Imagine driving past Salt Pond toward Waimea and looking toward the mountainous interior of Kauai. Behind sinuous lines of mango tree windbreaks that follow the contour of the land and the edges of gullies and valleys, one can catch glimpses of fields of sweet potatoes, peanuts, ginger, pigeon peas, coconut groves, papaya patches, breadfruit trees and tangelo orchards.
Dotted over the landscape are hundreds of homestead farms of about 20 acres with tidy shaded modest homes surrounded by vegetable gardens. Solar panels on farm equipment sheds glint in the sun.
Down the road, near the idle Gay and Robinson sugar mill, an attractive industrial building with a West Kauai Coop sign hums with activity. In a screened bay, crates of Rapoza mangos are stacked high, awaiting their turn on the sorting line. The next bay has boxes of sweet potatoes, fresh off the washer, being loaded on a truck for today’s barge.
Next door, mounds of green coconuts are being off loaded from farmers’ pickups for the coconut water cannery. At the coop store, plenty tourists are browsing heaps of colorful fruit and vegetables in the open air pavilion.
The sugar cane juice (with lime and ginger) stand has customers and the Fairchild mango sorbet looks popular too. Down the road a bit, coconut husks are drying in the sun next to a small factory processing coco fiber into bales.
Close by is the laminating shop using coco strands as an improvement on carbon fiber to build outrigger canoes and paddleboards.
The parking lot shaded by a solar panel canopy is occupied by plug in electric vehicles.
The dream is rudely interrupted by dust rising near a vivid green corn field bordered by keep out signs. A large spray rig tall enough to straddle mature corn plants, sits idle in the distance, waiting for its nighttime pesticides forays. Vans with corporate logos discharge workers for another day of detasseling or bagging.
Before European contact, Kauaians farmed 20,000 acres of taro living close to their fields, dispersed over the island wherever water resources made it possible. Plantation agriculture depopulated the countryside and concentrated inhabitants into mostly mill towns.
For Kauai to turn a new leaf and create an economy that nurtures the land, creates abundance for the local people, and feeds the island big time, the small landholder/farmer should be enabled to thrive. Intensely planted, closely tended farms coax the best yields from the land.
What if the county bought the conservation/development rights for 10,000 watered acres on the south side from the primary land holders to create 500 farmsteads of about 20 acres each, delineated by the topography? (20 acres is big enough to justify the expense of a tractor, give everybody enough room, yet be family manageable).
These farmsteads would be leased (10-year renewable) with the covenant of soil protection and a strict ban on toxic agriculture; no herbicides, no chemical insecticides, and only organically approved fungicides.
The county or chosen contractors could start the project by hiring prospective farm leasees to plant windbreaks, start coconut groves, etc. Low cost loans would be available for approved farm worker dwellings on each plot.
Young family applicants with Kauai roots and farm work ethic would be given preference as land is offered. Sustainable technical advice of farmer peers and other mentors would be available.
A farm machinery coop could lessen start up costs. Lease fees would be reasonable to the farmer ( $5,000/per year?) and would fund the conservation/development right costs.
Rural development costs of the project (i.e. windbreaks, erosion control) could come from higher taxes on underutilized agricultural lands and a “poison” tax at the point of sale of dangerous pesticide products.
Processing plant infrastructure would be favorably financed and help with coop development available.
Five-hundred diverse intensive farms could employ two to five thousand people within five to 10 years with associated businesses. A conservative gross income of $200,000 per farm (yes, you’ll have to work hard) would mean a hundred million dollars circulating in the local economy.
A thriving, productive, sustainable, non-toxic Westside with independent farmers with access to cooperative facilities, jump started with county assistance, and graced with Robinson family cooperation, is an appealing alternative to the dead end of chemical company agribusiness.
• Ned Whitlock does business as Moloa’a Organica’a, Kilauea.