Kohala’s Backyard Revolutionaries

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In quiet Kohala, the seeds of a revolution are being sown.

But this is no ordinary revolution. It is being led by beloved Kohala kūpuna David and Carol Fuertes, and their weapons of choice are encouragement, education, empowerment and farm equipment.

Photo: David and Carol Fuertes
Carol and David Fuertes – Courtesy

This energetic husband and wife team are outspoken proponents of food sovereignty who walk their talk. Ten years ago, they founded Kahua Paʻa Mua, a nonprofit that focuses on ʻāina-based education for youth and adults in North Kohala. Together, they and their staff are teaching their neighbors traditional and modern farming techniques, animal husbandry and agricultural entrepreneurship.

“It was our dream to create a nonprofit to train people interested in the ag industry,” shared Carol. “Kohala is rich in Hawaiian culture. The ways they made use of the land from the mountains to the ocean is what we are trying to bring back to these young people; to have them realize that they can feed themself and their family from the ʻāina. They just need the know-how, the skills and the experience. That’s what we are trying to teach them.”

“In pre-contact Kohala there were over 30,000 people living here. They were self-sufficient. They fed themselves. There was no Costco, right?” laughed David. “We were always agricultural people.”

Kahua Paʻa Mua has two core programs – ʻOhana Agricultural Resilience (OAR) and the Hoʻokahua ʻAi (HA) mentorship program. The goal of OAR is to train residents of North Kohala to grow food for themselves and their community. Instruction is family-based and includes everyone from keiki to kūpuna.

“Our mantra includes four things,” said David. “Number one, know where you come from. Two, know your values, what you believe in. Three, know your purpose, what drives you. And four, choose your destiny. We share that mantra with all our participants.”

Working with cohorts of 10 families at a time, they teach them everything from crop cultivation and Natural Farming techniques, to equipment use and repair, to animal husbandry and aquaponics. Each family is given two 100-foot rows on the farm to plant whatever they want. Families that complete all required training sessions receive a free backyard aquaponics system, a Natural Farming odorless pig pen system, or a chicken tractor.

David says that the process of growing food and learning to feed themselves and their families has a huge impact on people. “The cohorts become a microcosm of the larger community. Sharing their produce with one another and giving to the community brings them together.”

During the pandemic this has been especially important. Food grown by OAR participants has contributed to the kūpuna meals program in North Kohala. Kahua Paʻa Mua was one of more than 30 nonprofits across the pae ʻāina awarded a grant from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, administered by the Hawaiʻi Community Foundation this past summer.

Grant recipients were selected based on their ability to address pandemic-related food needs while integrating aloha ʻāina, sustainability and local agriculture into their programs. Since the pandemic began, Kahua Paʻa Mua has provided thousands of pounds of meat and produce raised on their farms to support the kūpuna meals program, local food baskets, and community food boxes.

One thing that sets Kahua Paʻa Mua apart is their adaptation of Korean Natural Farming – which they refer to as Natural Farming. “In a nutshell, we make our own fertilizer,” said David. All they purchase to make their fertilizer is brown sugar and brown rice vinegar. Then, using things like shoots from their plants, fruit, fish offal, beef bones, eggshells and rice they are able to create nitrogen, calcium and microbes to nourish their plants. From this they grow an indigenous microorganism that helps to build up their soil. It is complex science that requires multi-step processes.

The work of Kahua Paʻa Mua takes place in two locations. One is a 5-acre parcel at Hōʻea where their Learning Lab is located. There, they teach Natural Farming methods for growing kalo, fruit and vegetables, and for raising pigs and chickens. The other site is a 5-acre parcel in Kapanaia where, in addition to farming, they plan to establish what they are calling “KAPA” (Kohala Agricultural Processing Area), that will include a certified kitchen and a vegetable processing area. They are also in the process of completing a certified imu that will be Department of Health regulated.

“People don’t realize that the hardest thing in agriculture is processing. We can grow good vegetables but if we cannot process it to get it to market that is a big puka,” explained David. “The idea is to create a processing area so we can increase our yields and then make value-added products.”

In order for farmers to get their products to market, they must be processed in a certified kitchen – even raw fruits and vegetables must be washed in certified kitchens. Without access to certified kitchens, “farm to table” is not possible. Currently there are only three certified kitchens available for public use on Hawaiʻi Island – in Hilo, Kona and Honokaʻa – all of which represent a one-way drive of an hour or more for Kohala residents.

Not everyone wants to farm as a vocation, but the Fuertes believe everyone can and should grow food for their own consumption. This belief drives their “backyard revolution.”

“We want to be 50% sustainable, meaning when we look at our plates, that 50% of the food we are eating is from Kohala and that we know where our food comes from,” David emphasized.

Added Carol, “We’re trying to make sure people know how to grow their own food. We were both raised in the plantation era and we always had a garden and animals. I think if people realize that they don’t have to go to the store and buy things, that they can produce their own food, they feel safer.

“Then they don’t have to rely on the barges coming in or worry about the price of food they cannot afford anymore. What we’re trying to do in our own community is a small start, but hopefully it will catch on and spread throughout the state.”

The Fuertes don’t believe that living in the country or having a yard is a prerequisite for growing your own food.

“During the Great Depression they had what was called square-foot gardening – just a small little area where people planted,” shared David. “You can be living in an apartment or condominium and grow food on your balcony.

“For those of us who are deeply engaged in our culture, we need to look to our kūpuna and remember that first and foremost they fed themselves. Music and art and dance are important. But what is culture without agriculture?”