On Monday, Aug.1, state lawmakers and officials toured North Shore farms to see why federal funding is being requested to improve the irrigation system in Moloaa. Louisa Wooton of Kauai Kunana Dairy and Paul Huber of Hole in the Mountain Farm guided state Sen. Ronald Kouchi, Reps. Derek Kawakami and Jimmy Tokioka as well as Scott Enright, director for the State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture, and Jerry Ornellas, president of the Kauai County Farm Bureau.
At Yoshii Farm, a blazing sun forced everyone into the shade of a blossoming bougainvillea tree. Linda Yoshii set out platters of chilled and cubed Haden mango, apple bananas and purple passion fruit, all from the family’s farm.
“Banana farming is hard work,” says Sen. Kouchi to Dickie Yoshii. “I remember when I was 14 years old and I had to harvest bananas and carry them up the lane into the storehouse.”
“I’m training him now,” Dickie says and points to Leighton, his 4-year-old grandson.
Paul Huber rolls out draft plans and begins to explain the situation. A group of Moloaa farmers established a cooperative in 2010 after receiving a USDA Rural Cooperative Development Grant. The co-op includes 49 members who farm on 596-acres in an area referred to as the Moloaa Hui Lands.
The co-op delivers irrigation water to its members and maintains the necessary infrastructure. The problem is failing steel pipes and a water tank built during the 1930s plantation-era. Improvements will conserve water and energy and hopefully lower the steep $1.60 price per 1,000 gallons. Currently, Moloaa farmers pay between $800 and $1,600 every month. That’s a lot of bananas to sell.
“We are challenged to deliver clean, consistently adequate water to our members,” says Wooton. “An aging infrastructure needs significant upgrades. Due to changing regulations with new food safety standards, use of non-potable water in post-harvest agriculture is an imminent challenge in order for our members to expand their operations into ready-to-eat and value-added markets.”
At Moloaa Bay Coffee, a 16-acre farm that also grows cacao and makes chocolate, there are 1,000 heirloom cacao trees. As we walk through the tidy rows, Sen. Kouchi explains the nuances of getting approval for federal funding.
“The state will want to know how much money you want and the projected use,” he says. “They’ll work with your legislative team to get the money for the improvements, but they’ll need a structure for ongoing maintenance in-kind.”
“A bill has to be introduced, go through both houses and then get signed by the governor,” Kawakami explains. “All those checks and balances ensure federal low-interest loans are being used appropriately.”
Moloaa Organicaa is a 28.5-acre certified organic, diversified farm. Owner Ned Whitlock guides everyone by long rows of vegetables to a hothouse bursting with ripe tomatoes. Kawakami says his mother was a farmer and his in-laws are ranchers. He says they are the salt-of-the-earth and the type of people they’ve been elected to help.
“As decision makers, it’s important for us to figure out ways to lower the farmer’s cost of doing business and to buy local,” he says.
“Right now, Moloaa is the vegetable and fruit basket of Kauai,” says Ornellas. “The Farm Bureau will work with the co-op to help them get the funding they need.”
After three hours in the scorching sun, we sit in the shade at Hole in the Mountain Farm where 60,000 sugarloaf pineapple stretch into the distance. Owner Paul Huber goes into the kitchen and makes a frozen dessert. The idea came from Joe Halsey, who uses Huber’s pineapple to make a frosty at Banana Joe’s Fruit Stand. Louisa Wooten sets organic goat cheese on the table and pours everyone a glass of passion fruit lemonade — everything is from her farm.
“It’s important that people understand,” Kawakami says. “The last time this was on the ballot, misinformation spread about how the state was trying to privatize water, which is completely false. It just allows landowners, who now have to get up to standard, borrow money at government rates.”
After the short respite, Ornellas, Enright, Wooton, Huber and farmer Jeremy Hillstrom drive to the source. After a short, uphill climb, the 500,000 gallon steel tank dominates the dusty outcrop.
“The co-op needs to demonstrate the agricultural uses and potential growth to the legislation,” says Enright.
“We hope to partner with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and our state legislators to retain Moloaa Hui Lands as a robust food-producing agricultural area for Kauai and Hawaii,” says Wooton. “To do this, a sound irrigation system is paramount. By working together, we can strengthen our long-term viability as ‘the vegetable- and fruit-basket of Kauai’ and take our place as a team member in the goal for food security on Hawaii.”
Marta Lane, a food writer on Kauai since 2010, offers farm to fork food tours and is the author of Tasting Kauai: Restaurants – From Food Trucks to Fine Dining, A Guide to Eating Well on the Garden Island. For more information, visit TastingKauai.com.