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Educational center working to plant a food forest in Lahaina

By Staff | Mar 29, 2018

3M Company employees from around the globe participated in Ku‘ia Agricultural Education Center’s community planting event on March 16. PHOTO BY JADE CHIHARA.

LAHAINA – The revival of a cultural landscape in the hills above Lahaina is in progress, with the Ku’ia Agricultural Education Center (KAEC) leading the way.

It’s a multi-layered collaborative campaign between Kamehameha Schools and Hawaii Farmers Union Foundation (HFUF), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

The partnership on the West Side is evolving and was celebrated in a blessing ceremony over a year ago when Hawaii Farmers Union United (HFUU) and its foundation HFUF secured a lease from Kamehameha Schools of 12.5 acres of former cane lands, then-scrub, mauka of the “Lahaina Bypass,” south of Lahainaluna Road, in the ahupua’a of Ku’ia, Lahaina.

But it was in the fall of 2017 that the initiative leapt forward with two Lahainaluna High School graduates hired, adding drive, talent, leadership and local knowledge to the mix.

Kaipo Kekona (Class of 2002) is the Hawaiian agricultural coordinator and Jade Chihara (Class of 2013) educational coordinator.

A group of global citizens joined Ku‘ia Agricultural Education Center leaders and Hawaii Farmers Union United members to plant 37 ulu and about 70 niu trees on former cane lands in Lahaina. PHOTO BY JADE CHIHARA.

They are on a quest, according to the KAEC brochure, “to engage our community with regenerative natural farming practices and agroforestry centered on Hawaiian culture” by “restoring and honoring the historical meaning of ‘Ka Malu ‘Ulu o Lele,’ ” (the shade of the breadfruit trees of Lahaina).

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, agroforestry, practiced in the United States and around the world for centuries, is the “intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crops and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic and social benefits.”

The strategy at the educational center “is to plant a food forest with a selection of different food crops that coexist with each other and benefit and feed off of each other in its natural environment – aside from the fact that we will be bringing water to the site through pipes,” Kekona explained.

“The different crops that we’ll be growing will be sustaining each other,” the Native Hawaiian added.

“The plants coexist with each other. The ulu trees will be our large trees that will canopy and shade out the rest of the area, which will cause us to use less water and build more soil health.

“As you dig into history and writings,” Kekona observed, “and you look up old testimonies, you’ll find out that it was also referenced to have a lot of coconut trees (niu) in between all the ulus. So there is also ‘Ka Malu ‘Ulu o Lele’ and ‘Ka Malu Niu o Lele.’ So the shade of the coconut and the shade of the ulu trees is what you would commonly find in Lahaina from the ocean all the way to the mountain.”

“We will be planting other crops that don’t get as tall as the ulu or niu, so they won’t be competing with them – like banana trees, noni trees, the hardwood trees like alahe’e; so we’re growing those trees that would be the secondary canopy. Once those guys are established, then you move into your shrubs, which would be the chili peppers, noni, awa, ‘olena and ti leafs and all those different kind of crops.

“Once you get past them, you move into the ground covers, which would be the sweet potatoes, the ipus or squash varieties, multiple different things like the little shrubs and the vines.”

Chihara added, “The lower canopy plants that we’d like to grow includes a lot of medicinal crops as well.”

Chihara is excited about her responsibilities at the farm: “to develop the curriculum for when we have students of all ages.”

“Since we are in the early stages,” Chihara advised, “we really want to primarily focus on the networks that we have. Right now we’ve tapped into the Lahainaluna High School boarders and the Kaiapuni students at Princess Nahi’ena’ena.

“Eventually,” she said, “we want to tap into all schools. Right now, since we’re still putting in the site infrastructure, we’ve been doing offsite visits, off-farm visits and going into the schools and helping them with their gardens and doing different curriculums and outreach modules with the students. Eventually, we would like to have field trips. Since now we can get busses on the farm, we can bring them onto the site and give them a tour and conduct workshops with them.”

Although their vision focuses primarily on the West Side community, on Friday, March 16, a group of global citizens joined KAEC leaders and HFUU members to begin the process of regeneration, with the planting of 37 ulu and about 70 niu (coconut palms).

Bob Lowell, AlliedPRA national sales manager, was “tasked with creating a CSR (corporate social responsibility) event that would allow the attendees to give back to our community while inspiring volunteerism and a spirit of cooperation,” he described.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Nine school bus loads trekked across the rocky road to the educational center, carrying about 350 3M volunteers.

It was monumental.

“Where else can you go and actually plant,” Lowell challenged, “then know that what you planted will benefit hundreds, if not thousands of people for decades to come! Truly this was a legacy event I still get chicken skin just talking about it.”

Chihara and Kekona want to keep up the momentum.

“The ulu movement is huge and growing in the state,” Kekona said. “It’s a diversified crop with multiple uses. You can make pasta out of it, flour for baking deserts, regular simple common feed, candy and brittle; and it’s gluten-free.”

“They are bringing back ulu into the school lunches,” Chihara added.

It will take perhaps four years to fruit, but a mature tree can produce 2,000 pounds per year, Kekona said.

It’s a sustainable food source, they both agreed.

To Chihara, the project offers “an opportunity for the community and young students to learn from and engage with regenerative agriculture in a landscape with a very rich history that would generate pride.”

Vincent Mina, the HFUU and HFUF president, is rightly proud of the organization he leads. “The mission of HFUU is to advocate and create vital and prosperous agricultural communities for the people of Hawaii. We have 13 chapters statewide and 1,360 members. Our membership includes farmers, gardeners and ‘foodies’ who value locally produced food.”

For more information, e-mail Mina at hfuu1@hawaii.rr.com.