A Dream of Farming in Hawaii

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PHOTO: SKYE AND HOLLIS OSBORN
Skye and Hollis Osborn and Beverlie Beauclerk, say back-to-the-landers can find a place for themselves in the Pacific paradise too. Especially if they'll skip seven of the main islands that make up the state ... and head straight for the biggest: Hawaii itself!

Living and growing our own on farms in Idaho and Oregon was
better than staying cooped up in some city, you understand.
But a long siege of 20-below weather a few winters back
finally chilled our enthusiasm for even the country life
… if it had to be lived up north.

So our family of three (mother, father, and 10-year-old)
set out on a hunt for sunshine in our VW bus. And a month
later — after we’d sold the bus for plane fare — we
found it: in Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, in the state
of Hawaii.

Yes, Honolulu had sunshine all right … and magnificent
mountains and sandy beaches to curl our toes in. But it
also had freeways, traffic, high rents, and too much
cement.

“This is no place to raise a new baby,” we said (we had
just learned that our family of three was about to become
four). “And what about me?” our 10-year-old demanded. She
had a point too.

So we stored our non-essentials in three orange crates,
shouldered our packs, and began a search of our 50th
state’s outer islands. Five months, two islands, and a lot
of frustrations later, we found a small house on the island
of Hawaii.

Although it was situated alongside a spectacular river and
very close to the local medicine man (who agreed to join in
our home birth ritual), this new place we called home
still fell far short of being the small tropical
paradise — with gardens and goats — we wanted to
call our own. And, thanks to our stringent financial
condition, there seemed little chance we’d be able to
afford anything better as long as we stayed in Hawaii.

Then — just when we’d almost decided to pack up our
dreams and skulk back to another cold, wet winter in
Oregon — we got our big break. Some friends asked us to
take over their lease on two acres of land, complete with
two-bedroom house, two dogs, a cat, five chickens, and two
small gardens. Best of all, this little mid-Pacific
Shangri-La was really located out in the country too: seven
and a half miles from a small village and one and a half
miles up what darn near qualified as a road. How could we
resist?

Our long search for a mini-farmstead washed by warm trade
winds and bathed by the tropical sun was finally over,
nearly a year after it had started. Now it was time for the
hard work to begin!

The gardens we had inherited, although adequate for herbs
and legumes, were much too small for our grandiose plans
(we planned to eat all our meals straight out of the
vegetable patch). So we hauled in bigasse
— the crushed, leftover canes from which sugar has
been extracted — that the big mills out here are glad
to get rid of. When combined with good chicken manure,
compost, and whatever other organic material (maybe even a
little dirt) we can find lying around on the lava rock
which makes up most of our part of the island, this
vegetable matter eventually rots down into a decent,
workable soil.

We quickly discovered, however, that our mini-farming
experiences back in Idaho and Oregon had not really
provided us with an ounce of practical knowledge about the
growing of greenies in the equatorial zones of the world.
Especially on postage stampsized gardens. And particularly
when those tiny plots are endowed with very little actual
earth … but with a great deal of lava.

Only about one quarter of the seeds we planted bothered to
come up. And either the bugs ate the resulting plants, or
they grew up so spindly that we quickly became too
embarrassed to even mention the word “garden” to our
friends. Obviously we were doing something wrong. Maybe
even eight or nine things.

So we swallowed our pride, invited in every neighbor who
had a successful vegetable patch, and picked their brains.
And eventually we began to understand what agriculture a la
Hawaii was all about.

One of our worst mistakes, we soon realized, had been in
overlooking the importance of our soil’s depth.
(We had been so anxious to have a large garden we
had failed to notice that the earth in part of the plot was
actually too thin to even cover the roots of a
self-respecting radish!)

But that problem — once recognized — was easy
enough to solve with a little sweat. We simply picked up
slabs of lava (they’re free for the hauling alongside most
bulldozed-out back roads) and used them to build dry rock
walls around our new — and smaller — vegetable patch. Then we
shoveled all the soil we could scrape up into the tidier
plot (to a depth readily capable of growing 10-foot-tall
corn … no need to be pessimistic) and stood back and
admired the calluses on our hands.

We also started all our new seeds in flats (thus saving our
garden’s precious soil for just the plants that sprouted
and also making it possible for us to “succession plant”
more crops into the vegetable plot every year).

Next we threw out the straight, well-spaced rows of the
traditional produce patch in favor of “cram as many plants
as possible into every available square inch” intensive
gardening. And, as we transferred each of the sprouted sets
into our walled plot, we placed a large quantity of both
“boughten” organic fertilizer and ground shells under it.

By this time our scant supply of vegetable-growing dirt had
become as precious to us as gold and we wasted none of it
on weeds. The unwelcome intruders were pulled and fed to
the chickens … who kindly knocked off the little soil
sticking to the volunteer plants, shredded and ate the
weeds, and then mixed their resulting droppings into the
stray amounts of earth to make a rich additive that we put
back on the garden. Nice chickens.

We have, perhaps, taken this “stretching” of “five cents
worth of dirt into a thousand-dollar garden” to its logical
extreme with our use of old rubber tires. By removing one
sidewall of a discarded hulk, turning its tread inside,
placing the carcass on bare rock, filling it with soil, and
planting seven or eight heads of lettuce inside … we’ve
reached just about the ultimate in growing much with little
soil.

And has all this effort paid off? Only so well that we’ve
become downright obnoxious about our homegrown vegetables.
“See,” we tell our visiting friends. “See how prolific our
tiny patches are. See how the baby gobbles the produce with
enthusiasm. See, see, see.”

Of course, now that we’ve learned to garden on little more
than the bare lava rock which covers some areas of Hawaii,
we’re becoming even more anxious to give up our leased two
acres and buy a little piece of our own of this paradise.
(A piece with real soil on it. Yes, such tracts of
land — although expensive — are available.)

In the meantime, we glean all the information we can from
hitchhikers, librarians, postal workers, gardeners, and
local people about the 4,038 square miles of this big
island. There’s honest-to-goodness desert, rain forest,
mountains (two 13,000-foot-tall volcanoes — Mauna Loa
and Mauna Kea — are even capped by winter snows), and
cultivated farmlands here and we want to learn all we can
about them while our “land purchase” pennies pile up in the
bank.

Luckily for us, the parcels of land for sale that we find
most desirable (the bigger lots that are farthest from the
main highways) … are also the least expensive! And, since
the local power company now charges $1,300 to set in a
single utility pole, the chances of suburbia
encroaching on the “outback,” unelectrified homestead of
our dreams seems relatively slim during the next few
decades. We’re quite content with this state of affairs.
And — with patience, persistence, and hard
labor — we’ll soon be able to purchase our own small
chunk of this heaven with the hope that it’ll remain
unspoiled as long as we live.

As we look for “just the right place” we, of course, keep
some very typically Hawaiian considerations uppermost in
our minds:

There is more old lava rock on this island than most
malihinis (newcomers) ever imagine, and we want to
be sure that the land we buy is covered with a thick layer
of real dirt.

Nor has there been an end to the formation of that lava!
This is a new island — alive and growing — and
Pele , the goddess of the volcano, is still
active. One must think about rift zones and possible future
flows of lava when he or she scouts for property out here.

And, new or old, all that rock lying immediately under
Hawaii’s surface rules out the possibility of the
inexpensively drilled, deep, fresh water wells that are so
common on the U.S. mainland. The rain, however, falls
abundantly and consistently from remarkably unpolluted
skies and it’s not difficult to channel that precipitation
from a roof or other catchment into 55-gallon drums, a
swimming pool, an old-fashioned wooden water tank, or some
other large container.

“But,” write our mainland friends as they shiver in the
winter snows that we’ve left far behind, “doesn’t it cost a
lot more to live out there? Isn’t everything dreadfully
expensive?”

“Well now,” we reply, “that depends.”

Super consumerism is indeed expensive here. But who needs
to be a super consumer in Hawaii anyway? The baby lives in
diapers (he wears a T-shirt for dress-up occasions) and the
rest of us are nearly as informal. Ninety-nine-cent rubber
thongs (zoris) are the preferred footwear of
almost every kamaaina (old-timer) out here unless
he or she spends a great deal of time climbing around on
lava (and Army surplus work boots are just the ticket for
that). “Good” shoes are reserved for state occasions.

Supermarket fare, we’ll admit, can be a little dear. But
then, we don’t shop in such places anyway. Most of our
vegies and fruits come from the garden … and we get the
rest from a food co-op at a maximum 10 to 15 percent markup
over wholesale cost.

All in all, we figure our living expenses here on the Big
Island about equal to what we’d spend day to day back on
the mainland. Which means we’re getting 365 days a year of
above-65 degree Fahrenheit weather, trade winds, sunshine, and tropical
afternoon showers thrown in for free.

And that’s why our dreams of a hand-built castle on our own
little piece of land out here in the middle of the Pacific
just keep right on growing as fast (a foot a day) as the
12-foot-tall bean vines in our backyard!


Kona Coffee

If we were to cut the six-foot-tall grass that hides most
of our coffee trees, prune the trees as we should in
January, and otherwise restore our mini-plantation … our
cash coffee crop from these three acres should be worth
about $3,000 a year.

The trees bloom in February and, by May, are covered with
rows of tiny green berries. These berries ripen at various
rates of speed and each must be handpicked when it turns
red. It takes five pounds of the red berries to produce
just one pound of the dark coffee beans you’ve seen in the
grocery store.

Kona coffee trees grow eight to ten feet tall and a small
(three-step) ladder is generally used to reach each tree’s
topmost branches. As the berries are plucked, they’re
dropped into a handwoven lauhata basket that is strapped to
the picker’s waist.

The harvested berries are soaked, then pulped, to remove
their flesh and expose the actual coffee “beans” …
which are really double seeds in the center of each berry.
The beans are then spread out to dry in open sheds that
have sliding roofs which may be pulled over the coffee to
protect it during each afternoon’s rain.

Once the beans are dry, their thin but tough husks must be
removed, and this is usually done with a mechanized husker
at a co-op mill. The green, husked beans are either packed
for shipment to the mainland at this point … or roasted,
packaged, and sold locally.

Taro

Taro (a tropical plant of the arum family) produces a
starchy, tuberous root that local Big Island people eat
about as frequently as mainlanders eat potatoes.

The tubers can be purchased in the supermarkets out here
and, when planted, will grow and multiply like the roots of
a lily. It’s then a simple matter to cut off new bulbs as
they’re created and either eat them … or replant them to
increase the size of a taro patch. You can also cut all but
one-half inch of root from a stalk, eat the root, replant
the stalk (after pruning off the main part of the plant)
… and then watch the little stub grow into a healthy
plant — complete with edible roots! — again.

Several varieties of taro grow here and all contain oxalic
acid, an irritant which penetrates the skin and throat like
particles of fiberglass. (Some wild taro contains so much
of this acid that, even when cooked, its leaves and roots
can be fatal.) So, although it’s no big deal, it is
necessary to break down the crystals of oxalic acid by
cooking all taro before it’s eaten … and it’s a good idea
to be able to identify the most popular varieties of the
plant if you want to feast on them.

Dasheen (Japanese taro) has small bulbs, is rich in
carbohydrates and proteins, is usually steamed, and tastes
a bit like boiled plantain (cooking bananas). One of our
Japanese neighbors makes shoyu (local name for soy
sauce) chicken by cooking dasheen, green beans, and chicken
in a sauce of shoyu, sugar, and ginger.

Tahitian taro is grown for its small, tender leaves
which — though acrid when raw — are delicious If
cooked like spinach.

Mana taro is well named. It grows so prolifically that it’s
like manna from heaven. The roots of this variety often
weigh five pounds or more and, although they can be used in
any recipe that calls for potatoes, they’re usually eaten
as poi.

Poi, perhaps, can be described as a thin, pink, mashed
potato paste … but with a sweeter, distinctive flavor of
its own. It’s made by steaming, boiling, or baking taro
until a chopstick can be run through the root. The taro is
then mashed and a little water at a time is added until
just the right consistency is reached. (Some people prefer
to dip poi with one finger, others with two, still others
with three fingers. And Hawaiian cooks vary their recipes
accordingly.) We think that the nicest way to eat mane taro
is as two-finger, three-day poi popped into the mouth
simultaneously with a bits of roasted wild kalua
pig.

Hawaiian Coffee Plantation

Tropical homesteading on a three-acre coffee plantation on
the Kona Coast of Hawaii. What a wonderful way to live!

My husband and I are comfortably “settled in” only two
miles from beautiful white sand beaches and emerald water
alive with multi-colored fish. Exotic ripe fruits fall
invitingly at our feet each evening as we watch a different
(and brilliant) Pacific sunset. And, perhaps best of all,
it costs us only $75 a month to lease our little paradise!

No, many would-be Big Island settlers are not as fortunate
as we’ve been. They come out here, pay $250 a month for an
apartment, spend a year looking around for a few acres of
coffee-growing land, never quite find what they want, and
finally give up and go back to the mainland. Others (such
as ourselves), however, seem to find what they’re seeking
right away. Maybe because they’re searching for something
just a little different than what they left back home.

The house we’re living in, for instance, is old and
tin-roofed and termite-ridden. It has no plumbing and our
privy is an outhouse nestled back in a nearby banana grove.

But the place is huge (it once accommodated a
mill, a store, and living quarters). And we
do have electricity. And our large redwood holding
tank (which catches the rain that falls on our corrugated
roof) is always full. And we don’t really
mind carrying water into the house in five-gallon jugs. And
we have installed a kitchen sink that drains to a
lychee tree in the yard. And we do enjoy our
ofuro (the traditional heated Japanese bath) and a
cold outdoor shower which feels good on most of our
summer-like days.

Mango, papaya, lychee, banana, avocado, grapefruit, orange,
mountain apple, and macadamia nut trees surround the
house… as do raspberry and passion fruit vines and guava
bushes. The kitchen garden — which has been growing
wild for years — yields sweet potatoes and several varieties
of taro. And enough coffee trees still bear on this
long-neglected old plantation to allow us to experiment
with home-roastedand-ground beans for breakfast.

No, the life we now live is certainly not for everyone. But
we have only to bite into the ambrosia of a sun-warmed
mango or dive into the sparkling waters of a friendly
neighborhood lagoon to reassure ourselves that it
is the life for us. Especially at a base cost of
only $75 a month!

Hawaii Real Estate and Fee Simple

Much of the land in Hawaii is held in large family estates.
And, since the local tax structure makes it a money-losing
proposition to sell acreage in small blocks, it has become
common to lease land out in three- to five-acre parcels.
The leases often run for 50 years, and require the
lessee to farm his or her parcel and make annual
improvements on it.

The government is currently considering a law under which
this leased land would be condemned, taken over, and sold
to each lessee at a fair market value. In the meantime,
there’s a moratorium on the renewal of leases or the
issuing of new ones.

Which means that about the only way you can get onto a
piece of Big Island land right now is by finding someone
who wants to give away or sell an existing lease. Lessees,
for instance, are currently selling their rights to
five-acre tracts for about $10,000 … which is really a
pretty good deal if there are 40 years or so left on the
lease.

On the other hand, if you’re determined to
buy — rather than lease — a chunk of Big Island
land, you can sometimes purchase such acreage (it’s called
“fee simple” land) if you’re willing to look long and hard
… and then shell out $30,000 an acre. And that’s why most
of us out here settle for leasing instead of buying.

One further tip: You’re definitely ahead of the
game — no matter whether you buy or lease — if the
land you settle on already boasts some sort of satisfactory
dwelling. Hawaii’s current building codes are very similar
to those in effect in California (in other words, they’re
tough ), and they’re diligently
enforced.

Kona Coast Tropical Fruits

GUAVA: Grows on large bushes. The skin of
the fruit is soft and yellow. The meat inside has a pink,
firm texture, is tart, and contains a great deal of vitamin
C. Guavas can be eaten fresh and guava juice is
commercially canned and widely sold.

LYCHEE: Harvested from large trees. The
fruit is red and has a leathery texture. The sweet and
almondy flesh inside is somewhat grape-like.

MANGO: This peach-like fruit grows on
large trees and tastes like an exotic apricot. Mangoes can
be eaten while still green and crisp or after they’ve become ripe, sweet, and soft. Locals prefer them soaked in
soy sauce, sugar, and ginger while the mangoes are still
green.

PAPAYA: This delicious fruit grows in
bunches spiraled around the tops of the trunks of
20-foot-tall, house plantlike trees. Papayas are a very
mellow orange-ish yellow when ripe. The fruit’s meat has a
texture and flavor very much like a cantaloupe melon …
but different. Papaya seeds, which form in the fruits’
hollow centers, look like fish eggs.

PASSION FRUIT: This little delicacy is
borne an climbing vines and is eaten after it has dropped
to the ground. Passion fruit’s amber-colored skin is hard.
Eating the fruit is something like sucking an egg …
except that the flavor of this “egg” can best be described
as “an explosion of aromatic flowers” in your
mouth.