Back to our roots

Each month we cover a relevant topic on housing, sustainability, or a current event that impacts the lives of everyone on Kaua‘i.

We then take a deeper dive into these topics on our PAL KKCR radio show from 4 to 6 p.m. the next day — the fourth Monday of the month, which follows this Sunday column in The Garden Island.

This month we sat down with Puna Kalama Dawson and Adam Asquith to discuss aloha, agriculture and traditional community values, how roots help us grow on so many planes.

We all know that we are one of the most-caring and accepting communities anywhere, and yet there are divisions.

In preparation for this column and our PAL KKCR radio show, we asked Puna to reflect on our unity and our divisions. She asked us to give her “three words.” We thought about it and said: Aloha, Hawaiian and race (diversity). She shared with us, and you, a touching message of “unity, as a traditional community value.”

Puna is a remarkable community figure, and is pivotal in supporting numerous programs and organizations that help people and celebrate diversity and Hawaiian values. From seed exchanges to surf meets, from festivals to sacred ceremonies, Puna brings a gift of ancient Hawaiian wisdom and a family lineage that traces back through many island generations and Hawaiian royalty. Puna Kalama Dawson is not only a cultural practitioner and renowned kumu hula, she is also a passionate advocate for truly affordable housing, expert in finance, founder of Lihu‘e Townhomes on Rice Street and local activist. And we are fortunate to have her as a member of the board of our 501(c)(3) nonrofit: Permanently Affordable Living — PAL Kaua‘i.

In preparation for this column and our radio show, we talked with her, and share some of her thoughts:

w Aloha — In Puna’s own words, “aloha” is a fundamental characteristic of mankind — to be kind — and to build relationships between one another. We must understand that we cannot exist in this world alone, and we must find the common threads that we share in the global family;

w Hawaiian — Puna says this over and over: “Being Hawaiian is being responsible, being responsible for who we are, where we are and how we interact with one another, with respect. That is being Hawaiian;”

w Race / diversity — In describing diversity, Puna said “Being diverse is taking the best that each other has to offer, putting it together, and coming out with a solution that is going to benefit everyone. In that word ‘aloha’ there is no room for separation. We are one breath.”

For more profound insights from Puna, please join our discussion on the PAL KKCR radio show Monday at 4 p.m. In her own words: “Mahalo to the ‘ohana of our island home, Kaua‘i! We invite you to talk story with us, acknowledging our host culture, Hawaiian, and celebrating the diverse ethnic cultures our communities nurture.”

You won’t find Adam Asquith on Linkedin or in a coat and tie — despite his Ph.D. in biology and his 10 years working for different government agencies, doing research and administration, conservation and managing the wildlife refuges for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

You will find Adam in a field with muddy boots and dirt under his fingernails, caring for the earth and preserving our cultural heritage of growing taro. After you spend a few minutes talking with Adam you start to realize how much he loves Hawai‘i and how impact-ful his work has been on taro production in the state.

He recently told me, “I got my second Ph.D. — in taro — by working and volunteering in Waipa!” He said that, when he met the eight families who were farming taro on federal land, “They became my heroes, and I just decided to make this my home. I wanted to throw my lot in with people that I respected, and I felt I could contribute to my community. I gave up all my benefits and retirement.”

Puna spoke to us about our values and traditions, and Adam shared his thoughts on our traditional way of growing food and how we need to go back to that, back to our roots.

In his words: “We have a thriving system of farmers’ markets on Kaua‘i. There is at least one market every day of the week. Most people view this as a sign of healthy, vibrant food production in our community. It is not!

“As late as the 1970s (pre farmers’ markets) you could not sell an eggplant on Kaua‘i. That was because virtually everyone was growing food. Farming was embedded in the community!

“Kaua‘i was still self-sufficient in milk production, egg production, taro, sweet potato and every vegetable that will grow here! And we still had farmers. And this was accomplished when most or our agricultural land and infrastructure was producing sugar for export!

“Today we don’t even produce enough eggs to supply a single breakfast restaurant. We have virtually no milk production. Our signature crop, taro, could not sustain us for a single month.”

Adam believes this is largely the result of a change in our values as a community. In the past we had housing and agriculture integrated into our communities. The land and the people were not separate. Now, we have a system where it is too expensive and too difficult to develop agricultural communities where crops can be grown and farm workers can have housing on the land, although this is what we need.

Part of the problem has been systemic, in terms of our zoning philosophy of setting aside agricultural land but making it difficult to build housing for real farmers to live on the same land.

The result is we have land set aside for agriculture that grows nothing but Guinea grass and albezia because it’s almost impossible to pay a farm worker enough to find housing on Kaua‘i. And that also leads to theft of produce and farm equipment because no one’s there to watch the farm at night.

Even more dire, some of our agricultural land is proposed to be converted to allow housing, with no real connection to agriculture. You know that two palm trees and an orange tree — or three horses — is not a real agricultural operation. That’s “gentleman farming,” and it represents a permanent loss of a crucial resource: the potential to grow food and create security and sustainability for Kaua‘i, for ourselves.

The county was wise to ensure that commercial farms can build housing for our farm workers. But the regulations make it difficult to qualify. Farms must have a gross income of $35,000 per year for the past two years. That’s a difficult barrier for a beginning farmer with no help.

We need to develop agricultural communities/villages with added benefits of shared equipment and resources. We need walk-to-work homes where we grow the food at a cost that is affordable to those who work the land. We must return to the traditional way of growing food, and grow more of it.

If we follow the principles of aloha, follow the traditional Hawaiian ways and celebrate diversity, we can grow as a community and nurture and sustain ourselves with food and caring. Let’s get back to our roots — actually plant roots and grow!

You can find out more about PAL Kaua‘i, and even help us do this noble work. Visit our website at PAL-Kaua‘ or call (808) 738-6706.



Jim Edmonds is president of PAL Kaua‘i. Executive Director Larry Graff contributed to this report. Edmonds can be reached at Jim@PAL-Kaua‘ The PAL Kaua‘i mission is to provide homes and sustainable living solutions, within reach, restoring hope for the people of Kaua‘i.


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