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Is Early Los Angeles a Model for Food and Agriculture in Hawai'i?

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

Civil Beat IDEAS: Is Early Los Angeles A Model For Food And Agriculture In Hawaii? Believe it or not, yes. In the first half of the 20th century, smart planners put land in the hands of farmers and transformed LA County into an agricultural powerhouse. By Nancy Redfeather October 11, 2020 · 13 min read

I’ve been thinking a lot about food lately, and I’m pretty sure that you have been too. The pandemic has shown us how quickly everything can change and reminded us of the risks of having all of our eggs in one basket.

I’ve been watching prices rise at my local supermarket. I’ve been witnessing climate changes and disruptions in global supply chains. I’ve been thinking about the fact that 90% of Hawaii’s food comes from outside of the islands and wondering how much longer that system will survive. I’ve been concerned about those who have lost jobs and need help putting food on the table. We are fortunate that Hawaii has a deep tradition of sharing food, and backyard abundance plays a big role in that. Over the past six months, a growing number of people on every island have created home food gardens and planted food trees, many for the first time. I live on a small farm homestead at Kawanui in mauka Kona that is just over one acre. I farm every day and a good portion of what I eat at any given meal I have grown myself. My family and I have lived on this farm for 20 years. I know firsthand food’s connection to soil and water, place and ecosystem, health and wellness, economy and education, and climate. I see food as the great connector: to our earth, ohana, community, culture and each other. Food gives us our daily sustenance and a deep sense of belonging. As University of Hawaii West Oahu Professor Albie Miles recently wrote, if we get food right, we get everything right. The great poet and farmer Wendell Berry urged us to start from the perspective that eating is an agricultural act.

We all know that the challenges to our local food and agricultural economies are significant, and now the pandemic is bringing those challenges into heightened focus. People who want to grow food in Hawaii must confront high land prices, compete with development pressures and deal with water and labor costs. They must contend with invasive species and new crop diseases, with educational and legislative foot-dragging, with export and import uncertainties, with funding cuts and cheap food policies.

These are the issues we need to confront if we are to once again seriously produce food in these islands. These are the issues we need to confront if we are to truly transform. The Lesson of Los Angeles I know a story about the creative transformation of food and agriculture. It began 120 years ago in Los Angeles, California, and it forever changed the way that I look at food.

I was born in 1946 into one of 10,000 small farm families in the County of Los Angeles. You probably don’t think of LA as an agricultural area, but from 1910 to 1960 it was the top producing agricultural county in the entire United States. The founders of Los Angeles sought to turn the county into an area where agriculture was thriving, and they transformed the landscape from large ranches into small farms. Before the Spanish colonized the area in the 1700s, LA was a vast fertile plain with flowing rivers, wild edible plants, wildflowers, trees and many types of animals. The 40 tribes of native peoples who lived there were not farmers, but hunters and fisherman who gathered wild foods. By 1900, that lush landscape had been transformed. Most of the land, formerly in haciendas, was now owned by large landowners, cattle ranchers and land speculators. The main “crop” was cattle, not for meat but for hides to ship to the East to make shoes, belts and bags. By 1900 that system was no longer working. Landowners were struggling to keep their lands in productive use. Local indigenous workers were reluctant to participate in the system. The ecosystem was exhausted by sheep and cattle and severe drought. Many who had tried farming were inexperienced and their projects had failed. The founders of Los Angeles and the businessmen of the LA Chamber of Commerce came up with a new idea. They knew there were vast opportunities for these lands. The LA ecosystem had so many assets. The problem was that the wrong ideas were driving land use. The new idea was to persuade large landowners to break up their vast holdings into smaller parcels of land and sell them to more experienced farming families from across the United States. These smaller holdings would be called Small Farm Homesteads. In the first decades of the 20th century, thousands of small farmers moved onto homesteads and transformed Los Angeles County into the most productive agricultural county in the United States. First, LA’s leaders created a nationwide campaign to show people across the United States the incredible diversity of food crops and products that could be grown in LA County. They placed an array of California products and crops on their own train car and traveled coast to coast, stopping at every small town. They attended World’s Fairs. The vision was first to build a food system based around the small family farm that would feed the city and eventually position Los Angeles as the West Coast food hub. They were very successful.

Beginning around 1910, the land was subdivided into 10,000 half- to 3-acre affordable parcels. Deep fertile soil, a year-round growing climate, ample water resources and a growing market attracted farmers and families from around the country who were looking for new opportunities. My entire family came west from Iowa during the Great Depression in 1932, purchased one acre in the San Gabriel valley and started a small farm. By the time I was born, truck farms, orchards, dairies, egg and chicken farms and cattle ranches were integrated into the landscape. In 1946, the small farms of LA provided over 50% of the food for the growing city. There were 300 small dairies, 16,000 acres in vegetable production, thousands of acres of fruit and nut orchards, hundreds of egg and poultry farms, and 3,500 larger farms and cattle ranches. By 1970, suburban devel­opment was replacing many of these small farms. Although there are few signs of this agrarian history in LA today, the economic vitality of the area still has its roots in the small farm homestead. The leaders of Los Angeles were applauded for their insight that 10,000 small farms would be better for the economy, the land and the people than ten large 1,000-acre plantations. The first great lesson I learned was: Who owns the land, and how it is used, matters. Very much. The glamour of Los Angeles wasn’t just for the movies — it extended to the farmers’ markets. The Lessons of Hawaii’s Past

So I began to wonder, what was agriculture like in Hawaii in 1946, the year I was born? At that time there were fewer than 500,000 people living in the islands and the annual visitor count was under 50,000. According to the statewide Ag Census of that year, there were then 3,922 diverse farms in Hawaii: 83 small dairies, 525 small hog farms, 748 egg and poultry farms, 228 cattle ranches, 1,568 fruit/vegetable/nut farms, 727 coffee and rice farms, 45 apiaries and two sheep farms. In post-war 1946 there were also plenty of backyard victory gardens dotted with fruit trees and there was much fishing, hunting and gathering of wild foods. There were also, of course, thousands of acres of pineapple and sugar growing on plantations, mainly for export. There was clearly greater diversity in local food production, driven by small family operations. That era seems to have lasted into the 1960s. Today in Hawaii, egg, poultry, hog and dairy commercial farms are mostly gone. What happens when we go back further, to 1846? Then the makaainana, the people, were allotted plots on which to grow food. They planted and nurtured taro, sweet potato, ulu and other crops, raised pigs and chickens, and had the right to fish in the sea and in some protected fishponds. They worked six days a month for the chief, fought in wars and paid taxes with goods produced. Masterful at engineering water and land for maximum productivity, Hawaiians developed some of the most sophisticated agricultural systems in the world. Taro, and the poi created from it, was at the heart of the Hawaiian diet. Although that system of agriculture was still feeding the people, by 1846 a new era was beginning. Farms were also producing foods for export to the West Coast (potatoes, sweet potatoes, sugar and coffee) or provisioning whaling ships in port with local produce, meat and fruits. Sugar plantations had begun to arise a decade earlier. The Mahele, the Kuleana Act, the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, the enforcement of the Republic, then of the Territory and then of statehood all had profound repercussions for land and food in the islands. The formal ownership of Hawaii’s 4 million acres became concentrated in the hands of the few and it remains so. The government (federal, state, and county) is now the largest landowner in Hawaii followed by 40 large estates of 5,000 acres or more. We are basically in the same place that Los Angeles was in 1900, surrounded by large landowners. And just as then, land use — at least some of it — is being driven by wrong ideas. I think constantly about how we can actually put more of Hawaii’s lands back into the hands of the next generation of farmers in a meaningful and supportive way. At the community level, many encouraging and innovative new ideas are emerging for rethinking, reforming and reenergizing agriculture and community food systems. There seems to be an underlying consensus that history is now presenting us with a unique opportunity.

Land availability greatly affects opportunities and outcomes for new and beginning farmers who want to own, farm and live on the same piece of land. When farmers live on their land, they also invest in the quality of the soil and farm infrastructure. I know so many people in Hawaii who have invested everything in a farm on leased land and then lost their lease because the landowner simply changed their mind. Hawaii’s largest farmer, Larry Jefts, suffered this fate earlier this year when he had to pull up 200 acres of tomatoes and bell peppers on land he leases in Kunia to make way for a planned solar farm. While renewable energy is a laudable and vital goal, state policies should support the development of renewable energy alongside serious farming endeavors, not in opposition to them. If this can happen to Larry, it can happen to anyone. My own story offers one example of struggle: After growing up in a farming family and moving to Hawaii in 1978 seeking to farm, it took me 23 years to find a piece of land that I could afford. It didn’t happen until I was 50. And even then it took a confluence of lucky breaks: The one acre of land I now own and farm came up for sale during the real estate downturn in 1998. It was in foreclosure. They were asking more than I could afford so I made a lower offer and they accepted. My family, not a bank, loaned me the down payment. Today the land I farm is flourishing and produces thousands of pounds of food a year. This corner of the kitchen garden on Nancy Redfeather’s farm in Kawainui features (visible in the photo) carrots, shelling peas, lettuces, collards and tomatoes that were bred by renowned UH plant researcher Dr. James Gilbert. I am concerned for the next generation. Land prices that were already prohibitive have only risen over the past two decades. And what all of this means is that the food security we now so desperately need is not being supported in ways that actually work. Why Now At Last? Hawaii, like Los Angeles in 1900, has so many ecosystem assets: a year-round growing season, no frost, ample water, rapid nutrient recycling for soil building, clear air and clean water, 10 of the world’s 14 climatic zones, basalt soils full of minerals, and of course knowledge of the great Hawaiian field systems and loi. We will need all of those assets to deal with the climate changes that are already beginning and to keep food in our bellies. We are currently talking about diversifying our economy so why don’t we put food and agriculture right at the top of the list? I urge us to collectively search for new ways of looking at food security while we still can. The Kohala Center’s 2017 Report, “Affordable Land and Housing for Farmers: Exploring Agricultural and Community Land Trusts for Hawaii” helps to provide some direction. At the community level, many encouraging and innovative new ideas are emerging for rethinking, reforming and reenergizing agriculture and community food systems. There seems to be an underlying consensus that history is now presenting us with a unique opportunity. If we are ever going to increase our food supply and create greater food access, justice and security for this small island nation, we will need everyone — big farms, medium and small farms, backyards — to support each other. We will need policies that support all producers and secure places for our farmers to both live and work. Lively and diverse conversations can help us develop shared common goals that can be used to create change in policy and practice but only if we are willing. We do not need to follow Los Angeles’ story all the way to the present and urbanize. We can stop at a flourishing world of farming. And we do not need to travel outside of the islands to find farmers. We need to support Hawaii’s own people. In the end, it comes down to this: Food is the basis of life and health, and when there isn’t enough food, people suffer and die. Farmers need land and each of us has a role to play in ensuring they can find it, live on it and develop its resources in support of all of our futures. It is the kuleana of us all to pick up the work and imagine a new way to live.

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