The hardest part about producing food in Hawaii isn’t growing food, it’s everything else.

“To get a loan, you have to prove you don’t need it … to get a grant, you have to have beautiful writing and lots of time,” said Alan Hoeft, who runs Island Manaia Cassava Plantation with his wife, Gaylyne Hoeft. “Us real farmers can’t compete.”

Alan and Gaylyne Hoeft run an entire 22-acre cassava farm by themselves. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat

Despite fertile soil and a year-round growing season, almost 85% of the state’s food is imported. While the impacts on grocery prices, climate change and emergency resilience is well-documented, the state has failed to revive its post-plantation agricultural industry.

Civil Beat is launching the “Hawaii Grown” podcast to explore what it would take for the state to reduce its dependence on imported food. Every month we’ll take a look at a single issue, talk to local farmers about how it impacts their lives and explore possible solutions.

Hawaii GrownMany are pinning their hopes on small and medium-sized farms like Island Manaia to produce jobs and make fresh produce more affordable. But after a decade of farming in Hawaii Kai, the Hoefts say there are more hurdles than ever before.

Daniel Anthony, a taro farmer and local activist, thinks that legislative action would help Hawaii produce more local food.

“Since 1959, they’ve pitted the military, they’ve pitted tourism and development against agriculture,” Anthony said at a rally at the State Capitol in January. “We’re not against any of those, but what we demand is fairness.”

Others, like LeShay Keliiholokai, say the solution lies in returning to traditional land practices.

“I think a Western perspective on aina (the land) is ownership and that’s not the way we think,” Keliiholokai said. “It’s about this symbiotic relationship: if you take care of it, it will take care of you.”

She left her career as a youth art therapist to work with Ke Kula Nui O Waimanalo, a group of Native Hawaiians who support subsistence farming, aquaponics, and fresh fruit and vegetable delivery throughout Waimanalo.

“All this work is for our youth, our next generation, who need access to aina for their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health,” she said.

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Daniel Anthony Mana Ai
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Alan, Gaylyne Hoeft and their daughter Haddassah Island Manaia Cassava Plantation
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LeShay Keliiholokai Ke Kula Nui O Waimānalo

The Hoefts are hoping for private investment to help them manufacture cassava animal feed and open a mill to produce cassava flour on a large scale.

“Why buy flour from other countries?” Alan Hoeft said. “We’re right here!”

When Alan Hoeft, who is from Tonga, and Gaylyne Hoeft, from Samoa, first immigrated to Hawaii they struggled financially and fell into homelessness. After a heart-to-heart, they put their faith in cassava: a starchy root that Alan Hoeft calls “the potato of the Pacific.”

They put together a business plan and secured a long-term lease from Kamehameha Schools for a 22-acre plot of land in Hawaii Kai. On top of running a farm full-time, the two also spent five years working as landscapers to make ends meet.

“When we were blessed with the idea, as painful physically, emotionally as it was … we knew what we had to do,” Gaylyne Hoeft said.

Alan Hoeft cuts into a fresh loaf of bread, made from cassava grown outside his home. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat

Ten years later, the couple’s main source of income is from the sale of cassava chips and profits from their food truck. They can only afford to rent a commercial kitchen for two hours a week, and during the pandemic sales have been down.

The two have spent years experimenting with over 450 different varieties of cassava, and know exactly what kinds are best for animal feed, which make the best flour and which would be the best to sell to grocery stores for home cooks.

But the Hoefts don’t have the resources to open a plant to manufacture animal feed. It would take hundreds of acres of cassava to make a flour mill economically viable. And there isn’t enough demand for cassava to entice grocery stores.

“All we need is the opportunity, the American dream that we’re looking for, that somebody shows up and believes in us,” Alan Hoeft said.

The Hoefts say extensive agriculture knowledge, hard work and love for the land is no longer enough to transform a family farm into a job creator and large-scale food producer.

It’s going to take systematic change and innovate ideas to help Hawaii’s farmers thrive, and Civil Beat wants to hear from you: Is government funding, private investment or returning to traditional knowledge the way to go?

What do you think are the biggest problems with Hawaii’s food system? Who is responsible? And what changes would you like to see on the local and state level?

Tell us in the form below, and listen to the “Hawaii Grown” podcast for a preview of next month’s topic.

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.

Want to hear more? Check out Civil Beat's other podcasts.

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