North Shore farmers seek common-sense approach

For most Americans, food is bought at a local grocery store containing items that are anything but local.

The term “food miles” has become part of the vernacular among food system professionals when describing the distance farm raised food travels to consumer outlets. Living on an outer island, like Kaua‘i, the cost of importing everything from the couch to a bag of popcorn is affected because of the transport involved. According to The Kaua‘i Food Bank, 90 percent of food that is purchased on island arrives from somewhere else.

A group of Kaua‘i’s North Shore organic farmers got together late last week to discuss the issues of producing locally grown food, distributing it to residents, and doing both without hurting the land for future generations.

The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa reported in 2004 that “the average distance for locally grown produce to reach institutional markets was 56 miles, while for conventional produce to reach those same grocery stores it took a staggering 1,494 miles (nearly 27 times farther).”

Conventional produce items traveled from eight (pumpkins) to 92 (broccoli) times farther than the local produce to reach the points of sale. The USDA reported in 2003 that the typical American meal contains, on average, “ingredients from at least five countries outside the United States.”

Like every other consumer driven product, food has entered the age of globalization, and travel is a necessity for each and every box of cereal found in the cupboard.

For seven farmers on the North Shore, “depending on outside resources for our fresh food seems ludicrous when everything under the sun can be grown right here.”

Bill Robertson, Marie Mauger, Ned Whitlock, John and Nandanie Wooten, Scott Pomeroy and Griffin Shepard collectively grow several-hundred types of vegetables, fruits and botanicals. For varying years these farmers have lived and worked on Kaua‘i’s rich soil — practicing the art of sustainable farming. The term “sustainable agriculture” has become a catch phrase in conscious-minded consumers, but what does it mean?

Marie Mauger, a dedicated educator and “keeper of the land” defined the term in the most simple way.

“Will you be able to farm this very same spot of land, in the same way, with the same quality of yield, in 20 years? Can you improve the soil you are planting in, rather than depleting it?”

Wikipedia’s definition of sustainable agriculture elaborates, “Sustainable agriculture refers to the ability of a farm to produce food indefinitely, without causing irreversible damage to ecosystem health.

While air and sunlight are generally available in most geographic locations, crops also depend on soil nutrients and the availability of water. When farmers grow and harvest crops, they remove some of these nutrients from the soil. Without replenishment, the land would suffer from nutrient depletion and be unusable for further farming.”

Scott Pomeroy has been involved in these issues since his farming days in California.

“People hear ‘sustainable’ and ‘organic’ and turn off. We have to make this information understandable and clear.”

Making the concept of responsible farming digestible for consumers is vital if “we are to live up to our birth-given responsibility of giving as much as we take from the earth,” Mauger said.

When farming itself is a full-time job, “changing the perception of agriculture in most people is almost impossible,” Pomeroy added.

While Kaua‘i’s sunshine markets, a few community-oriented restaurants, and Papaya’s grocery stores support locally grown produce, major food retailers cannot buy from these farmers based on insurance liability.

“I went over to Foodland and asked if they wanted to buy from me,” said Pomeroy. “They said they would love to carry Kaua‘i’s produce, and then they asked to see my $100,000 liability insurance. Right. I’m barely making ends meet, there’s no way I could afford that type of insurance.”

Bill Robertson said, “This season, I’m about to have one of the biggest avocado yields I’ve ever produced. All the trees are flowering beautifully. But I look at those flowers and know that when the fruit comes, I won’t have anyone to sell it to. Meanwhile, you walk into any grocery store here and they carry only Haas avocados shipped from South America. Is this the store or the consumer?” Robertson added, “I’m gonna have boxes of rotting avocados. It is extremely frustrating.”

In traditional times, Kaua‘i’s residents were able to be sustained only by the bounty of what could be grown on the island.

What has changed?

Mauger has been working on a program to educate the community on the possibility of the “all Kaua‘i meal.” Holding workshops on her farm and creating recipes that celebrate the extraordinary diversity of food grown locally is the “beginning of helping people understand that everything we need is here. It’s not only healthier for ourselves, but healthier for the land.”

While her “all Kaua‘i meal” is meant to penetrate the community and move upwards, Mauger is currently involved in a complex scientific project that removes toxic elements from affected soil with “biodynamic methods” revitalizing damaged land. Mauger believes this two-pronged approach, using the power of the consumer and the power of science, to make our food safer for everyone and everything, is the only way to begin to tackle such a huge problem.

“We need to organize a way to market to major retailers,” said Wooten. “I’ve been floating the idea to different people and organizations — we need to find a way to get our product to the consumer on a bigger scale.”

The concept of a guild, or co-op, that can give protection to the individual in business has been successfully implemented in the entertainment field, with The Screenwriters Guild, The Screen Actors Guild, The Director’s Guild, and others. These guilds act as the insurance carrier, legal advocate, and intermediary for individual business that requires a larger organization.

Being a farmer on Kaua‘i means being alone. Pomeroy said, “You load up the truck, go to the market, and maybe there’s rain, or maybe someone else has the same product, or maybe people don’t come — it’s very difficult to depend on the markets for your only source of income.”

Community Supported Agriculture programs are becoming more and more common on the Mainland. A new program based in O‘ahu, called Fresh From The Farm, is a collective distribution service that delivers produce to paying customers dedicated to supporting organic and sustainable farmers. The program’s director has contacted each and every one of these farmers on the North Shore and asked them to participate. Ned Whitlock has decided to take-part in the program.

“We have to think about what is sustainable for the farmer,” he said.

Pomeroy and Robertson are also thinking of joining the program.

“I already go to the airport twice a week — I send hundreds of pounds of produce to O‘ahu per year,” Robertson said.

When 90 percent of our food comes from off-island, it seems absurd that Kaua‘i’s own farmers are forced to ship food away.

“We have no choice. Either go to the sunshine market every single day, driving all over, and make $500 a week, or go to the airport once and make a thousand,” Pomeroy said.

Sustainibility in food souring will become more prominent as issues of global warming and dependence on foreign oil are faced by American society. When asked what sustainable agriculture means in the actual process of farming, Pomeroy said, “We need more people on less land. These seas of crops will not fill our daily food baskets.”

Mauger added, “The homogenization of our food crops in this country, and world-wide, is terrifying. Biodiversity is shrinking at alarming rates.”

But what’s wrong with a few less types of apples?

“The more we edge out diversity, the more susceptible we become to crop viruses and possible devastation of a certain type of plant.”

Whitlock said, “You want to know the secret to sustainibility … diversity.” Any gardener knows that the only way to keep soil healthy is to plant several varieties and rotate crops. Yet most conventional produce comes from mega-mono-crop planting — this is anathema to sustainable growers.

The stereotype that organic or sustainable practices are more costly and less productive is slowly being discredited by scientific research.

In 2001, a study conducted by The Center for Environment and Society published a report entitled “Reducing Food Poverty with Sustainable Agriculture.”

The worldwide study of 52 countries and 70 million acres was one of the first and most rigorous comparisons of organic and chemical farming ever done. The study “found unequivocally that sustainable practices can lead to substantial increases in production.” It found that organic apple orchards produced better soils, superior energy efficiency, and fewer environmental impacts, while achieving comparable yields. While root-crop farmers realized gains as great as “150 percent using more sustainable methods.”

With all the difficulties in farming and the up-hill battle of gaining community support for sustainable methods, why do these farmers keep doing it?

“The experience of watching plants produce, and food grow,” said John Wooten.

“To grow healthy food for the people,” said Nandanie Wooten.

“To be in nature. To witness the process.” said Pomeroy.

“We eat like kings,” said Whitlock.

“The lifestyle.” said Shepard.

“Egrets eat right out of my hand … to have this type of relationship with nature is a spiritual experience. The give and take — any working farmer understands this principal,” said Mauger.

The farmers sincerely hope that, “Kaua‘i’s community becomes involved in these issues and begins to change the way they see the food in the store and on the plate. We need the support of this island to make the future of food here viable,” said Wooten for the group.

For more information on sustainable agriculture visit www.sustainableagriculture.net; www.sare.org; www.nal.usda.gov.

• Keya Keita, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 257) or kkeita@kauaipubco.com

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