Tag Archives: UH Hilo

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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Guest Post: First Hilo-Hamakua Meeting on Agr & Food Security

I asked Dr. Bruce Mathews, interim dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management (CAFNRM) at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo (UHH), to write a guest post about speaking at the first of our community meetings on agriculture and food security.

Dr. Mathews writes:

Mahalo for inviting me to present an overview of Hawaii’s soil resource base for agriculture from the pre-European contact era to the present during the first part of HHCDC Symposia Series on Agriculture and Food Security.

I found that the speakers during the first session provided a solid overview of the current realities facing our local agriculture from all perspectives (resources, new precision technologies, economics, policies, etc.). I appreciated the candid discussions regarding the growth constraints faced by many crop sectors as long as there is strong import competition from continental-based operations (CBOs) and heavy dependence on imported energy and nutrient inputs for our farms.

At the end of my talk I shared a bit about my concerns regarding what I called sustainability madness and ecological imperialism. Many people are very concerned about local use of agricultural chemicals (mainly synthetic biocides such as pesticides, herbicides, etc.) and GMOs, yet the majority in Hawaii consume foods every day that are imported from CBOs where synthetic biocides and (or) GMOs were used in their production.

No doubt there is quite a bit of not in my back yard (NIMBY) ecological imperialism/ecological hypocrisy going on here and this has implications for local society as a whole.

On the other side of the coin, the best genetic manipulations in the world won’t work for long to support economic yields if we cultivate soils depleted of nutrients, organic matter, and beneficial microbial and faunal balance. The problems of climate change such as drought will only be magnified in such soils.

Yesterday I met with a group of current and former UH Hilo College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management (CAFNRM) students who had leased some land with relatively good soil to farm but recently gave up the lease after raising several different truck crops. Some of the dilemmas that they mentioned facing were the lack of viable organic options to control certain pests, time and labor needed to control weeds when herbicides were not used, security challenges, etc. Obviously, they could not sell much of what did not grow well without effective pest and weed control.  There is some zealous Garden of Eden like idealism that permeates the thinking of many until they have faced the reality of actually trying to farm in Hawai‘i.

I hope that my talk also brought to light that with increasing population and cropping intensification Native Hawaiians in the pre-European contact era indeed faced challenges and threats to sustainability despite far fewer constraints posed by invasive species.

Finally, I trust human ingenuity and integrated approaches to solve the challenges we currently face. In contrast to the polarized, advocacy-based discussions seen at some recent agricultural meetings, the dialogue at the first session of this symposia was surprisingly well-received, cordial, deep, and meaningful.

The challenges that agriculture faces in Hawaii demand an open and understanding approach based on the best scientific and verifiable on-farm evidence available so that we can best self-correct as a society for a more sustainable future.

I look forward to attending the 2nd and 3rd sessions of the symposia series.

The three-part symposium is being hosted by the Hilo Hamakua Community Development Corporation, and, as Dr. Mathews mentioned, the first one went  well.

The next two meetings are November 5th and November 13th; both are from 6-8 p.m., in the Laupahoehoe Community Public Charter School Bandroom.

The meetings are open to the public; please come if you’re interested. Read more here.

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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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Visitors To The Farm

Richard Ha writes:

We had a lot of visitors one day last week. All, like us, were very excited about the possibilities surrounding ag and energy at the farm. Agriculture and energy are inextricably intertwined.

The visit was arranged by Matt Hamabata, Chief Executive Officer of the Kohala Center, of which I am a board member. He brought researchers from Cornell University, as well as representatives from UH Hilo and Kamehameha Schools.

Main

From UH Hilo, Cam Muir and consultant Greg Chun. From Cornell, Max Zhang and Robert J. Thomas. Matt Hamabata from Kohala Center. From Kamehameha Schools, Mahealani Matsuzaki, Neil Hannahs, Giorgio Caldarone, Sydney Keliipuleole, Llewelyn Yee and Marissa Harman.

This reservoir supplies all the irrigation water for our vegetables. The water comes down from an intermittent stream. Soon, the water pumps that move the water and pressurize the lines will be electrified from the old plantation flume.

Biodiesel tank 023

See the blue tanks in the distance? That’s a tilapia experiment, where we oxygenate the water by using falling water rather than electricity. This is another way to leverage the abundant water that falls on the farm: We get 2.3 billion gallons annually on our 600-acre farm.

James&Kimo

Construction of the head works: connecting up the old part of the flume with the new part. (Left) James Channels, produce buyer for Foodland Supermarkets and (right) Kimo Pa, farm manager at Hamakua Springs.

We took them up to the head works, where the old part of the flume system joins up with the new. As we looked downslope, someone mentioned how amazing it is to think that the sugar people moved the sugar cane to the mill by portable wooden
flume structures that they moved from field to field. We were standing about three miles upstream of the sugar mill.

Next we went to the hydro turbine shack to see where the water we borrowed 150 feet upslope is returned to the flume after energy is extracted. From there, overhead lines take the electricity to our packing house.

Turbine before

The turbine before

Turbine after

The turbine after
We have a vision of lining the south side of the flume with native trees. Their shadows would fall across the flume and suppress invasive species at the same time.
Back at the packing house, I told them about diversifying our produce mix. A papaya farmer wants to work with us, producing and labeling non-GMO papayas. Also, I visited an organic farmer in Opihikao yesterday. He is interested in getting heat-sterilized coconut coir to use as media for his certified clean ginger seed business. I told him I will keep him in the loop.

Later, Laverne Omori, the new Research and Development Director, came by with County Energy Coordinator Will Rolston. Vincent Kimura, of the INNOVI group, was at the farm helping us install an ozone food sanitation system. The beauty of this system is that we won’t have to use chemicals for sanitation treatment.
The only thing left over will be plain water.

Here’s a “before” picture with some previous visitors, Claire Sullivan and Steve Carey from Whole Foods.

Claire&Steve

And this short video shows “after.”

We want to use the electricity we get from the river to help area farmers produce more food. The bottom-line, inescapable fact is that if the farmers make money, the farmers will farm.

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Free UH Hilo Talk from Expert on the Economics of Energy

Richard Ha writes:

Professor Charles A.S. Hall will give a free lecture on “Peak Oil, EROI and Your Financial Future in Hawai‘i.” It will be at UH Hilo on Friday, January 4th at 6:30 p.m.

Professor Hall received the Matthew R Simmons/M. King Hubbert Award for excellence in education at the 2012 Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) conference, mostly for his work on Energy Return on Investment (EROI).

From UH Hilo Chancellor Donald Straney’s blog:

Dec.13, 2012

 


Charles A. S. Hall

The University of Hawai‘i at Hilo College of Agriculture, Forestry & Natural Resource Management and Chancellor Don Straney will sponsor a free public lecture on the economic impact of rising energy costs by New York State University Professor Charles A.S. Hall.

The address, “Peak Oil, EROI and Your Financial Future in Hawai‘i,” is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 4, 2013, at 6:30 p.m. in University Classroom Building room 100.

Hall, the author of Energy and the Wealth of Nations: Understanding the Biophysical Economy, will explain how high energy prices reduce discretionary incomes by using the concept of Energy Return on Investment (EROI).The lecture is free and open to the public. For more information, contact Alyson Kakugawa-Leong.

He will also speak on O‘ahu on January 10th; details of that free lecture to be announced.

You can read more about Professor Hall in this post Economics & a Hawaiian Way of Thinking.

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Economics & a Hawaiian Way of Thinking

Richard Ha writes:

It’s not whether or not the energy is green; it’s the price of
the energy that matters.

High price energy results in people having less
discretionary income. We know this to be true in our gut.

Professor Charles A. S. Hall explains how this works using
the concept of “Energy Return on Investment” (EROI). This concept takes the world of economics and ties it in with our physical world.

It’s a different way of understanding economics in that it
explains how things actually work, and it’s a way that Hawaiians can relate to
at a gut level.

Ancient Hawaiians had a gift economy that was land- and environment-based: The more one gave, the more one received. This traditional system is quite different from the modern market economy, where the more one receives, the more one receives.

Many modern-day Hawaiians can play in both worlds. But there
are many other Hawaiians that just don’t feel right. Me included.

Professor Hall will give a series of lectures at UH Hilo and
UH Manoa. At UH Hilo, he will speak on January 4, 2012 and at UH Manoa, on
January 9th and 10th.  Details to follow.

He is retiring soon, and we have asked him to be a guest lecturer here during the Winter/Spring semester. He has agreed. He will be using his new book Energy and the Wealth of Nations.

This video, titled Peak Oil, Declining EROI and the New Energy-Economic Reality with Dr. Charles A.S. Hall, is very much worth watching. It’s 1:38:18. Watch it straight through, or jump straight to specific topics as follows:

Minute:

4:54                    Importance of energy to economics

26:39                   Peak Oil is not the focus. Cessation of oil and energy production is the problem

27:54                   Energy Return on Investment (EROI)

33:35                   U.S. has lots of coal – in an emergency

34:30                   EROI is driving prices

38:55                   The trouble is, we need high EROI. How do we do that?

45:15                   Cheese slicer model. Higher energy price in, less discretionary income out

50:44                   Conclusions for the U.K. The principles are the same everywhere

1:32:40                Charles Hall talks about guest lecturing in Hawai‘i

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Video: Climbing Up The Bamboo Pole

Richard Ha writes:

Awhile back I spoke to the UH Hilo Student Association Senate leaders about geothermal energy. I warned them that exponential growth fueled by a finite resource – oil – was a serious problem for us here on the Big Island.

Along the very same lines, Lloyds of London just warned its business clients to prepare or it could be catastrophic. I wrote about Lloyds of London's warning here.

I told the student leaders that we need to know what we are going to do before a catastrophe happens. "White water coming, we need to climb up the bamboo pole and lift up our legs." 

This video sums up everything I talk about on this blog.

Richard Ha Video 

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