Rob Parsons

Real homeland security

Five community voices speak out on growing more of what we eat

by Rob Parsons

October 09, 2008

Michael Ableman, noted farmer, author, world traveler and lecturer, shared his thoughts on food with an afternoon audience at Maui Community College (MCC) last week, in a free event sponsored by the Sustainable Living Institute of Maui (SLIM). Ableman, who manages the 120-acre Foxglove Farms on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia said that Maui "may be the most food-insecure place on the planet."

Eighty-five percent of Maui's food supply is imported 2,500 miles, and soaring fuel prices mean a corresponding rise in transportation and food costs. Despite the current equation, Ableman believes there is also great opportunity at hand. "You have soil, sufficient water, sun and a number of different growing climates," he said.

But many in our community are not aware of the precarious nature of our limited food stocks, estimated at only 7-10 days supply, should an unforeseen weather, political or economic crisis occur. I asked five respected Maui citizens to share their perspectives on local food production and what steps must be taken to ensure a sustainable future.

Mark Sheehan lives in Haiku, where he has extensive gardens and fruit trees and grows much of what he eats. He is the former owner of Landmark Maui Properties and has been long active as a board member and past president of Maui Tomorrow Foundation. He recently formed their sub-committee to study Renewable Energy & Food Security and is the founder of a food blog, MauiFoodSecurity.com

MS: Unless we begin to act now, there will be no more food. It's hard to talk about the food dot without connecting to all the other scary dots.Like the rescue plan that was approved after another $150 billion of pork was added to the bailout-and then another $488 billion for the wars, all to be paid for with newly printed $600 billion!

If you think about our local economy, that visitors come with "discretionary income," which is dwindling as people's savings evaporate, you wonder what this winter tourist season will bring. Could our visitor numbers be down by 40-50 percent?

If Detroit, Chicago, Oakland and other cities can grow gardens to feed the inner city poor, certainly we can create similar programs. With state and county budgets diminishing (another impact of the vanishing tourists) we should nevertheless search for funds to retrain unemployed workers in essential farming skills. And the county has to find the means to support the urban gardeners-with compost, community gardens, water, seeds, workshops, etc. A 20-by-20 plot can produce from a quarter to a third of a ton of food. That's huge savings for our struggling local families.

The mayor and the council members have to stop debating and make decisions.

Zoe Norcross-Nu`u is a backyard gardener and mother to two preschool girls. She and husband Rick have been growing a variety of vegetables on their Kokomo hillside and also raise chickens. (She sent me a photo of her "solar dryer," a tray of tomato slices dehydrating on the sunny dashboard of her Toyota Prius.) She teaches the Topics on Sustainability class at MCC, and attended Ableman's recent talk.

ZN-N: The first challenge with public education on unpleasant topics such as the looming potential energy and food shortages is reaching or developing an audience. Many people have enough challenges in their daily lives that the last thing they want is to hear or talk about more bad news.

The second challenge is that even after people have been "educated" about the seriousness of these problems, many are likely to continue their lives as usual without adopting any changes. Perhaps this failure to act is because they believe that government authorities will come to the rescue in the event of an emergency, or perhaps it's because by actually doing something they would be admitting to themselves that the problem is real. It's clear that a significant portion of our island residents won't prepare for a potential food shortage until the shelves at the grocery store are empty. It is essential that people on Maui who do understand the precariousness of our food situation develop a contingency plan for how Maui could respond to a food shortage. Food stockpiles (i.e. wheat, rice, soybeans, etc.) for at least a 2-3 month period should be developed until such time as the island is able to meet those nutritional needs from locally grown goods.We also need to incorporate food growing into the public school curriculum. Not only will the children benefit from being physically active and out of doors, it will also help them to eat more healthily. Knowing how to grow their own food may be one of the most important lessons we can share with our children.

One simple thing people on Maui can do is to use edible landscaping wherever we can. Instead of decorative palms, plant coconut palms or banana trees. High-calorie foods are very important to grow. Sweet potatoes are very easy to grow and propagate-everyone should have dryland taro and sweet potatoes growing in their yard.

Michael Howden is an Upcountry permaculturist and licensed acupuncturist who also serves on the Board of Water Supply and is a candidate for County Council.

MH: I am greatly concerned with the massive, continued diversions of water from the East Maui Watershed, which is steadily deteriorating. Near shore waters and reefs are imperiled, streams are stagnant, and na kua'aina, thesubsistence farmers of East Maui, have insufficient water to work with. The few million gallons per day (mgd) to be returned to these streams is insignificant compared with the average of 156 mgd taken daily.

How do we return public trust waters to our communities? How do we develop access to public lands that can be used for meaningful diversified agriculture? How do we move into the reality of feeding ourselves?

I really appreciated Michael Ableman's attitude of "can do," rather than the "no can" we mostly see from government entities. Michael is largely self-taught, very articulate and eminently practical, urging us to take charge and move forward on our own. We need to learn from our own communities, from kupuna and malahini alike, what can be done, how we can restore natural flows of wind and water, how we can restore native dryland forests, how we can better manage our watersheds.

Working together for the common good is foundational in such a shift. If we keep sitting around, complaining and waiting for others to begin, the opportunities of this moment will continue to elude us. We need to begin at home: less consumption of imported foods (and packaging), less use of fossil fuels and other non-renewable sources of energy, more conservation, more staying at home and building from our community base of resources.

Mele Carroll is the elected state Representative for District 13, a mostly rural area encompassing East Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe.

MC: The state of Hawaii is definitely not prepared to handle a major catastrophe should the importation of goods stop coming. Therefore it is necessary for us all to start the discussions and take action on providing solutions to this critical issue. We have an opportunity to grow our own food by creating community gardens, working in partnership with landowners through leasing of lands to feed the community.

I plan to introduce legislation that will support our small farmers and provide incentives to small businesses that invest in locally grown crops. We also need to work with the big boxes such as Costco and others to encourage them to purchase locally grown agricultural crops so we keep our dollars here in Hawaii.

We know that water is our most precious resource. By restoring our streams, we restore life. We need to understand how our (host culture) ancestors managed resources then use these methods to educate and to ensure that our natural resources are protected and utilized for the purpose of life, such as food for the people.

Vincent Mina is the founder of Maui Aloha `Aina (MA`A) Association, whose eighth annual Body & Soil conference is coming up this weekend. Vince and his wife Irene raise sprouts and other "nutrition dense" foods at their Kahanu `Aina Farms in Wailuku.

VM: We've known for years that we bring in the majority of our food from the Mainland, yet this year marked a turning point when suddenly the price of fuel and petro-chemical fertilizers went through the roof. I feel it marks a defining time in the changing of paradigms. The extractive petro chemical paradigm is dying. Farmers who have relied on inexpensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides now need alternatives to grow their crops in order to remain in business and produce a viable crop.

Organic or "Bio-logical" farmers continue to improve their strategies to maximize the nutrient density and yield while increasing soil fertility on the farm. We use cover crops, alley crops and compost to assist in building mineral-rich, biologically alive soil.

This system allows a farm to recycle its nutrients while producing high quality food and yields without depleting the soil. Understanding this concept in agriculture is what the Hawaiians termed Aloha `Aina. You give to the land and the land will give to you.