Photo: ʻIo with breadfruit
Noa Lincoln's son, ʻIo, enjoys his perch on an enormous crate of ʻulu. - Photos: Courtesy Noa Kekuewa Lincoln

“I ke alo no ka ʻulu a hala; The breadfruit was just in front and it was missed.”

When most people think about traditional Hawaiian agriculture, they think about loʻi kalo.

“There was a lot of loʻi restoration following the ʻHawaiian Renaissance’ and to some extent, loʻi became synonymous with Hawaiian agriculture,” explained Dr. Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, a breadfruit farmer and a professor and researcher at UH Mānoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR).

However, loʻi cultivation comprised only a small percentage of Hawaiʻi’s pre-contact agricultural production.

“Hawaiians had vast, intensively cultivated field systems based on sweet potato and cane and kalo and maiʻa (banana). We also had different types of agroforestry systems that blanketed many of our lowland areas. With the exception of Kauaʻi, loʻi systems were the minority.”

Born on Hawaiʻi Island and raised in upcountry Maui, Lincoln grew up with a strong grounding in and appreciation for the ʻāina. After graduating from Yale University he was initially interested in conservation restoration and rare plants, but along the way he found himself increasingly drawn to agriculture, and traditional agriculture in particular.

His doctoral research at Stanford University was on traditional agriculture in Kona, exploring the diverse dryland farming systems of the region, in particular, the Kaluʻulu, a belt of breadfruit agroforestry that cut across the Kona landscape. In 2015, the Māla Kaluʻulu Cooperative, a group Lincoln co-founded, won Kamehameha Schools’ Mahiʻai Match-Up competition. The group pitched a business plan centered on restoring the Kaluʻulu and was awarded a 4-acre parcel in the heart of Kona’s ancient “breadfruit belt.”

“There weren’t opportunities to study traditional agroforestry systems because there really weren’t any more in the state,” Lincoln said. “So, we are actively restoring and rebuilding this traditional system to demonstrate it and to tell the story.”

They now have about 150 breadfruit trees growing on the parcel that are co-cropped in the canopy with things like kukui and ohiʻa ʻai (mountain apple). Heirloom bananas, noni, ʻawa and mamaki dominate the sub-canopy, while the ground cover includes crops like ʻolena (turmeric) and ʻawapuhi.

Although they are farming, this is more than a farm. It is a re-creation of a type of agricultural system used for centuries by our kūpuna. As such, it is also an educational site that welcomes visiting groups, and a research site where Lincoln and others can study things like nutrient cycling, water use efficiency, yields and labor.

“Ka ʻai nānā i luna; The food that requires looking up to.”

While not considered a “staple” food in Hawaiʻi as it is elsewhere in the Pacific, the humble ʻulu is remarkably versatile and easy to cultivate. It is also one of the highest yielding food plants in the world; a mature ʻulu tree can produce 300-500 lbs. of fruit per year. “If every home in Hawaiʻi had an ʻulu tree in their backyard, that would provide food security for those households should something happen,” Lincoln said.

ʻUlu can provide substitutions for an astounding range of currently imported products. For example, ʻulu can be roasted or used in stews as a potato substitute. It can be milled into flour to make breads, pasta and desserts; an entire baking industry could develop around ʻulu flour. And the baby fruit can be pickled. “From an import substitution and food security perspective, it’s huge,” noted Lincoln. “There are so many products you can make.”

It can also be grown almost anywhere in Hawaiʻi by anyone with a yard, no farming skills required. In addition to providing a nutritious and versatile food crop, the trees themselves contribute to carbon offset (reduction of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases), an important element in fighting climate change. It begs the question: as temperatures rise, why aren’t tropical food crops getting more traction?

“Governments and seed companies are spending billions of research dollars to make corn more adapted to warmer temperatures in anticipation of climate change,” sighed Lincoln. “Billions to adapt a temperate crop, when many Indigenous crops are already adapted to tropical conditions. If we had a billion dollars for breadfruit research, we could probably supplant corn in production.”

Leveraging Indigenous food crops like ʻulu to provide food security while supporting and diversifying our economy makes good sense. With conversations in Hawaiʻi’s government and private sectors increasingly focused on these issues, what will it take to reduce our dependency on imported foods?

“ʻAʻohe ʻulu e loaʻa i ka pōkole o ka lou; No breadfruit can be reached when the picking stick is too short.”

According to Lincoln, the solution isn’t just about getting farmers on the land – although making land available to small and mid-scale farmers is a critical part of the equation, and sufficient agricultural lands exist to support this. But farming is just the first step in the series of activities necessary to get locally grown food from farm to table.

“The mid-part of our food system value chain has been ignored,” said Lincoln. “We lack infrastructure – things like cold storage, certified kitchens for processing and product development, and machinery for canning or packaging. But we also lack organizational capacity: collaborative organizations, people or companies to handle the logistics of getting local food to market. The rapid proliferation and growth of local ʻfood hubs’ are trying to fill some of these gaps.”

Part of the problem is funding – only about 0.4% of the state’s annual budget goes to the Department of Agriculture. While investing in infrastructure and product development are key, Lincoln believes that, more than anything, Hawaiʻi needs strong leadership and the organizational capacity to help connect the dots within the food systems.

“We don’t need one-time, one-off programs that are singularly focused on one part of the system. We need strategic and systematic long-term investment in our entire food system. I really don’t think there’s any other solution.”

A strategic, coordinated agricultural system for Hawaiʻi would need to focus on starchy food plants like ʻulu. While Hawaiʻi farmers produce a fair bit of the fruits (about 60%) and vegetables (about 30%) consumed in the state, half of our daily calories come from starches and, according to Lincoln, Hawaiʻi produces less than 0.5% of the starches we consume.

Assuming substantial and sustained investment is made in all sectors of Hawaiʻi’s food systems, Lincoln believes that it will still take 10 to 20 years to achieve 50% local food production – not a quick fix, but still a significant improvement from our current food production rate of 10-15%. Hawaiʻi’s dependence on imported food did not happen all at once; regaining our food sovereignty will take time too.

In the meantime, if you have a yard, consider planting an ʻulu tree.