The hardest part about making food in Hawaii isn’t growing food, it’s everything else.
“To get a loan, you have to prove you don’t need it … to get a scholarship, you have to write nicely and have plenty of time,” said Alan Hoeft, who runs the Island Manaia Cassava Plantation with his wife, Gaylyne Hoeft directs. “We real farmers can’t keep up.”
Despite fertile soil and a year-round growing season, almost 85% of the state’s food is imported. While the effects on food prices, climate change, and resilience to emergencies are well documented, the state has not revived its agribusiness post plantation.
Civil Beat launches Hawaii Grown podcast to find out how the state can reduce its reliance on imported food. Every month we take a look at a single issue, talk to local farmers about how this is affecting their lives, and look for possible solutions.
Many put their hopes on small and medium-sized farms like Island Manaia to create jobs and make fresh produce more affordable. But after a decade of farming in Hawaii Kai, farms say there are more hurdles than ever before.
Daniel Anthony, a taro farmer and local activist, believes legislative action would help Hawaii produce more local food.
“They have pitted the military, tourism and development against agriculture since 1959,” Anthony said at a rally at the State Capitol in January. “We are not against this, but what we are asking for is fairness.”
Others, like LeShay Keliiholokai, say the solution lies in returning to traditional land practices.
“I think a western perspective on Aina (the land) is property and we don’t think so,” said Keliiholokai. “It’s about this symbiotic relationship: if you take care of it, she will take care of you.”
She left her career as a youth art therapist to work with Ke Kula Nui O Waimanalo, a group of native Hawaiians who support subsistence farming, aquaponics and the delivery of fresh fruits and vegetables across Waimanalo.
“All of this work is for our youth, our next generation who need access to Aina for their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health,” she said.
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Alan, Gaylyne Hoeft and their daughter Haddassah
Manaia Island Cassava Plantation
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The farms are hoping for private investment to support the manufacture of cassava animal feed and to open a mill to produce cassava flour on a large scale.
“Why buy flour from other countries?” Alan Höft said. “We’re right here!”
When Alan Hoeft from Tonga and Gaylyne Hoeft from Samoa first immigrated to Hawaii, they struggled financially and became homeless. After a heart-to-heart relationship, they trust manioc: a starchy root that Alan Höft calls “the potato of the Pacific”.
They put together a business plan and secured a long-term lease from Kamehameha Schools for 22 acres in Hawaii Kai. In addition to running a full-time farm, the two also worked as landscapers for five years to make ends meet.
“When we were blessed with the idea, physically and emotionally as painful as it was, we knew what to do,” said Gaylyne Hoeft.
Ten years later, the couple’s main source of income is from selling cassava chips and the profits from their food truck. You can only afford to rent a commercial kitchen for two hours a week, and sales have been falling during the pandemic.
The two have experimented with over 450 different types of cassava for years and know exactly which types are best for animal feed, which makes the best flour, and which is best sold to grocery chefs at grocery stores.
But the farms do not have the resources to open a plant for the production of animal feed. It would take hundreds of acres of cassava to make a mill economically viable. And there isn’t enough demand for cassava to attract grocery stores.
“We just need the opportunity, the American dream we are looking for, that someone would come up and believe in us,” said Alan Hoeft.
The farms say that extensive agricultural knowledge, hard work, and love of the land are no longer enough to turn a family farm into a job-maker and large-scale food producer.
It takes systematic change and innovative ideas to make Hawaii’s farmers thrive, and Civil Beat wants to hear from you: is government funding, private investment, or a return to traditional knowledge the way to go?
What do you think are the biggest problems with Hawaii’s food system? Who is responsible? And what changes would you like to see at the local and state levels?
Let us know in the form below and listen to the Hawaii Grown podcast for a preview of next month’s topic.
Hawaii Grown is funded in part by grants from the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Ulupono Fund, the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Marisla Fund, and the Frost Family Foundation.