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Picnicking at the Waipio Valley lookout on the Hamakua Coast Photo: Linny Morris Cunningham
Vol. 7, No. 6
December 2004/January 2005


Roots Revival 

story by David Thompson
photos by Linny Morris Cunningham


Somebody wins a roll of toilet paper as I walk toward the beach pavilion where the annual gathering of the Wailea-Hakalau Kumiai is underway. When I enter, I’m greeted by Waichi Ouye, a fleet-footed ninety-year-old who puts a paper plate in my hands and begins uncovering potluck dishes left and right. The kumiai members have already eaten, and I tell Waichi not to worry about feeding me, but he urges me to dive in.


Somebody wins a package of Kleenex.

I’ve come to this kumiai—a community association deeply rooted in the plantation era—not for the food or the prizes, but because I’m trying to understand what’s happening on the Hamakua Coast today, ten years after King Sugar was knocked off the throne in Hawaii’s largest sugar-growing region. What I find is a microcosm of the cultural changes afoot on the Big Island’s entire windward coast. Of the seventy-five or so people seated here at the picnic tables, fewer than half are old-timers: the elderly Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Portuguese retirees who stayed put after the last plantations folded. The rest are newcomers: small farmers, urban escapees, second-home buyers and the first wave of well-to-do, early retiring baby boomers. Realtors have told me that the majority of people moving to the Hämäkua Coast today are West Coast haoles; there are also people from Honolulu and even a few from Maui.

The long-time residents and new arrivals in the pavilion eye each other over their bingo cards, perhaps not fully understanding one another other but apparently making the effort, in the best tradition of the plantation days when all sorts of races and ethnic groups coexisted in harmony. I’m surprised that the newcomers here outnumber the old-timers, but I’m glad to see them involved in the kumiai, a living relic from the days when nobody had much and everybody helped each other. The kumiai once filled a variety of social functions, from burying the dead to entertaining the living. Nowadays, the old-timers have prepaid funeral arrangements with local mortuaries, but the kumiai’s still got bingo—frugal prizes and all.


Somebody wins a bar of soap.

When my plate is fully loaded, Waichi ushers me to a seat next to Patsy Egan, a retired zoning enforcement officer from Anchorage, Alaska, who keeps missing bingo by one square. "All I need is B9!" she says. "Come on, B9!"

Patsy and her husband are building a house right behind the tiny cluster of rusty roofs and ramshackle fences of old downtown Wailea, a faded plantation village of a few hundred people. Patsy says she was drawn to the area by "the wonderful, beautiful, open, loving feeling of it." That, and Alaskan winters were hell on her arthritis.

New homes like Patsy’s are sprouting up along the Hamakua Coast like wild cane, part of a land boom that has seen real estate prices double in the last two years. For nearly a century and a half, the sugar plantations that dominated this coastline transformed the landscape,

creating an interconnected patchwork of fields that ran across fifty miles of rolling hills, from Hilo in the south to Waipio Valley in the north. The coast became one long, green-tasseled carpet of cane rolled out between the sublime upper slopes of Mauna Kea and the sheer, crumbling sea cliffs that meet the restless Pacific, all of it cut through by deep gulches hiding spectacular waterfalls and gurgling streams. For generations, most of the real estate here was locked up by the sugar companies, which morphed and merged over time, until only two remained: The Hamakua Sugar Company in the north and C. Brewer and Co. in the south. Both fell victim to changes in the global sugar market and closed their mills for good in the fall of 1994. Hamakua Sugar went bankrupt and sold its 37,000 acres of land to Kamehameha Schools. C. Brewer held on to its land for a while, leasing it to small farmers and even giving free five-year leases to its displaced workers. But in 2001, the company put all 21,000 acres of its Hamakua Coast property on the seller’s block. The land was snapped up, mostly by bulk buyers who began reselling it in smaller parcels.

Many scenes on the
Hamakua Coast still
speak of theplantation era.

The real estate boom has brought a flurry of new construction to the southern half of the coast, leaving some long-time residents feeling like the rural character of the area is under siege. In the first three years of the 21st century, Hawaii County issued about 250 building permits for the Hamakua Coast—not an astronomical number, but when even one house goes up in a field where none stood before, people can’t help but notice. Aggravating matters are the gates that some new landowners have put up, restricting access to fishing and hunting areas that locals have long used. It’s a source of deep resentment.

The bingo caller calls B9, and Patsy leaps to her feet.


She wins a little stuffed animal, the grand prize.

As the game ends, Waichi darts up and down the pavilion doling out packages of Top Ramen to all the players. Nobody leaves the kumiai empty-handed.

The population along the Hamakua Coast is concentrated in dozens of old plantation camps, villages and small towns, such as Wailea, Hakalau, Honomu, Pepeekeo, Laupahoehoe and, largest of all, Honokaa, home to 2,223 people at last count. Eight miles from Waipio Valley and 1,114 feet above sea level, Honokaa enjoys cool weather and commanding views of Maui across the Alenuihaha Channel. A decade ago, it was a depressed plantation community that had just lost its mill. Since then, it has transformed itself into a thriving town with a respectable selection of restaurants, cafés, galleries and even a revitalized old theater.

Strolling down Honokaa’s main drag, Mamane Street, I duck into a dark Internet lounge and happen upon identical twins Blake and Brent Cousins, the Big Island’s homegrown, low-budget filmmakers. The Cousins brothers are best known for The Night Marchers, a supernatural thriller in which a documentary film crew learns the hard way not to mess with the ghostly warriors of Hawaiian legend. The motion picture, made for just $30,000, filled theaters throughout the Islands when it ran in 2001. The brothers followed up in 2002 with another local hit, The Night Marchers II: Return of the Ka‘ai, which had twice the budget and a cast of 100.

Brent and Blake, who are thirty-three, gleefully tell me about the early years of their cinematic careers, when they were children armed with a VHS camcorder and living in a plantation camp outside of Honokaa. They reminisce about performing ninja stunts, roll their eyes as they recall their pathetic shot-by-shot recreations of Indiana Jones films and crack themselves up when they explain how they put the family’s Siberian husky in whipped-cream makeup for its rabid dog scenes. As teenagers, the Cousins won a national award for a short slasher movie called Slaughter Day. The success inspired Slaughter Day II, Slaughter Day III, Slaughter Day IV and finally, Slaughter Day: The Movie.

I ask what drives them to want to make audiences jump out of their seats. They grope around for an explanation, finally coming back to the days when they were small, nervous boys so easily spooked that they dreaded taking the garbage out at night.

Filmmakers Blake (right)
and Brent Cousins

"We couldn’t handle any scary movie until we were about thirteen," says Brent, the brother who directs. "Now it’s our turn to scare people."

"It’s almost like therapy for us to make them now," says Blake, the brother who acts and edits.

The Cousins’ father worked as a project manager for the Hamakua Sugar Company, and every now and then he’d let the twins shoot footage at the company’s Haina mill. For their latest movie, The Rising Dead, the brothers returned to the mill, transforming it into a refuge for survivors of a global zombie outbreak. They were amazed at how it had declined with time.

"It used to be a living, breathing, loud machine—steamy, hot, smelly," Blake says. "Now the whole place is just a desolate wasteland, kind of apocalyptic looking. It’s pretty haunting how fast things change."

The demise of sugar jolted the old Hamakua Coast off its foundation, but it also created a clean palette for all sorts of new agricultural enterprises. Dozens of small farmers have planted former sugar lands in banana, dry-land taro, sweet potato, rambutan, longan, mangosteen, macadamia nuts and other crops. Still, less than half of the old cane fields have been replanted. Much of the rest lies in pasture. There’s plenty of room for diversified agriculture here, and that’s fostered a sense of possibility and experimentation among farmers. It’s also generated some innovative endeavors, including vanilla, gourmet mushrooms, oolong tea and—most unlikely of all—caviar.

I’m standing on the grassy bank of a man-made pond at a well-manicured estate 900 feet up the flank of Mauna Kea, not far from Hilo. Somewhere in the murky waters I’m staring into swim two dozen genuine, caviar-producing Russian sturgeon—creatures I never expected to find living, let alone thriving, on the Hamakua Coast.

These fish hatched ten years ago from eggs imported from the Volga and other Russian rivers by University of Hawaii researchers. "We wanted to see what could be raised locally without damaging the environment," says Howard Takata, who was one of those researchers. Takata has since retired from UH and become part of the Hawaiian Sturgeon and Caviar Company, a private venture that has taken over rearing the fish. One of Takata’s partners is a UH professor of aquaculture; the other owns this estate.

Takata stands beside me on the bank, talking quietly as we wait for a sturgeon to appear. We’ve thrown a few scoops of feed into the water to try and lure some of the fish into the shallows, but so far there have been no takers. These fish have only recently reached sexual maturity, and Takata will soon begin breeding the next generation. Once it’s established, Takata and his colleagues will harvest the Big Island’s first-ever batch of caviar from the first generation.

Suddenly, a sturgeon emerges from the murk and languidly cruises by, kicking up a cloud of silt as it hunts for pellets to gobble. Then another appears and another. They look like a cross between a catfish and a shark. And they’re enormous. Takata’s largest measures six feet in length and weighs 120 pounds.

The UH researchers tried raising sturgeon in Kona and Puna as well, but none of those fish survived. Takata can’t say for sure why the Hamakua Coast fish made it, but the constant sixty-eight-degree spring water filling their pond certainly isn’t hurting them.

"Lo and behold," he says, "they grow two to three times faster here than they do in Russia."

Heading mauka above Hakalau

Most of the new agriculture along the Hamakua Coast happens on a small scale, but not all of it. In 1996, a Mainland company began planting eucalyptus on 14,000 acres of former sugar land leased from Kamehameha Schools. Big stands of these fast-growing, papery barked trees are everywhere on the northern part of the coast. The tallest now reach more than 100 feet and are ready for harvesting. The company is currently looking for a buyer, who will likely pulp the trees for paper.

In forestry on a different scale, some people here have planted slow-growing, tropical hardwoods. Bari Green and Lou Russo, a married couple with the calloused hands and earnest air of devout organic farmers, have planted twelve acres of their land in teak, pheasant wood, Honduran mahogany, African mahogany and other high-value species that take decades to mature.

"We’re expecting to harvest in thirty years," says Bari, squatting on her haunches in the dappled light of a tall, skinny stand of pheasant wood saplings. "I’ll be sixty then. Basically, it’s our retirement fund."

Bari and Lou, who started farming here three years ago, call their place Laughing Pig Farm in honor of the impudent wild swine that once overran the area. Laughing Pig is located high upslope, midway along the coastline. It has a spectacular ocean view, which is really the rule rather than the exception on the Hamakua Coast. Bari and Lou have built a greenhouse, a nursery, a variety of funky shacks to house their laborers (who work ten hours a week in exchange for a place to live) and a spacious new home that’s totally off the grid.

From their farm you can see homogenous stands of eucalyptus covering distant ridgelines, growing on plots upslope and down, and even nudging against Laughing Pig’s fence line. Lou hands me an aerial photograph of the farm, which show how he and Bari have planted their trees along the contours of the land rather than in straight rows. Planting on the contour minimizes soil runoff and even builds up soil in paddocks around the bases of the trees over time, Lou says. The couple have also mixed different species of trees and planted out the edges of their stands with a variety of flora to lock in nitrogen and attract various bugs and birds.

"What we’re trying to do is create a real forest," Lou says.

Both Bari and Lou are transplants; she’s from Chicago, he’s from New York. They’ve clearly taken root here, as not every transplant does. And they’re clearly people committed to improving the land, not just taking from it.

"When we first got this land, there were cows on it; it was overgrazed, and it was really sick-looking—just a big chunk of exposed, raw dirt," Bari says. "But already the topsoil is turning brown and rich, and it’s full of worms, and we’ve seen it come back to life. This coast has so much potential for—I don’t want to say ‘healing’ because that sounds so New Agey—but for taking the land and making it better."

One of the Hamakua Coast’s most promising new commercial crops is also one of its oldest: coffee. Wendell Branco, a burly, retired firefighter, has taken the lead in championing the Hamakua coffee revival.

I meet Wendell at his ranch in a rural area called Ahualoa, outside of Honokaa, the town where he was born and raised. He leads me to an old mule stable, which he’s converted into an aging room for his beans. The rapturous aroma of 8,000 pounds of roasted coffee envelopes us as we enter. Aged coffee is Wendell’s niche, and this stable is where his beans take a three- to four-year hiatus between tree and pot. Aging smoothes and mellows the flavor, Wendell says. After I take a few sips from the freshly brewed cup he hands me, I’m an instant believer.

As I marvel at my new discovery, Wendell tells me of coffee’s history on the Hamakua Coast. The first plants arrived in east Hawaii with the Reverend Joseph Goodrich, a missionary who landed in Hilo in 1852. On his travels, Goodrich handed out seeds to the Hawaiians he met in the dozens of ahupuaa along the coast. Wild coffee from these original plantings still flourishes in the gulches today. Western planters later established at least eight coffee plantations on the Hamakua Coast, some with more than 1,000 acres. Plantation workers, happy for any pause in the hard, hot labor of picking beans, were quick to adopt their bosses’ morning coffee-break custom, and some established small coffee plantings of their own, mostly for personal use. As coffee plantations grew up on the other side of the island, the importance of Hamakua coffee faded through the 20th century, and when the Hilo coffee mills closed in the 1960s, commercial production of the crop on the Coast ceased.