Life As A Farmer On Leased State Land? It's Not Easy - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Jim Anthony

Jim Anthony has been a union organizer, an academic, a public servant, an international consultant and the CEO of an NGO. He now writes and farms kalo.

When I came to Hawaii from Fiji at the end of January 1961, the first thing that struck me about Oahu was that there were no villages — certainly not the kind of villages I had grown up around in Fiji.

Villages in Fiji were discrete pieces of land where clusters of people lived and grew some of their own food: kalo, tapioca, yams, coconuts, breadfruit. Many villages were along the coast and some were close to rivers and streams. Land, water, people and food went hand in hand.

The village system in Fiji was — and still is — the heart of the land-owning system. One’s village was a place to which one could always return.

Hawaii was different, I realized when I arrived. It appeared to me then that if there was a time when there were villages in Hawaii such as there are still now in Fiji, such villages had been so completely destroyed that never again would they be restored. I have now lived in Hawaii for 60 years on and off, and in all that time I have never lost the feeling that something vital was missing. And I still feel that way.

Today there are people who grow food to feed themselves and to share what they grow with family and friends. Efforts, drawing on the wisdom of the past, are being made. Food sufficiency — the growing of food that one eats — is beginning to be seen in a wider context: Growing at least some of the food one eats and shares with one’s family not only provides nourishment for the body, it also provides nourishment for the soul.

But there are major roadblocks. The first: availability of arable land suitable for food production at reasonable terms of tenure. The second: recurring state governments that have never had a viable policy to enable people to grow their own food.

James Anthony holds a giant papaya from his tree that he just picked on their couple of acres of land located in Kahana Valley.
Jim Anthony holds giant papayas grown on the land that he and his wife Grace farm in Kahana Valley. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

This is a story, if not of the creation of a village, then of one ohana’s own journey to food production, against all odds.

The Farm

Today we, the Anthony ohana, live and farm on state land in the ahupuaa of Kahana in Windward Oahu. The land we cultivate and malama is 2 acres, if that.

We grow coconuts, breadfruit, fruit like lemons, limes, tangerines, mountain apples, bananas and some papaya. We grow very high-end Bentong ginger for medicinal and related home use. We grow shiso and a variety of beans. We grow vegetable items like ifi and bele, Polynesian spinach and duruka.

For the past dozen years, we have experimented with growing black bamboo and poumuli, trees that grow to 40 feet, straight as a telephone pole, used in Samoa as posts for traditional houses. We grow a fairly wide range of flowers and make our own organic coconut oil for home use.

We grow chili peppers for chili pepper water. We are more than self-sufficient in avocados and la’i, green ti leaf. We have several cacao trees from which we get a steady supply of cacao pods that we turn into cocoa — strictly for special occasion home consumption.

As a living cultural park, we teach and share information. For example, how to husk coconuts or how to make an imu. We share awa, ceremonially and on no particular occasion.

Above everything else, we grow kalo. We began about 12 years ago. We started small with 20 huli, the gift of a friend. Our first loi was located where hau leaves had been falling for at least a hundred years. The soil was rich and moist, fed by a subterranean flow of water.

The first harvest was beyond our expectations. The average size of a single kalo was close to 10 pounds. One, I remember, tipped the scale at 14 pounds.

James Anthony digs up dryland taro in Kahana valley.
Anthony digs up dryland taro from one of the couple’s 24 loi on the farm. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

From one loi to two, two to three, three to four. We now have 24 loi, some in production, some fallow. Last year’s harvest was close to 2,700 pounds. We plant, we harvest, we eat, we share.

We have some volunteer help, which we accept cautiously. After each work session, we cook some kalo, make faalifu (with freshly squeezed coconut milk) and luau leaf cooked the same way.

The Beginning

The genesis of our journey with this land begins with Sam Leialoha George, a long-time resident of Kahana Valley. In 1986 the woman who is now my wife, Grace Vaiovea, came to Kahana from Samoa to join Sam, her then-husband. When Grace arrived, the land on which Sam’s home stood was a veritable jungle, in almost complete disarray.

The house was dilapidated. The roof leaked. The place was habitable but barely.

Grace was in her mid-30s then. She had left three of six of her youngest children behind in Samoa. It would take five years for the three children to join her in Kahana, a tough, heartbreaking five years during which Grace went from one minimum wage job to another until she became credentialed as a nurse’s aide.

During these five years, machete in hand and a flat file nearby to sharpen it, she cleared and began planting the land around her.

Seven years after Grace arrived, in 1993, Sam signed a lease with the State of Hawaii, which in 1968 had used its powers of eminent domain to acquire the entire ahupuaa of Kahana, all 5,280 acres of it. That year the state signed residential leases with 31 families that had ties to Kahana and were already living there.

The leases, good for 65 years, were for 10,000-square-foot residential lots. Families were eligible for low-interest (3%) loans of $50,000 to build homes and were to do 25 hours of work every month in lieu of rent and in service of the fact that the Legislature had decreed that Kahana would be a cultural living park.

Just what a “cultural living park” actually meant was not defined then and has not been defined since. Would each lessee family have its own version? Were lessee families free to cooperatively organize themselves into whatever version they might agree on?

It quickly became clear that it would not be easy to find even minimal agreement. Hundreds of meetings were held, minutes taken and thousands of hours simply lost.

This place has become something of a model, not one to be slavishly followed, but from which inspiration and empowerment can be drawn.

Through it all Grace continued working, fulfilling far more than the required 25 hours a month of work as she cleared land adjacent to their lot. Sam had a year-to-year revocable permit for the 3 acres adjacent to the lot and plans to grow food upon it. But he was thwarted by the Department of Land and Natural Resources at every turn.

He sought more secure terms of tenure that would allow him to borrow a small amount of capital for upfront farming equipment and supplies. The state turned him down. He fought back although he did not quite know how. His were just the weapons of the weak — telephone calls, letters, speaking at public meetings, polite and subdued confrontation with the massive superstructure that is the machinery of the state.

By 2002, the year he died, Sam was an embittered, broken man. His dream of a farm, a place to grow food, kalo especially, and a cultural living park still languished on paper, unfulfilled.

It remained to Grace to continue Sam’s journey and to bring his dreams to reality.

The Journey

The residential lease passed to Grace and work and planning continued. In 2007 Grace and I got married.

We are doing — both with kalo and with a cultural living park — what many, including unimaginative government bureaucrats, said could not be done. Both Grace and I have honored Nelson Mandela’s time-tested formula: It always seems impossible until it’s done.

In our case, it is not completely done yet. Ours is an intergenerational assignment of passing the torch. We have made this into a place to dream and to multiply dreams, to work and to keep working. Grace is close to 70 now and I am 85. We are still at it.

Portrait of James Anthony and his wife Grace Anthony at their farm located in Kahana Valley.
Jim and Grace Anthony in Kahana, where they farm and live on land leased from the state. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

We keep not just the next generation in mind but the next seven. Our commitment to the public trust doctrine is deep and abiding. We labor on in the face of lease terms that generate uncertainty.

This place has become something of a model, not one to be slavishly followed, but from which inspiration and empowerment can be drawn. This is a place in embryo where we train warriors to deal with bureaucrats. Our job and that of the next generations is to build better, more resilient, self-sufficient societies at a time of great uncertainty and even greater peril.

We do not believe that we live by kalo and breadfruit and uala and ufi alone. There are other aspects to our lives. There is what I call the aesthetics of everyday living. We honor place, the land on which we live and from which we draw sustenance and inspiration.

To these ends we have special places that we have created. There is one ahu (altar) of unhewn stone. There is a honu (turtle) house where we burn incense, there is a small space for meditation, there are two unhewn stone circular structures for sacred plants.

There is a place to sit and listen to the black bamboo grove where plants rub against each other in the wind and make music that only black bamboo can make. Close by, there is a fire pit beside which one can watch embers burn down as night wears on. Special places to rest and calm minds — for either silence or conversation.

James Anthony walks thru his property on a short tour of many items that he grows including Cacao, Papaya, Taro and Avocado (many more).
The land that the Anthonys care for has been designated part of a cultural living park. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

People like Grace and me come from island communities. We know food that is good for our bodies and the importance of endorphin-generating hard work that keeps our minds alert and our bodies as well as they can and should be.

Share Your Ideas

We have shown in outline — Grace’s 35 years of toil in Kahana, mine for a shorter period as her partner — that food sufficiency can be accomplished, no matter what obstacles are placed in our way.

On this 600-square-mile island there is no shortage of land. Kahana alone, an entire ahupuaa fully protected as public land by Article XI, Section 5 of the Hawaii State Constitution, could become the kalo basket of this entire island. The “shortage of land” argument is a mirage, a fake, created by our own government.

To return to Mandela: It always seems impossible, until it’s done.

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About the Author

Jim Anthony

Jim Anthony has been a union organizer, an academic, a public servant, an international consultant and the CEO of an NGO. He now writes and farms kalo.

Latest Comments (0)

I've done a lot of hiking in Kahana and have likely passed the Anthony homestead a number of times in my valley wanderings.  Happy to read about their legacy.  I wish them well in their continuing endeavors.

Dayle_Turner · 2 years ago

In the article I understand that there were many roadblocks along the way. I this article he talked about having a hard time getting the land since land is limited in Hawai'i. But not only do they provide food for everyone, but they are also guiding the next generation. They are hoping to build a better society for the next generation. They proved that anything can be done. The Government believed they couldn't, but they accomplished everything they wanted despite all the obstacles in their way. They are showing that farming is still an important job today.

CadieAlmarez · 3 years ago

After reading this article I was very moved. As someone who has never really had a place to call home I was really touched. The fight to take back land and restore tradition that was once there is very prominent in Hawaii. I have never seen such culture and togetherness in any other state that I have been in. I am very grateful to be allowed to experience Hawaii's culture, even if it only for a few years. In the article, the writer mentions how the land was decided up among 31 families. He also mentioned how it was a struggle to get everyone to agree on what the land should be used for. I see how he wanted to build back once what was there, and I don't understand how other wouldn't agree on such a proposal. To hear that the other islands have villages and are still caring on the traditions that where left in the past is beautiful. I wish there was a way I knew how to help bring back what was lost. I might be military, but I do not agree with what we have done. I was born into the system and I would like to change it. I hope in the future Hawaiian's get back what has been taken from them.

Isabelle.Loiselle · 3 years ago

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