Grow With the Flow
story by Rose Kahele
photos by Peter French
To call Bill Beach’s yard a little kapakahi would be a big understatement. The part-time farmer’s two-acre property in the hills of ahualoa features a small dry-land lo‘i of eight varieties of kalo (taro), a patch of three different types of sweet potatoes and a cozy greenhouse, where he is cultivating five additional potato varieties.
Out back, a handful of tea plants grow beside a nursery of 350 potted coffee plants, sixty-five lychee and a dozen or so mango trees. Next to the tool shed is a tangled pile of kava root, which he’s preparing for planting in the fall. And along the perimeter of the property are nearly eighty milo and kamani trees that Beach plans on planting before the end of the year. The slow-growing hardwood trees are the farmer’s “retirement fund,” hopefully ready for harvest in a decade or two.
“We’ve been talking about hopes and dreams for a long, long time,” says Beach. “Now it’s time to put things into the ground and perform.”Beach is the past president of the Hamakua North Hilo Agriculture Cooperative, (HNHAC), a collection of ninety-three, five-acre to twenty-acre farms stretching along the Big Island’s rural, northeast coastline from Pa‘auilo to Honoka‘a.
The state-owned parcels, which total approximately 1,500 acres, once made up a large swath of the lower fields of the Hamakua Sugar Company, which in its day was the single producer of the coast’s sole crop.
In mid-1994, Hamakua Sugar brought in its last harvest and shut down operations, a development that closed the door on more than 100 years of agricultural history and crippled the region economically for nearly a decade. With approximately 400 sugar workers losing their jobs, unemployment rates in the region reached as high as 13 percent that year.
At the time, Beach was a truck and tractor contractor and his biggest customer was the sugar plantation. After three years of struggle, he went bankrupt and, like many of his neighbors, found a job at one of the Kohala Coast’s glittering resorts an hour’s drive away. Today, he works nights as a banquet waiter.
“As soon as the sugar company announced that it would be shutting down, I knew everything would change,” says Beach. “But I never knew how quickly it would happen.”
Sugar’s demise in Hamakua was bitter. But it also promised to be sweet, because the end of production freed up tens of thousands of acres of prime agriculture lands, which came replete with a complex irrigation system and an extensive network of cane haul roads. HNHAC was founded in late 1994, with its membership comprised of displaced sugar workers. At first glance, Hamakua and its vast fields of green seemed like diversified agriculture’s biggest and best chance.
And after several harvests it was. Where there once was only sugar cane, there was now vanilla, lettuce, coffee, papaya, watermelon, tomatoes, taro, dairy products and grass-fed beef. However, less than five years after farms went into production, an infestation of ringspot virus wiped out Hamakua’s papaya groves, which were supposed to be the region’s next “cornerstone” crop. Then in 2000, the lower Hamakua Ditch, the area’s nearly 100-year-old irrigation system, suffered a series of catastrophic failures. Farmers were without water for more than six months. Crops dried up, and dreams blew away.
When the Hamakua Ditch was completed in 1910, it was hailed as an engineering marvel. The twenty-five-mile irrigation system tapped the pools and streams of verdant Waipi‘o Valley, transporting water and cut cane from the plantation’s lower fields to its processing plants along the coast. Eventually, the ditch would irrigate approximately 6,000 acres of Hamakua Sugar’s 21,400 acres of cane.
But like most engineering marvels, the ditch required a legion of workers to maintain it, which the company could no longer afford as it slid into bankruptcy. By the late 1990s, the ditch, which transported as much as forty million gallons of water per day (MGD) during its heyday, was only collecting eight MGD, with only two MGD actually making it through the system
a 75 percent loss rate.
In 2001, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, in conjunction with the Hawai‘i state Department of Agriculture, began a five-phase, $20 million effort that repaired or replaced all fifty of the ditch’s ancient flumes, reconstructed a ten-mile tunnel behind Hakalaoa Falls, upgraded the ten million gallon Pa‘auilo reservoir and built a one million gallon reservoir near Honoka‘a, among other repairs.
The reconstruction project was completed earlier this year. Today, the ditch is running at its ideal capacity, moving between fifteen and twenty million gallons per day, enough to irrigate 2,500 acres of cropland and provide drinking water for 2,600 head of cattle. The resurrected irrigation system has become a centerpiece for Hamakua, which has over the course of the last several years gone through a modest economic revival.
“For the Hamakua region, the ditch has huge symbolism. It’s an identity thing as much as it is a functional thing,” says Diane Ley, deputy director of the County of Hawai‘i’s Department of Research. “The repaired ditch is sort of symbolic of what has happened in the region lately. Small, tourism-based businesses are popping up all along the coast as visitors discover these rural communities. And now all the pieces are in place for diversified farming to really take off. Those who have access to the ditch water need to restart their businesses now, or launch new businesses.”
Kick-starting the co-op members into farm production has not been easy. Many farmers lost everything when the ditch failed six years ago, and they are understandably cautious about diving back into production. What should they plant this time? How will those crops do in Hamakua? Where are their markets today?
What’s more, nearly all the farmers, like Beach, have full-time jobs now, most of them at the Kohala Coast resorts. How do you write a new business plan, let alone work your fields, when you have a day job? According to Beach, only a handful of the co-operative’s farmers have crops in the ground.
“The [HNHAC] board has been trying to push these people to farm, but we’ve found that it isn’t that easy,” says Beach. “If you are going to be serious about farming, it isn’t a thing you do at the end of the day.”
Currently, HNHAC is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pacific Basin Agriculture Research Center to determine which varieties of fruit trees, such as mango and lychee, can be grown successfully in Hamakua’s sunny and hot growing conditions. It’s an effort that may take another five years before farmers can receive definitive results, too long a time frame for some farmers and many interested observers.
Another option for the region is coffee, which was harvested and processed in Hamakua before the crop found its eventual home in the hills above Kona. One of the HNHAC’s proposed initiatives when Beach was president was to “strongly encourage” all co-op members to devote at least one acre, or ten percent of the acreage, to coffee production, which would give the co-op enough critical mass to test the market on their own. The initiative failed.
Today, Beach is working on a third option, something he calls the Five-Farmer Modela grass-roots effort meant to unify the work of a handful of like-minded farmers, who would then pass on their successes (and failures) to other farmers within earshot.
“You get five to ten people with five to ten crops and let them do it all the way to the end of the cycle and make money,” he says. “And if they do it again and again and again, other farmers start to say, ‘Eh, you doing good, can you help me?’”
The Five-Farmer Model partly explains why Beach’s yard now resembles the laboratory of a mad plant scientist. He wants to grow just about everything, but he’s primarily experimenting with eight different varieties of kalo and eight different sweet potatoes. Last year, he secured a deal with a local company to provide kalo for a pudding that will be processed on the Mainland.
However, Beach’s most important crop may be his sweet potatoes. Two years ago, he received a grant from the University of Hawai‘i to cultivate and distribute seed stock of an old Hawaiian variety called melemele, which fell out of favor in the 1930s. The potato’s skin eventually cures to a golden brown while its flesh has a subtly sweet flavor, characteristics the farmer believes will be attractive to consumers with a sense of history and a curious palate. But he doesn’t know for sure. He doesn’t have the time or money to do any marketing studies.
Instead, Beach is just planting potatoes.
Last summer, he lost his first crop of melemele to marauding pigs. By fall, he had a perimeter fence up and was planning on planting another batch.
“We have the land, and we have the water. If we had the data, we could pull the trigger, but we don’t,” says Beach. “So for now, we’ve got to help ourselves, start our farms, and then if we can make it, help each other.” HH