Farming is key to Kauai’s agricultural heritage

A fair number of Kauai residents recently have argued over what farming is and what it isn’t.

“There has been a constant evolution of agriculture,” said Bill Spitz, a retired county employee and adviser to the Kauai Grown program.

More than a century ago, the island grew much of its own food, and produced numerous crops that are no longer actively grown, like rubber, kapok and sisal. Over time, sugar and pineapple took large roles, but traditional crops like taro remained strong. And today, our farmers’ markets display a vibrant mix of crops.

While most of our food is imported, there is broad diversity in our mix of local crops. Family and Friends of Agriculture, a new organization supporting all kinds of agriculture, takes the simple view that farming and agriculture simply mean producing a crop from the earth. Literally, agriculture means working the land — agri from the Latin for land, farm or soil; culture from tending or tilling.

The products of agriculture may be food, fiber, flowers, fungi, spices, medicine, livestock, even information. Farmers’ chief advocate, the Kauai County Farm Bureau, which helped found Family and Friends of Agriculture, doesn’t distinguish between different kinds of farming.

“The Farm Bureau supports all types of agriculture — small, large, organic, conventional … everything,” said Laurie Ho, president of the Kauai County Farm Bureau.

At the University of Hawaii’s Kauai Agricultural Research Center in Wailua, there are research gardens growing varieties of taro, ornamental gingers, pineapple, tree crops, heliconia, coffee, corn, tea, pasture grass, noni, protea, ‘awa and banana.

The station is not so much growing food, flowers and grasses as it is growing information. It is feeding farmers’ ability to succeed. But it’s still farming.

Are ranchers farmers? Some ranchers joke that they are farming grass, and then feeding it to their cattle, horses, goats, sheep or other livestock. But like other farmers, they are working the land to produce a crop — in this case a livestock crop.

In the interest of having a community discussion about our agricultural heritage on Kauai, Family and Friends of Agriculture, in association with the Kauai Farm Bureau, will produce a regular column on the immense variety of our island’s agricultural ventures.

We have farmers working in deep black mud of their lo`i kalo, and walking their ginger fields, and clipping their tropical flowers, and growing trees for lumber and fuel, working backyard gardens for the farmers’ markets and harvesting sheep for fine restaurants.

They grow organically, and using permaculture techniques, and conventional methods. They may till taro paddies first established hundreds of years ago, or red dirt that came out of sugar and pineapple only a decade or two ago.

But however they do it, and whatever it produces, it’s all farming.

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Jan TenBruggencate is a communications consultant, author and retired newspaper reporter who lives on Kauai. He is also a canoe paddler, beekeeper and active volunteer.

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