KILAUEA, Kauai — Patrick Jones kneels in the dirt and starts to prune a greenhouse of five dozen tomato plants climbing on trellises. It’s 86 degrees outside, but the temperature in the screened-in tomato garden feels at least 10 degrees warmer. A bead of sweat slides down Jones’ cheek and drops onto his T-shirt, creating a spot of moisture.
“It’s like a sauna in here,” says Jones, farm manager of Kauai’s burgeoning Kilauea Community Agriculture Center. “That’s the great thing about farming. Free suntan, free workout, fee sauna and lots of good produce to eat. Soon we’ll have tomatoes growing out of our ears.”
Jones oversees the community farm at the agriculture center, a new program of the non-profit ‘Aina Ho’okupu O Kilauea. Along with a team of 25 volunteers, Jones plants and harvests 45 vegetable crops to support a healthy snack program for students at Hanalei School (carrots, soybeans, sweet corn) and a weekly Community Supported Agriculture box program for residents of Kauai’s North Shore.
At $40, each CSA box has a minimum of 10 organic crops. Volunteers who commit to four hours of weekly farm work receive their box free of charge.
This is just a small part of a big sustainable food movement flourishing on the North Shore.
For more than 30 years, plans to create a community agriculture park on 75 acres of undeveloped former sugarcane land in the town of Kilauea have stalled due to water access issues. Meanwhile, the overgrown plot of land served as an illegal dumping ground for mattresses, washing machines and wrecked cars. That all changed two years ago, when a team of volunteers cleaned up the rubbish, marking a first step toward morphing the acreage into a sustainable food hub.
So far, 10 acres have been cleared for a community garden and incubator lots where farmers with business plans can prove their skills before earning a larger land plot through a license agreement. Also underway is a program in which residents will be able to grow and tend to their own food.
“The goal is to be able to answer the big questions about things like food security,” says Jill Lowry, director of resources and fund development. “In times of challenge, how do we feed our community? How do we engage the next generation of farmers? How do we lower the cost barrier to entry-level farming? Eventually we want to be a model that can be repeatable elsewhere, because so many of us are working to find solutions to these questions.”
Project Director Yoshi L’Hote says the project is about fostering community as much as it is about growing food. His vision for the future includes an open-air farmers market, a paid internship program and the dedication of a hale to serve as a new community gathering space. The property will be lined with fruit trees. A walking path will be guarded by plumeria trees, providing community members with a supply of flowers for lei-making.
“When people come to us, they will know this food comes from a farmer in the local community,” L’Hote says. “It’s not just lost on the shelves of the grocery store with everything else that doesn’t come from here. We are really trying to educate people that the community dollar stays within the community and is used several times over without leaving the island. All you have to do is buy a papaya instead of buying grapes. Buy a banana from here instead of buying a banana from someplace else. We have to create that demand for local, because once everything is under cement, we’ll really be in trouble. We won’t be able to feed ourselves.”
On a recent Wednesday, Jones, the community farm manager, wrangled a group of volunteers for the planting of a kabocha squash crop, which will be ready to harvest in time for Thanksgiving. The volunteers that day included a couple of backyard gardeners, a commercial farmer seeking farm management experience and a newcomer with no growing experience.
“I’ve got the new guy picking beans, and it’s great,” Jones says. “You can live an entire lifetime without realizing, ‘Wow, I don’t have to be on a Walmart diet,’ and it’s great to see people experience that moment when they finally realize it.”
Next on the agenda: Preparing to put cucumber seeds in the ground. In 40 days, those seeds will have grown into full-sized fruit. Just in time for the CSA box that subscribers will receive in the first week of November.
“There’s so much that can happen here,” Jones says. “I can’t wait to see what it looks like two years from now.”
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