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Vol 19, no. 6
December 2016/ January 2017


New Crops for Ancient Fields 
Story By: Tiffany Hill
Photos By: Ric Noyle 

At one time virtually every valley in Hawai‘i with a dependable mountain stream running through it had lo‘i, irrigated terraces made for growing kalo (taro), the Hawaiian staff of life. Over the centuries, Hawaiians built extensive agricultural systems using their hands, feet and ‘o‘o, or digging sticks. To irrigate the lo‘i they diverted water from the streams through rock-lined channels called ‘auwai. “It’s incredible how Hawaiians altered the landscape,” says archeologist Hal Hammatt.” There were hundreds of people who worked on this—you couldn’t do it in one lifetime. It took generations.” 

Traces of these marvels of agricultural engineering exist all around the Islands. Many are hidden, blanketed by underbrush, while others are plain to see. On Hawai‘i Island, cows graze between the tumbledown walls of ancient lo‘i in North Kona. On Kaua‘i’s south shore, where an extensive lo‘i complex covered a thousand acres, the golfers and residents of Koloa go about their business amid some of the ruins. But not all of these ancient farms have been lost forever. A small number of modern-day farmers seeking to perpetuate the traditional ways of growing kalo have put some of them back into production. 

In a lush valley on O‘ahu’s windward side, just two hundred yards from heavily traveled Likelike Highway, Mark Paikuli-Stride tends to kalo planted in ancient lo‘i at the base of an emerald crag in the Ko‘olau mountains. He once grew bananas in this area, known as Luluku, until the construction of the H-3 freeway forced the farmers there to relocate. Six years ago, with permission from the area’s private landowner, he returned to Luluku determined to restore its ancient lo‘i, which were initially so overgrown they were invisible. He began clearing trash, and he recruited some local tree trimmers to remove invasive albizia trees. “The walls began revealing themselves,” he says.

Paikuli-Stride got permission from the landowner to move his family to Luluku, and restoring the lo‘i became a family affair. Thankfully he has a big family, with nine kids, ages 2 to 19 (plus eight chickens, one cow and several dogs). Paikuli-Stride and his wife, Lori, homeschool their children, and when their pupils aren’t doing homework, they’re learning to pull weeds, harvest kalo and pound poi. 

Twice a week Paikuli-Stride also works in the lo‘i with students from nearby Castle High School, as well as with an at-risk youth program. With the help of his family, students and community volunteers, several hundred square feet of ancient lo‘i in the rainy Luluku forest have been restored. “Kalo is such a special thing,” he says. “It drives us to do the right thing. When we restore the land, it restores us and restores the community.”

Stacy Sproat-Beck traces her family roots back a thousand years to the ahupua‘a (traditional land division) of Waipa on Kaua‘i’s north shore. Waipa’s ancient lo‘i were nearly as old as Sproat-Beck’s lineage, but starting in the early 1900s virtually all of them were destroyed by rice farming and cattle ranching. All that remained were the ‘auwai, the ancient irrigation channels.

In 1994 the nonprofit Waipa Foundation was formed to serve as steward of the ahupua‘a and manage 1,600 acres of the land, which is owned by Kamehameha Schools. With the ‘auwai channels to guide them, Sproat-Beck and the foundation’s staff and volunteers reconstructed traditional lo‘i. But unlike their ancestors, they used modern machinery, re-creating about ten acres of lo‘i. Even with the help of bulldozers, it was hard work. “It really led us to understand what it took for our ancestors to farm,” she says. “It was a process of discovery for us.”

The Waipa Foundation works with Kaua‘i schools, community volunteers, families and tourists to educate visitors about traditional food systems, using its lo‘i and a seven-acre fishpond as classrooms. Every Thursday starting at 5 a.m., a group of farmers and kupuna (elders)—and sometimes even tourists—meet for Poi Day. The group peels, cuts and cleans kalo, then pounds it into poi. Poi pounders, both greenhorn and seasoned, make twelve hundred pounds of poi each week, and volunteers distribute it at cost to about 120 families across the island. In 2015 more than two thousand people visited the ahupua‘a for Poi Day and the foundation’s other programs. “We’re restoring a farming community,” Sproat-Beck says. “It’s a connection of people to local food.”

“I ku mau mau! I ku mau mau!” The traditional Hawaiian chant used when felling trees resonated through a misty Kaua‘i valley as two hundred volunteers tugged for hours on a thick, stubborn tree. Their only tools were shovels, ropes and pure passion. “People didn’t think it would happen,” says Kawika Winter, recounting the story of the grueling effort to restore lo‘i in the small, vibrant community of Ha‘ena. Then the tree fellers heard a sharp crack as the tree’s roots split. “They started pulling on the rope and chanting again,” Winter says. “Eventually the tree came out.”

One of the earliest settlements in Hawai‘i, Ha‘ena is nestled against the dramatic Na Pali cliffs on Kaua‘i’s north shore. It was once a thriving agricultural area, but over the decades the now state-owned land became overgrown with invasive java plum, false kamani and ironwood trees. “The place turned into a jungle,” says Winter, director of neighboring Limahuli Garden and Preserve. “But the people of the area knew underneath were traditional taro patches.” Winter, who grew up on O‘ahu, has been in Ha‘ena for just eleven years, but he is well versed in its history and lore.

Longtime Native Hawaiian residents of Ha‘ena wanted to see the area flourish again, so in 1998 they formed a nonprofit, Hui Maka‘ainana o Makana. “One of the founding principles of the hui is that it doesn’t matter who has title to the land,” Winter says. “What matters is that we, the people of this place, continue to farm kalo and continue to feed our families with poi and fish.”

The hui negotiated a curator agreement with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to manage fifteen acres, including a six-mile community-based subsistence fishing area. The curatorship doesn’t allow for machinery to be used in restoring the area, so just like their ancestors, members of the hui have relied on manual labor to make the lo‘i productive.

Twice a month the hui, which has about forty members, holds lo‘i workdays. Today four acres of ancient lo‘i are back in production. And despite the hard work, the organization plans to restore more. Phase one of the hui’s four-phase ahupua‘a restoration is complete, thanks to the hard labor of the hui members. “These are people who come in after work or on the weekends,” says Winter. “I come in on Saturdays with my kids. That’s what we do as a family.”

Eric Enos began visiting Wai‘anae valley regularly in the mid-1970s when he would take at-risk youth to hike in the area during his tenure with the Wai‘anae Rap Center, an alternative learning center. “The land was dry, all desert and full of brush,” says Enos. But hiding underneath and waiting to be rediscovered were two hundred acres of ancient lo‘i. “When we hiked and saw these walls, we knew they were old,” says Enos. “I went to the Bishop Museum and looked at a map done in 1906. I couldn’t believe it—there were taro fields all over the valley.”

Enos leased the land from the state and, with the help of machete-wielding volunteers from the nearby community, began clearing brush from the ancient lo‘i. For water the volunteers ran nearly a mile of PVC pipe along the course of the original ‘auwai to Ka‘ala mountain. Then they planted kalo.

The restored taro patches were the start of what became Ka‘ala Farm, a thriving ninety-seven-acre farm producing banana, ‘ulu (breadfruit) and ti as well as kalo.

The farm has become a refuge in a community plagued with poverty and substance abuse. Rather than employ farmworkers, Ka‘ala Farm relies on community-dedicated volunteers.

Small groups of students, at-risk youth and recovering addicts regularly wade into the muddy lo‘i to see firsthand how traditional field systems can be sustainable, even on the arid Leeward Coast. Around three thousand visitors per year come by the farm to lend a hand. Afterward they make lunch and talk story in a large hale (traditional Hawaiian house). “We’re connecting them to nature and they get an education,” says Enos. “They help plant food, weed it, harvest it and prepare it.”

Reflecting on the beauty of the dozen lo‘i at the heart of the farm, Enos says: “They’re little gems. Each lo‘i, when done correctly, is a beautiful setting. And a lot of little ones, they dance in the sun. They exude life.”