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Homegrown Hawaii: Kauai Food Forest
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Homegrown Hawaii: Kauai Food Forest

September 7, 2017

On two acres on the north shore of Kauai, volunteers tend to more than a hundred species of fruits, vegetables, and other plants. They harvest food, but the site doesn’t look much like a farm. Rather than neat rows of crops delineated by bare dirt, layers of plants mimic a natural forest. Sweet potato vines provide ground cover, for instance. Cacao trees grow in the shade of canopy fruit trees such as lychee and breadfruit.

This is the Kauai Food Forest, started five years ago on land leased by Malama Kauai, a nonprofit striving for a sustainable Kauai. The Kauai Food Forest is designed on permaculture principles, which seek to emulate patterns in natural ecosystems. In addition to providing food, every plant has a purpose. Comfrey, an herb, helps suppress weeds and its leaves are a natural fertilizer. Pigeon pea shrubs are nitrogen fixers and can be pruned for mulch.

The site is part food basket, part seed bank and part educational site. Among its objectives is to develop a largely self-sustaining farm through community stewardship. Every Saturday, the public is invited to help maintain, harvest, and learn about the food forest.

It’s an opportunity to see “one of the many ways to do agriculture,” says Paul Massey, who helped spearhead and design the project and is the director of Regenerations Botanical Garden, another nonprofit involved in the venture. “It gives access to the right kind of plant diversity, right kind of fruit crops, and [knowledge on] how to plant them together for maximum benefit,” he says.

The plants at the Kauai Food Forest cover a broad spectrum, from “old culture varieties that have fallen out of use to brand new varieties people have never seen, in addition to common ones,” Massey says.

There are banana, papaya, and avocado trees as well as soursop, a spiny fruit with a sweet and creamy flesh, and jackfruit, which can grow up to 100 pounds, and be eaten green or ripe.

A number of the species planted in the forest are “canoe plants” — plants brought by early Polynesian explorers to Hawaii for food, medicine, and shelter. They include noni, a medicinal plant; ulu, or breadfruit, a highly productive tree and once a starchy staple for native Hawaiians; and kalo, or taro, one of the most culturally important and favored crops for Hawaiians. The Kauai Food Forest’s kalo collection now includes more than 20 varieties from across the Pacific.

“Every plant in the food forest has a story,” Massey says. “They came from all over the world, some came from different islands. Part of the joy of the food forest is that it connects people in a long-term way to this place.”

We love what the Kauai Food Forest is doing to help preserve the botanical heritage of our islands and educate the community about more sustainable ways to produce and enjoy local foods. Check out their Facebook group to see what they’re up to and find out about events and volunteer opportunities.