On a hot, humid December day in Waimanalo, a couple dozen people paid for the privilege of swinging pickaxes, digging trenches and planting trees in an effort to cultivate an edible forest.

“There’s a lot of theoretical books and internet and classrooms but to have the hands-on knowledge has been fantastic,” said Christine Young, a farmer from the Big Island who traveled to Oahu for a two-day seminar on agroforestry.

Christine Young, left, helps dig a trench where taro, lemongrass, cassava and bele were densely planted. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2019

The term “agroforestry” is a new one, but the practice is as old as civilization itself. Pacific Islanders have been selectively cultivating these forests for over 30,000 years, growing kava and taro in the shade of tall coconut trees and tending to maile vines that snake up macadamia nut tree trunks.

Multiple Civil Beat readers have expressed concerns about food security in Hawaii and asked if large-scale agriculture can be sustainable. Episode 8 of “Are We Doomed? And Other Burning Environmental Questions” assesses whether agroforestry could be the solution to both.

Craig Elevitch started working on a coffee farm in Holualoa in the 1980s. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2019

“Absolutely,” said Craig Elevitch, agroforestry expert and author who’s been leading agroforestry workshops in Guam, Saipan, the Marshall Islands and Hawaii.

Elevitch provides most of his publications, from recent studies to dense textbooks, for free. And he shies away from the spotlight, calling on Pacific Islanders to lead the conversation.

During a demonstration on how to cut away areas of a banana tree infested with weevils, Elevitch realized the invaders might have buried too deep to save the tree. But once a local woman announced that she would give a blessing to the plant, he put away his knife and the tree was planted.

Later Elevitch said that no Ph.D. — and he has one — could replace ancestral knowledge and spiritual connection to the land.

“Pacific Islanders are experts in agroforestry,” he said. “My job is more reminding people in this modern world who have forgotten a little bit about their own agroforestry why we need it now.”

Why We Need It Now

Some attendees are farmers who have been practicing single-crop agriculture for decades, but were enticed to the workshop by promises of higher yields, healthier soil and hardier crops. Others currently practice agroforestry and are here to network, learn new skills or have their copy of “Workbook For Agroforestry Design” signed by Elevitch. Others have never farmed a day in their life, but want to know how to turn their backyard into a food source.

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Livai Tora Nadi, Viti Levu, Fiji
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Kalama Woodward & Lia Kim Hauula, Oahu, Hawaii
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Kate Wiechmann Kailua, Oahu, Hawaii

Mono-crop agriculture is both contributing to, and being affected by, climate change. About 10% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to agriculture, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Changing climates and extreme weather events — from droughts to storms — threaten farmers’ livelihoods.

Agroforests are more resilient to these extreme weather events because multiple crops are planted together, said Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, a University of Hawaii professor studying indigenous crops and cropping systems.

Crops that are vulnerable to drought can be planted among drought-resistant ones, or plants that store water in their roots. Planting trees around the perimeter of each plot protects against storms.

UH professor Ted Radovich will look after the plot of land in the future. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2019

Agroforests are also regenerative systems, requiring fewer inputs like water, fertilizer and pest controls. Pruning bigger trees provides organic matter and mulch for use on the smaller crops. Nitrogen fixers — plants that inject the essential nutrient into the environment instead of absorbing it — are integrated into farms instead of industrial fertilizers.

Agroforests can grow double or triple the amount of plants in the same area of land as mono-culture, increasing the amount of carbon sequestration accordingly. And growing more food on-island would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transporting produce from the mainland on refrigerated ships and planes.

Most of the food consumed in Hawaii is imported, a fact that makes Lia Kim, an attendee from Hauula, nervous. Not only because she’s worried about food security in the event of a natural disaster, but because it means Hawaii’s residents are reliant on other states and countries.

“Agroforestry is important to me because it is the first step … towards political sovereignty,” she said.

“Food security, climate change adaptation, this is the answer,” chimed in Livai Tora, a farmer from Fiji who was invited to the workshop to help aspiring farmers plan their food forests. “Every family could have a small lot like this beside the house.”

Building An Agroforest

Density is the name of the game in agroforestry. Whether you’re planting acres or a backyard plot, the plants should one day create a multi-level forest.

Tall, slow-growing fruit trees are plotted out first. Then smaller trees or tall bushes, then crops that grow lower to the ground. Finally, the spaces between the growing plants are filled with a groundcover to keep weeds from growing in the empty spots.

Before planting, the plot was tilled and the agroforest was designed. Different colored flags represent different size plants. During the workshop, attendees planted dozens of different edible and medicinal plants.

Although taking a bare plot of land and transforming it into a dense forest takes a lot of back-breaking work initially, once the plants are in the ground it’s designed to eliminate weeding, daily watering and fertilization.

“Just sit back and wait for food,” said Jeff Pang, a retiree from Honolulu who plans to apply skills learned at the workshop to his backyard garden.

But some farmers, like Tora, forego groundcover to continuously harvest and replant fast-growing crops between their shrubs and trees. Twenty years ago he converted a sugar cane farm in Fiji into an agroforest. Now he grows everything from tobacco to papaya, and understands the financial demands a farmer faces. He gravitated toward agroforestry because he could harvest and sell other crops to regain his initial investment while waiting for the long-term fruit trees and slower-growing crops to come up.

“It’s hard work though, man,” he said with a whistle. To make ends meet he also leads tourists on horseback rides through his farm and nearby beaches.

Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat

ListenThe students helped with the planting and performed for the attendees.

During the planting, Tora walked around, coaching participants on the most strategic way to plant taro, lemongrass, cassava and bele in close proximity.

UH professor and organic farming expert Ted Radovich will look after the plot of land in the future, aided by the seventh-grade class from Malama Honua Charter School, whose students will help Radovich grow and harvest vegetables as part of a school project.

“We got our lows, our mediums and lots of kava,” Radovich said, clapping his hands together. “When in doubt, put kava out.”

Traditional Practices And New Tech

One of agroforestry’s biggest draws is its endless flexibility that can meet the needs of a seventh-grade class, retirees in the city and subsistence farmers in Fiji. But the lack of structure presents challenges when scaling agroforests to feed entire communities.

The tools of agroforestry. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2019

Monoculture agriculture is convenient. Machines can easily navigate wide rows, and when humans are needed, they can work with assembly line efficiency.

In most agroforests, you have to prune and harvest by hand.

“It’s a lot of labor, and people aren’t used to doing farm work anymore,” said Sophia Bowart, a farmer and researcher from Hawaii island. At the workshop, she gave a presentation on calculating how much each harvest will cost before planting.

“To make it a larger scale, industrialize, we’re gonna have to have some mechanization and technological advancements,” she said.

Lincoln, the University of Hawaii professor, said the challenges extend beyond harvesting season. Having many different fruits and vegetables makes processing, marketing and distributing more complicated. And unless consumers choose to buy locally-grown produce, local farmers will struggle either way.

So for the time being, farmers looking toward agroforestry will have to rely on tried-and-true practices: machetes, ladders, baskets and farmer’s markets.

While it might be years before machines are able to navigate complicated agroforests, Elevitch has a new plan to help farmers and agroforestry enthusiasts debuting next year.

“What we have here is Agroforestry X,” he said, pulling up the beta site on his laptop. When the free app launches mid-2020, users can generate personalized agroforestry plans based on plot size, climate conditions, plant preferences and hundreds of other inputs.

It will even offer less dense plans with just two or three crops grown in tandem, easing farmers into the idea. The design comes complete with three- and 10-year yield calculations and straightforward information on caring for and harvesting the specific crops.

As Elevitch wrapped up his presentation to great fanfare, the excitement about the new tool matched the atmosphere of the entire workshop: hopeful and excited.

“Are We Doomed? And Other Burning Environmental Questions” is funded in part by grants from the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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