Catherine Toth Fox: The Overgrown Ruins Of Waialee Have Great Potential - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Opinion article badgeGrowing up our family would drive from our Kalihi home to the North Shore, sometimes with fishing poles, most often with fried chicken and musubi. It was really the drive that we loved, following Kamehameha Highway as it meandered along the coastline, through the sleepy towns of Kaaawa, Punaluu and Hauula en route to Haleiwa.

Every time we made the turn by Turtle Bay Resort, heading toward Sunset Beach, I’d look for the decrepit building that was once the Waialee Industrial School for Boys, a reformatory school that opened in the early 20th century. Across the highway was the Waialee Livestock Research Station, run by the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

In its heyday this 135-acre animal research and demonstration site had more than 5,000 poultry, 300 swine and 200 cattle. In 2004 UH stopped its dairy operations here — the revenue of which supported the management of the farm — and in 2007 it relocated the last herd of 80 sheep to vacant state land in Waimanalo.

This site, which starts at the shoreline and extends across the highway up mauka, sat unused and neglected for more than a decade. Invasive plants and trees took over the area, buildings fell into disrepair and, at some point, homeless people moved in.

It wasn’t the working farm I remembered when I was a kid, touring the dairy on field trips and riding in a tractor-pulled wagon through groves of macadamia nut trees on the mauka side of the highway. It was the first time I had ever eaten a freshly harvested macadamia nut, and I immediately fell in love with that buttery, nutty flavor.

Aerial view Waialee
Parts of Waialee have been neglected for more than a decade, allowing invasive plants and trees to take over the area. A nonprofit is trying to restore it. Courtesy: Kristian McDonald

Nick Kawelakai Farrant has a similar fondness for Waialee. The 28-year-old grew up 2 miles from the farm — within biking distance, he says — and sees past the overgrowth and run-down structures. He sees what the area could be.

Farrant is a coastal community resilience specialist with Hawaii Sea Grant at UH and works with the nonprofit North Shore Community Land Trust to restore the land here, once known for its fields of uala (sweet potatoes) and loi kalo (wetland taro patches). The nonprofit now manages 35 acres on the makai side of the highway — the mauka land is leased to a small family-run cattle ranch — and is working to bring back Hawaiian agriculture here.

“Having grown up in the area and seeing the environmental and cultural potential for the land, I got really excited about it,” Farrant says. “Ultimately, the vision is to restore the aina to a productive state. There’s still a lot to be figured out, but this is a great opportunity for the community to be present on the land and to assist in restoring the native ecosystem and Hawaiian agriculture in Waialee.”

In addition to loi kalo, this area has a 2-acre, L-shaped loko wai, or freshwater fishpond, called Kalou, in which surveys have reported amaama (striped mullet), awa (milkfish) and oopu nakea, the largest of Hawaii’s indigenous gobies. The surrounding wetland is also home to the endangered and endemic alae ula (Hawaiian moorhen) and alae kea (Hawaiian coot), and the indigenous aukuu (black-crowned night heron).

The NSCLT — of which Farrant has been part of since 2014 — holds community work days every month, where volunteers remove invasive koa haole and California grass and help to bring back the agroforestry to the mooaina (small land division), planting olena (turmeric) and ginger under the shade of banana trees. According to the nonprofit, this area was cultivated most recently in 1950, the year the reformation school closed. The boys were producing 800 to 1,000 pounds of poi a week to feed themselves and the broader community.

So growing taro in this small area — compared to larger loi and farms across the island — has the potential to feed at least the nearby community. It could be modeled after a place like Waipa on the north shore of Kauai. The Waipa Foundation, the nonprofit that manages the 1,600-acre ahupuaa, farms a 6-acre loi kalo and distributes an average of 800 pounds of poi every week to kupuna and families throughout the island at a low cost. For the past 30 years, volunteers and community members have gathered in an open-air pavillion to clean the taro and bag the poi. I’ve done it, and it really connects you to the place and the people. It’s what Farrant hopes will happen at Waialee.

Taro has been planted at Waialee over the past couple of months. Courtesy: Nick Kawelakai Ferrant/2022

It’s not a place that people know much about. Most of us drive past the overgrown pasture land, maybe notice the derelict boys’ home but never stop. There are no homes here, no convenience stores, no food trucks or roadside stands selling Kahuku-grown corn or fresh coconuts.

And yet, beyond the mess of koa haole trees is a loi kalo, with a fishpond and a wetland that’s home to endangered birds. It’s small, but its impact can be huge. It’s a place where food can be grown, a place where the nearby community can gather, a place where students can do research and learn.

It’s a place, Farrant argues, that can make us think differently about the land and what it means to be sustainable.

“It may seem idealistic or incongruent to the current way we measure success, and economically it doesn’t really pencil out, but there’s this intrinsic value and connection to the land that people haven’t had access to,” Farrant says. “This is an opportunity for people to grow their own food, to learn about cultural practices, to get exposure to healthy ecosystems and native species.”

“We have this chance to come together as a community and grow food and care for this land, land that was basically seen as a problem. But there’s so much value and richness here — and people didn’t even know it was here,” he says.

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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Kudos to all involved. Make it happen, please.

mtf1953 · 10 months ago

An interesting article and begs the question: Who owns the property being described? UH, State of Hawaii, North Shore Community Land Trust . . . ? There seems to be some uncaptured community potenial with this property, but what are the next steps?

DEGardner · 10 months ago

Excellent article about a place we all know...but not really, just as a drive-by. What's needed is a benefactor - one with deep pockets and both vision and an abiding love the aina. Not sure who that might be, probably a corporate entity but maybe one of the rich guys around here. Without said benefactor progress will be slow and may not be sustainable unless there is a monetization of the property and that would likely defeat the original intent.

CatManapua · 10 months ago

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