Blog | October 8, 2007

Chris Kobayashi: “Be patient. Listen to the land. Listen to the plants. Feed the soil.”

Hanalei, Hawaii

This month we talked to farmer and GMO Free Hawaii activist Chris Kobayashi from Wai’oli Farm. Chris let us know that Wai’oli is a Hawaiian word that translates to Joyful Water and that her farm is next to the Wai’oli River in Hanalei, on the Island of Kaua’i. GMO Free Hawaii, a Farm Aid funded group, is a coalition of grassroots citizen groups from each of the major Hawaiian islands who are working together to move Hawaiian agriculture away from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and towards truly sustainable agriculture.

Q: Can you give us a brief description and history of your farm.

A: I am a third generation farmer. My grandparents and my parents were farming rice in the 1920’s till about the late ’50s or early 60’s. In 1945 my dad started planting taro or kalo, which was the Hawaiian staple prior to western contact. Taro is steamed and eaten as is or mashed to make poi. Today, there are many other ways to use taro. It is more versatile than a potato. Besides taro, we have a vegetable garden and fruit trees.

Q: Tell us a little about wetland taro cultivation.

A: It is a labor intensive backbending labor of love. We prepare our fields with a tractor or a rototiller, flood the fields, then till again. Then you plant each vegetative propagule in lines. It takes 12-14 months on the average for our taro variety to mature. During this time we may have to go in from 2-4 times to pull weeds and clean the banks as needed. There is no machine to harvest taro. All human labor.

Q: How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a farmer?

A: I grew up on a farm all of my life. As I grew up, I wasn’t thinking about what I would be doing with my life. I went to college on Oahu at the University of Hawaii and there I stumbled around taking whatever prerequisites I was supposed to. Then I kinda felt that I wanted to do something in the agriculture field. So I took some animal science classes, but they didn’t grab me so much. Then I took some horticultural and plant classes and that’s when my grades got really good. I was interested. After college, our farm was no longer producing rice as the whole rice production had already moved to California. My dad was growing taro and had an older Filipino man, Ramon, working for him. I helped out with the harvesting when I could. I was literally working 3 jobs around the clock. I began a full time position at the grocery store on an overnight shift, then I’d come home and help to harvest taro and then also had a part time job doing sales and stocking for a distributor of gourmet and health foods. Then I’d sleep a few hours in the afternoon.

One day, my dad, as he got older and weaker with his emphysema, told me that he didn’t know what would happen to the farm because he knew Ramon was getting older too. As I looked out the window and looked at our taro fields, I couldn’t picture the land looking flat with no taro on it. I knew in that instant that I would take care of this farm that his sweat and tears and strength to persevere had created and that I would help to perpetuate the growing and caring of taro.

In the early days of our family farm, you could consider the farm organic as there were no sprays or chemical fertilizers applied. Horses were our lawn mowers, eating the grasses on the taro banks. They also sledded out the heavy 100+ pounds of taro bags from the fields. Sometime in the 40’s or 50’s, chemical fertilizers were introduced, then later, chemical sprays. I continued these practices until 10 years ago. In 1997, Dimi and I wanted to grow Japanese cucumbers. We decided that we wanted to do it organically. Now, this was a challenge because of the fruit flies that sting the cucumbers to lay their eggs. Using organic fertilizers and bagging each individual cucumber, we grew more than enough for our family and friends. So we started going to the farmers market with a cooler of Japanese cucumbers. That started us growing greens like kale and chard and lettuces, beans, beets, carrots and herbs and going to up to five farmers markets a week.

Q: Describe an average day on your farm?

A: Wake up, check the weather report, if it is raining (we get an average of 100 inches of rain/year) then it is hard to go into the vegetable garden to prep beds or weed or foliar feed. We can transplant seeds into plugs. If we know a “perfect” weather system is approaching then we will plant some cover crops because we depend on the rain to water it. Timing is important. One year, we tried cover cropping three fields three times and each time the rain was too heavy and we ended up losing all the seeds and had no cover crops that year.

Twice a day, we check our water system, which comes off of the mountains, making sure that water is free flowing and then making adjustments to the different fields. We may weed, cut the grass on the banks, clean our open ditches, check for apple snails (invasive species detrimental to taro and other water plants), flame along some banks, mow, fertilize, harvest or prep a new taro field, trim trees and chip, make compost piles. There is always something to do.

Q: How can people buy food from you that you have grown or raised?

A: We go to up to three farmers markets a week now when we have alot coming out of our garden. We’re usually at the Saturday farmers market in Hanalei. Our regular customers know how to contact us if they need something for a party or on a different day. The bulk of our taro goes to a miller who makes poi and another who makes kulolo (a sweet and delicious Hawaiian dessert).

Q: As a family farmer, what are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities you face on a daily basis?

A: Being family, if we don’t get paid but get to eat our produce, then that’s okay sometimes. If we had regular workers, they would need to get paid regularly. But, good workers are so hard to find especially for the taro farming side of the operation.

Q: Why do you think farmers are important?

A: What would the non-farmers and non-gardeners and urban dwellers eat if there were no farmers? We try to consciously and intentionally produce food that is healthy for us and all our consumers. We try our best to take care of the `aina (the land and water) in the process of producing. We are conscious of the interconnectedness of our inputs affecting the groundwater, the fishes and crustaceans that live in our rivers, our oceans, our sacred mother earth and all her microscopic inhabitants, as well as the cosmic forces.

Q: What advice would you give to someone that wants to start farming?

A: Be patient. Listen to the land. Listen to the plants. Feed the soil.

Q: Many people do not think of Hawaii as an agricultural state. Could you describe the farms and types of farms in your area?

A: Hanalei Valley produces over 60% of the state’s wetland taro for poi production. About 10-15 miles away is Kilauea and Moloa`a where the bulk of Kauai’s organic farms are situated.

Q: How important is farming to the state?

A: It is extremely important, but not enough is being done to support farming and small farmers. It is said that 90% of our food is imported into the state of Hawaii. There are estimates that there is only 4-10 days worth of food in the islands should we have a catastrophe. We are a tropical state where alot of our food can be grown year round. In the hot days of summer, it is difficult to grow lettuce and brassicas. But throughout the year, much can be grown. Then why are we importing so much food? We have agricultural lands. We need to have farms that produce food for our self sufficiency and sustainability.

Q: Do GMOs have an impact on your farm?

A: Hawaii leads the world in the number of permits for experimental GMO field trials. It is probable that most of the trials are on Kauai but since there is no right to know, we’re not absolutely sure. Here on Kauai, we have corporations like Syngenta and Pioneer doing GMO testing and growing of crops like corn, soy, sunflower, cotton and tobacco. Monsanto is growing alot of GMO corn on Molokai and elsewhere.

Researchers like to say that the GMO papaya saved the papaya industry by being resistant to the Papaya Ringspot Virus But they created this papaya that now has a weakness to another fungus, so now farmers need to spray more chemicals. Organic papaya growers have found that their papayas have become contaminated and now have the GMO gene in them, making them unable to sell their papayas as organic. The Japanese market was the biggest buyer of papayas prior to the introduction of GMO papaya but that market has gone cold because the Japanese consumer does not want to eat GMO foods.

In Hawaii, as elsewhere, GMOs are not required to be labeled. People are not aware of what they are buying and eating. They can buy GMO papayas unknowingly and then toss the seeds in their compost pile, which then grow and keep spreading by contaminating other papayas through pollination. Right now, the burden of keeping our produce pure and uncontaminated falls on the organic or non-GMO conventional farmer. The issue of liability clearly needs to be the responsibility of the GMO growers and the research companies that created these seeds.

One of the things that we found out in our transition from conventional farming to organic is that our practices now are yielding stronger, healthier and bigger taro. I think the key is for farmers to slow down their constant production of taro and allow the soil and fields to rest and rebuild by rotation of crops or using cover crops. I think the only way for farmers to shift the way they farm and the way they look at farming is for a crisis to happen and that is coming upon us right now as oil becomes more costly and finite.

The University of Hawaii has a self imposed moratorium on the genetic engineering of native Hawaiian varieties of taro. This happened because in their initial experiments they tried to engineer Hawaiian, Samoan and Chinese varieties and were only successful with the Chinese variety. Many Hawaiians trace their genealogy to Haloa, the first taro plant, and Haloa, the first man. This story of the plant feeding man and man taking care of the plant to continue to get sustenance is fundamental to how man has survived. It is believed that our Hawaiian elders and other caretakers of taro have selected and bred over 300 varieties through observation and skill. They had varieties that were adapted to grow in different conditions like upland, wetland, salt, or dry areas. There were varieties for medicine, different flavors, different types for the ali`i (the chiefs), for different uses, like for baiting fish. We do not want to lose the native Hawaiian varieties that remain because of contamination from cross pollination by GMO taro. GMO taro could change the properties and traditional uses of taro; could contaminate our `aina – our earth, groundwater, streams and oceans and impact all life forms; affect our taro market, our livelihood and our ability to choose what we want to grow and consume.

For the last two years, we have been asking the legislature to pass a bill for a ten year moratorium on any testing, planting and growing of GMO taro. Farmers and native Hawaiians have testified that we do not want GMO taro, nor is it necessary. For us, it is a simple issue. Legislators, Hawaii Dept of Agriculture, University of Hawaii, Hawaii Agriculture Research Center researchers and the Farm Bureau say it is a complicated issue.

Do you ever wear overalls?

No, it’s too hot to wear alot of clothing espcially in the summer and fall.

Date: 10/18/2007

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