Partner Profile: Kahumana Farms offers an alternative to Hawai‘i’s corporate food system

Julianne Burton | 07.23.2015

Over the past four decades, Hawai‘i—a lush, tropical, and geographically isolated island archipelago—has become almost entirely dependent on food imports. Hawai‘i includes 11 of the world’s 12 microclimates, fostering the perfect conditions for a diverse and productive agriculture. [1. Billy Mason, “Moving Past Plantations towards Sustainable Local Farms,” HuffPost Hawaii, November 10, 2013, accessed July 10, 2015,] Why, then, has Hawai‘i become dependent on the importation of food? Following the island’s militarization and subsequent transition to US statehood in 1959, and despite local resistance, large-scale industrial agriculture has expanded, leading to a loss of traditional farming knowledge and agrobiodiversity. [2. Trask Haunani-Kay, “The Struggle for Hawaiian Sovereignty- Introduction,” Cultural Survival, Spring, 2000, accessed June 23, 2015,] But Hawai‘ians are increasingly seeking a return to self-sufficiency. Kahumana Organic Farm, based on the island of O‘ahu, has emerged as an ecologically and socially responsible alternative to the corporate food system in Hawai‘i.

Kahumana works with local youth, people with disabilities, and families who are transitioning from homelessness, and incorporates organic and biodynamic processes into its farming practices. The farm-based community aims to revive the previously fallow land on which it is located by using traditional Hawai‘ian farming practices in order to reduce the island’s dependence on imports. Kahumana has been operating for over 40 years and offers vocational training to vulnerable community members, allowing local people to reconnect with their native land and live a more healthy and productive life.

Aloha ‘aina, meaning “love of the land” in Hawai‘ian, anchors the food movement in Hawai‘i. In contrast to large-scale, GMO-based industrialized farming practices and the increasing need to import food, the ideology of aloha ‘aina is truly at the core of Hawai‘i’s ecological and cultural renaissance. On much of the island, input-intensive industrial agriculture produces agricultural products primarily for export including sugarcane, pineapple, macadamia nuts and coffee. [3. State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture, accessed on June 23, 2015,] Kahumana Farm, however, epitomizes the aloha ‘aina movement, as it employs a holistic approach in both its ecological and community engagement.

By aiming to reduce or eliminate the need for external farm inputs, Kahumana reflects the larger food movement in Hawai‘i and the desire to regain the island’s food production autonomy. One of the greatest threats to food sovereignty in Hawai‘i is the state’s loss of self-sufficiency, as the state now imports approximately 92 percent of its food products. [4. Colin M. Stewart, “Bills Promote Food Self-Sufficiency,” Hawaii Tribune-Herald, June 23, 2015, accessed June 23, 2015,] Plantations and industrial farms have led to the commodification of many traditional crops in Hawai‘i, as they are now grown for export rather than domestic consumption. Reliance on imported foods leaves the very geographically isolated state extremely vulnerable to food shortages in the event of natural disasters or economic disruptions. Additionally, cheap imports undercut Hawai‘ian farmers in their local markets, thus depriving them of economic opportunity. [5. Colin M. Stewart, “Bills Promote Food Self-Sufficiency.”]

The creation of Hawai‘i as a territory of the US in 1898 and the transition into statehood in the 1950s transformed the diverse landscape dotted with small, sustainable farms into massive sugarcane and pineapple plantations owned by Dole and Del Monte, as well as the “Big Five” large agribusinesses including Castle & Cook, C. Brewer and Co., Alexander and Baldwin, Theo Davies and Co., and Amfac. [6. “Agriculture in Hawaii,” Civil Beat, not date, accessed June 23, 2015] With statehood, federal funds became available for the development and continued growth of Hawai‘i’s agricultural industries. [7. “History of Agriculture in Hawaii,” State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture, accessed June 23, 2015] In the 35 years since statehood, Hawai‘i has witnessed unprecedented rates of economic growth as a result of conventional tourism development, causing land prices to skyrocket and land-use to shift from agriculture to hotels and resort development. [8. Noreen Mokuau and Jon Matsuoka, “Turbulence among a native people: Social work practice with Hawai‘ians,” Social work 40, no. 4 (1995): 465-472.] This shift has resulted in a dramatic loss of traditional knowledge about how to grow locally suited crops and left the remaining smallholder farmers unable to compete with cheaper imports from the mainland of the United States. [9. Dennis Hollier, “Can Hawaii Feed Itself?” Hawaii Business, November 2014, accessed June 23, 2015,] Alongside losing traditional agro-ecological knowledge, Hawai‘ians are also experiencing cultural appropriation, in which a dominant, non-native culture adopts (and exploits) elements of native Hawai‘ian culture. The overuse and misuse of the word “aloha” by tourists and entertainment industries, for instance, has diluted the traditional root importance of the word and is representative of the larger loss of sovereignty over language and culture that Hawai‘ians are currently facing. [10. Noreen Mokuau and Jon Matsuoka, “Turbulence among a native people: Social work practice with Hawaiians.” op cit.]

Kahumana Farm attempts to address this cultural erosion and dependence by helping to reduce Hawai‘i’s reliance on imports. By incorporating traditional farming methods including biodynamics, composting, permaculture and crop rotation, Kahumana Farm is able to reduce or eliminate the need for outside inputs. Nutrient-rich soil and compost are created on-site and weeds and ingredients grown on the farm control pests, including chile and neem. Community-supported agriculture, in which community members share the risks and benefits of farming, is an essential element of Kahumana Farm’s approach to farming. This community-supported agriculture model allows the local farmers to share with other members of the community knowledge concerning which crops grow well in the region. Kahumana Farm is nurturing the next generation of sustainable farmers and expanding the variety of crops grown, thus helping to increase Hawai‘i’s food sovereignty.

The incorporation of Hawai‘i into the global corporate food system has undermined the state’s ability to sustainably feed its people. The drastic increase in land prices due in part to conventional tourism development has led to the displacement of many small-scale farmers; the conversion of land into export-driven industrial farms and resorts; and a high dependence on food imports. However, the aloha `aina movement stands challenges this loss of food and cultural sovereignty. At Kahumana Farm and across Hawai‘i, various efforts are defending traditional farming and proving the viability and sustainability of small-scale, community-based agricultural production.