out there every day spraying with natural products and pulling weeds all the time. I think it’s delusional, unless everybody’s going to only be involved with agriculture and there’s no other forms of livelihood.”

Jeff Melrose, who authored the Hawai‘i County Food Self-Sufficiency Baseline Study 2012, agrees about the tremendous amount of work it would entail.

“‘Back in the day,’ everybody played a part in the farming and feeding process,” he says. “We didn’t have students, we didn’t have scientists, we didn’t have retail workers; none of the specialization we have today.” He points out that means no one would have time to work in our hospitals; our ancestors kept sick people at home, wrapped in poultices, and they died much younger than people do today. “Everybody had to be involved in this process of feeding, catching, storing, preserving, whatever.”

“There are certainly some people today that aspire to be more self-reliant and live off the land, and fish and hunt, and do,” he says. “They also still go to town and do what they gotta do, and that’s fine. But it’s not for everybody.”

There’s also the practical matter that in pre-contact days, Hawaiians had a very different system of land use. “We have [private] land ownership now,” says Mathews, “and we don’t have a king mandating what people should do and grow. You don’t have a king to say, ‘This ahupua‘a shall be managed as one big contiguous unit.’”

Mathews points out that, initially, Hawaiians cultivated the most fertile Big Island valleys – Waipi‘o, Waimanu, and Pololu – and then when the population grew larger and they needed to feed more people, they needed other areas to cultivate.

They sought out “sweet spots” in terms of rainfall, which turn out to be places with about 50 to 60 inches of rain per year. This is enough that the soil is broken down and will have sufficient nutrients to sustain good crop growth, but not so much that it leeches the nutrients out of the soil. Much less rainfall than that, though, and the crops fail. This is what led them to develop the Kohala Field System. (In contrast, Kauai’s population never got that large, so that island never needed to develop its uplands and only farmed its valleys.)

“[Ecologist] Peter Vitousek did plenty of work looking at whether the Big Island’s [field] systems were really sustainable, and his work questioned that,” says Mathews. “Because when there were periods of drought the yields were low, and that put tremendous pressures on the population. Furthermore, when he looked at soil samples underneath the rock walls as compared to the former fields themselves, he found that despite all the best practices the native Hawaiians were using, be it fallows and mulching, etc., they were still depleting the soil fertility. So if Hawaiians hadn’t had contact with Western society, that would have really put a lot of pressure on those lands.”

Eventually, Mathews says, that system, too, would have broken down. Just as the population had outgrown its system of cultivating food in the valleys, they too were in the process of outgrowing their field system of agriculture. What would have happened next?

(As an aside, anthropologists tell us that in pre-contact times, you’d have to have good relationships with people that have food for when times of drought came or upland crops failed, or else be able to exert power for trading purposes. There’s evidence that this island had very severe droughts.

Some anthropologists think it makes sense, therefore, that the strongest political power – Kamehameha, the only chief to unite the islands – emerged on Hawai‘i Island. If you’re the leader of a place that’s under stress for food and security, you have to be tougher politically and militarily.)

Because we don’t have mineable sources of fertilizer on the Big Island, says Mathews, trying to farm without it would come down to trying to concentrate animal waste. And there’s science behind that.

“Generally in modern times people rely on organic methods, but they are usually robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he says. “You’ve got the organic farmer going down to a livestock enterprise and getting the manure and putting it in their garden, but those nutrients came from somewhere else. Eventually those systems where those nutrients are being captured, even if they rely on biological nitrogen fixation for nitrogen, they begin to collapse because they’re removing the phosphorous, the potassium and eventually the nitrogen fixation. Biologically, nitrogen fixation doesn’t work so well when the soil becomes depleted of phosphorus and potassium.”

“We could grow mulch crops like nitrogen-fixing trees,” he says, “and use them for mulches to release nitrogen and nutrients to the soil for the crops to grow in between them. But one of the dilemmas with that is that the microbes don’t always release the nutrients in synchrony with what the plant needs and when the plant needs it. And if you get a heavy rainfall, it just washes everything out and then you’re stuck. If you have fertilizer, you can go out there and correct it immediately.”

We have also diverted, changed and blocked many of the old waterways. “In many of those old ahupua‘a in the Kohala area, the water was diverted long ago and the streams and water conveyance systems have dried up,” he says. “It would take massive reengineering and restoration, and even then, there’s been some climate change. It would be challenging.”

Fishing made up a large part of the traditional, pre-Western diet. Could that work again on a large sale?

Not anytime soon, says Mathews. “When you talk to native Hawaiians and others who fish, a lot of our fisheries are overfished and depleted. The near-shore fisheries are really in bad shape. Everybody tells me they aren’t in anywhere near as good a shape as they were a hundred years ago.”

On a practical level, Melrose points out that our contact with the outside world has dramatically changed who we are.

“If you were to say, ‘Let’s just eat what we grow,’ well, we have a very seasonal and limited body of products that we grow,” he says. “I can just see your kid with his iPhone. ‘No, Mom, not ulu again.’ ‘Sweet potatoes, AGAIN?’ ‘Poi again?!’”

“We have evolved substantially into a much more discerning people,” he says. “You’d have to change fundamentally who everybody is.”

The bottom line, according to Mathews: Conditions have changed drastically since those pre-Western contact days, and if for some reason we were cut off from the U.S. Mainland, we’d have to eat a lot of wild pig and Parker Ranch cattle for awhile while we figured out what we were going to do.

“I think there’s a lot of romance in Hawai‘i,” he says. “A lot of Eden-like thinking that it was so good back then, back in the day.”

Mathews, who has children in high school, says he thinks it’s “a little bit tragic” that sustainability from an agricultural standpoint is not taught better in Hawai‘i’s school system. He sees a bias against new and modern technologies in general, and a general assumption that all new things are bad without evaluating them on a case-by-case basis.

“They really don’t get into how sustainable we are now and how sustainable it was in the past,” he says, “and I wish the schools would teach sustainability science with much deeper thought and understanding.

“I don’t like all new technologies,” he says, “but I think these blanket bans are not good.”

photo: CC BY-SA 3.0 AlaskaDave

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You’re Invited to a Community Meeting re: Hamakua Agriculture

Richard Ha writes:

Save the dates:

  • Wednesday, October 29
  • Wednesday, November 5
  • Thursday, November 13
  • 6-8 p.m.
  • Laupahoehoe Community Public Charter School Bandroom

On these dates, the Hilo Hamakua Community Development Corporation will hold a series of community meetings to discuss agriculture on the Hamakua Coast. All are welcome (and refreshments are free).

We will take a 40,000 foot view of ag and its outside influences, and then look at the resources available to help us, such as the Daniel K. Inouye-Pacific Basin Ag Research Center (PBARC), the College of Tropical Ag and Human Resources (CTAHR), and the College of Ag, Forestry and Natural Resources Management (CAFNRM) at UH Hilo. 

There are many scientists researching various subjects. What do we want them to work on?

Farmers will be at the meeting to share their knowledge and experience.

Are you looking for land to farm? Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate with be there, and the Hamakua Ag Co-op has vacant land.

John Cross, former land manager for C. Brewer/Hilo Coast Processing, will attend. Did you know why all the sugar cane equipment had tracks, rather than rubber tires? Did you know that the plantations frequently planted banyan trees as significant landmarks? 

Jeff Melrose will be at the meetings. He recently did a study that's a snapshot of agriculture on the Big Island. He will talk about on what is grown on the Hamakua coast and why.

Come and talk story with the presenters, learn where you can get additional information, and speak up on what you would like to know more about in the future.

Ag & food security symposia

 

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Busy Week: Speaking, Sponsoring & Aerial Photography

Richard Ha writes:

It’s been a busy week.

It started out with my being part of a panel discussion for the Ulumau IX class.

This was the 9th class of the Hawaiʻi Island Leadership Series called Ulumau, which was founded by Mark McGuffie in 2003. It has its roots firmly planted in the core values of Hawaiian Values, Community and Servant Leadership.

Unlike a traditional “leadership” class, where attendees are usually taught how to “manage” people, Ulumau expands the ranks of community leadership by providing a broad range of leaders (both existing and emerging) who have the knowledge and incentive to confront the needs of our specific community.

There were five of us on the panel. Jeff Melrose gave an overview of agriculture and what different types of farming are happening where on the Big Island. Everyone should see his presentation, which gives the context in which agriculture exists on the Big Island.

Nancy Redfeather talked about the school garden network and the many other outreach events she is involved in. She touches a large group of people. Other speakers were Elizabeth Cole, deputy director of the Kohala Center, and Amanda Rieux, who leads the culinary garden, the Mala‘ai Garden, at Waimea Middle School.

I talked about agriculture and energy, and how they are inextricably tied together. I also explained about how food security involves farmers farming, and that if the farmer makes money the farmer will farm.

I am helping to sponsor students in the Sustainable Hawaii Youth Leadership Initiative (SHYLI). This group’s mission is “to inspire young people to envision, plan and create a more sustainable future for their lives and their island.”

The students I’m sponsoring are Sherry Anne Pancho and KaMele E. Sanchez, who were both Big Island delegates to the Stone Soup Leadership Institute's 9th Annual Youth Leadership Summit for Sustainable Development conference on Martha’s Vineyard this summer. They came by the farm a few days ago to give a presentation of their project on hydroponic food production.

This is something I can help with, and I will track and write about their progress. I am very interested in supporting our next generation leaders as they work on ways to continue and improve our food security through changing and difficult times.

A crew from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo came by the farm to test an unmanned aerial vehicle. “Flight Control” was in the back of the pickup, where the screen was, so we could see what the camera was viewing.

Banana Survey 4

They set up a GPS coordinate, and the little six-bladed chopper flew the route as directed by the program. It was set up to fly parallel, overlapping camera runs until our whole banana field was filmed. Then they will make the recording into one large map.

Besides doing a photographic imaging, they ran a light spectrum recording. The value of seeing our banana plants from the air in different light spectrums is that we will be able to see where plants are stressed and take corrective action. The possibilities are immense. This is so interesting to me.

All three of these things that happened this week had to do with the future. I’m not only thinking of our farm and profit from day-to-day; it’s much bigger than all that. It’s the future – of Big Island farming, of our people, of our island.

Sometimes looking forward is actually about looking to and learning about how we used to do things, and I will continue to write posts about what I’m doing in those areas. And sometimes, it’s looking at new technologies and ways. Always it’s about talking with the young people coming up, so we can share what we know and discuss some of the challenges they are going to be facing.

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Hilo’s PUC Meeting Successful: ‘Enough is Enough’

Richard Ha writes:

Monday night’s PUC hearing in Hilo went very well. The overwhelming sentiment was that enough is enough. People will not take any more electricity rate hikes.

Big Island Video News has posted a video about the PUC meeting.

VIDEO: Aina Koa Pono, HELCO rate hikes blasted at PUC hearing

October 30, 2012

Video by David Corrigan, Voice of Stephanie Salazar

HILO, Hawaii: Residents of East Hawaii packed the Hilo High School cafeteria, to tell the Public Utilities Commission what they think about a proposed electricity rate hike and and biofuel surcharge…. Watch the Big Island Video News video here.

It’s hard to remember that until the BICC dared say it, no one could imagine we could actually get lower rates. We have made good progress. People are now saying they want lower rates, and expecting it.

In its “Off the News” section this morning, the Star-Advertiser wrote:

Electricity bill too high? Wear slippers

“Not to make light of a serious situation such as rising electricity bills, or a consumer group’s desire to show solidarity.  In an era when pennies – and dollars – must be pinched to get by, solidarity over cost-of living issues is a good thing.

That said, it was interesting to see that the Big Island Community Coalition opposed to a surcharge to finance the use of biofuels to produce power, urged its members to wear rubber slippers to last night’s public hearing as a show of uniform solidarity. This being Hawaii, what other footwear would folks don for a pau hana (after work) forum?

Of course this may have been a smart strategic move. This way the PUC might have scanned the room and figured that every last person was opposed.  It also ruled out slippers as a footwear choice for commission members, too….”

It was a civilized hearing and most of the many testimonies were on point.

About 150 people were in attendance and it was a diverse audience, including: Faye Hanohano, Fred Blas, Jeff Melrose, Richard Onishi, Russell Ruderman, PGV people from Nevada, Jim Albertini, Deborah Ward, Patrick Kahawaiola‘a, Mililani Trask, John Cross, Ka‘u people, ILWU, IBEW, Carpenters, Laborers, HELCO group, the Aina Koa Pono (AKP) core group, Sierra Club and other community members.

Other than HELCO, AKP and those who needed to be cautious, most of the rest were allies of low-cost electricity.

In today’s Hawaii Tribune-Herald, Mayor Billy Kenoi made it very clear that he is against the AKP project for several reasons.

Kenoi criticizes biodiesel proposal

By ERIN MILLER Stephens Media

Aina Koa Pono’s biodiesel proposal isn’t a good deal for Hawaii County residents, Mayor Billy Kenoi said Monday, hours before the Public Utilities Commission was set to begin its first Big Island hearing on the subject.

“This to me looks like one of those deals, after 10, 20 years, we ask how did we let that happen?” Kenoi said. “Ultimately, there is no benefit to the people of the Island of Hawaii….” 

Read the rest

The Hawaii Tribune-Herald also wrote about the PUC meeting itself.

Online Extra: HELCO rate hikes blasted

By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald Staff Writer

No more increases.

That seemed to be the main message relayed to members of the state Public Utilities Commission on Monday night by more than 100 Big Isle residents who showed up at a public hearing at the Hilo High cafeteria to weigh in on two separate electricity rate hikes proposed by Hawaii Electric Light Co. Inc….

Read the rest here

Tonight is the West Hawai‘i PUC meeting (Tuesday, October 30, 2012) at 6 p.m. in the Kealakehe High School cafeteria.

And the third and final meeting will be held this Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 6 p.m. at Farrington High School.

Wear your rubbah slippahs!

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