Farming at the Center of Molokai’s Identity

Here are some facts to consider: Molokai is unique in that agriculture is one of the main economic engines on the island, a fact stated by Bank of Hawaii Economist Paul Brewbaker at an Economic Summit on Molokai a few years ago. It creates more jobs and more revenue than tourism or any sector other than the service and government sectors. Revenue includes jobs created, services and supplies purchased, taxes, and products processed.

Farming is also the only industry that actually recharges the aquifer by returning most of the water back to the ground. That’s why this industry is so vital to the island. Even more vital are the food crop farmers. In the event this island should experience a disruption in our food supply, we have a better chance of survival on this little island in the middle of the sea.

If agriculture is in such bad shape, then why is it that each year, farmers have to cut back on their water use? This industry is experiencing growing pains. Water has become the major limiting factor in the expansion of agriculture on Molokai and, at over 2200+ acres, has reached its upper limit in the amount of acreage that can be kept in production at any given time, unless innovative ways are developed to conserve water. If agriculture weren’t viable, many farmers would have left Molokai to other islands, where large tracts of land are now available for farming. Even Larry Jefts keeps one foot on Molokai because we still have many competitive advantages over other farming areas.

There are many more opportunities in agriculture to create value-added products. The ‘multiplier effect’ is an economic term used to describe how value is added to a product. For example, fresh sweetpotato has a farm value of 85 cents per pound. Made into chips, its’ retail value jumps to over $15 per pound. Between 85 cents and $15, materials and supplies are purchased, jobs created, and raw materials processed along the way to create this product. All of this creates money for the state in the form on taxes, and also new jobs. This phenomenon is unique to agriculture and manufacturing.

The lifeline to the farming effort is the Molokai Irrigation System, for without it this industry wouldn’t exist. The system was built expressly for the homesteaders, but politics and race played into this decision, and the homesteaders were shortchanged. In order to allow for the construction of the MIS, the state had to set aside land for the non-homesteader, and 1/3 of the water was set aside for them. A land swap ensued, and 1,050 acres of Hawaiian Home Lands south of the airport was swapped with 243 acres in Waianae, considered at that time to be of comparable value. This is how the Molokai Agricultural Park was created.

Today, over 80% of the water is being used by non-homesteaders, and the real concern is when comes time to take the water back to the homesteads for expansion of agriculture, that the water will return without any major repercussions. If we start with a level field where everyone knows the rules, we shouldn’t have a problem.

Molokai Ranch bought out the Kaluakoi Hotel and remaining parcels in 1998, and did so mainly to secure the water from Well 17. They also assumed the agreement with the Department of Agriculture to transmit water from Well 17 in Kualapuu to Kaluakoi. But like its predecessors, Kaluakoi Corporation and Tokyo Kosan, Molokai Ranch has become a bad neighbor. Instead of carrying their own load, they have decided to lean on and take advantage of their neighbor’s goodwill by allowing their pumps to malfunction and fall into disrepair time and again.

This is not an isolated incident. In the last four years alone, from April 2003 to May 2006, the Molokai Ranch pump at Well 17 has broken down a total of 262 days. With the recent June-July 2007 breakdown of 36 days, this amounts to a total of 298 days that their pumps where broken and they weren’t putting water in the reservoir! Why bother when you can take advantage of the good will of your neighbor. The Hawaiian word for this is hana ‘ino. Good neighbors don’t keep leaning on others, and feeding off of them when they’re better off than their neighbors!

Moreover, this is a violation of the transmission agreement, which states that Molokai Ranch must put in water before they take out water, and are not allowed to store water in the reservoir. Molokai Ranch has shown the farmers they cannot be a responsible party to this agreement, which is why its surprising the farmers would even consider allowing this agreement to continue for 5 more years under more stringent conditions.

With all these water shenanigans, it’s quite understandable why homesteaders are so adamant about protecting their water. The above situation is only one reason. They know their Hawaiian Homes rights to this water. They’ve seen with their own eyes, and heard stories of their parents and grandparents struggles, of carrying water to their crops in buckets, of water only being available on certain days, and of droughts where the kupuna resorted to fasting and prayer so the rains would come to feed their parched crops. Of making poi palaoa (flour) and pumpkin poi to stretch the kalo poi when the weather made it difficult to grow or to make ends meet.

These are the things that you hold close to you and don’t take lightly, and they become a part of who you are, but more importantly, you learn from these struggles and experiences, hoping it never happens again, and that you don’t get used again. Red dirt is powdered gold, and the water that nourishes this red dirt is more valuable than gold. Over the last 26 years, I have heard these stories from the people who lived them, including Heine and Becky Mokuau, Johnny Pineapple Keohuloa, Danny and Louise Kekahuna, John Kaimikaua (the grandfather), James Wise, Kuamu Makaiwi Pelekai, my mother in law, Tilden Makaiwi Han, and others. Many of these individuals are gone, but their legacies live in their children, grandchildren, and ohana, many of whom are still farming today.

They grow banana and papaya, green onions, taro, sweetpotato, vegetables and fruits just like their forefather’s. They strive for self-sufficiency and live the dream of Prince Kuhio Kalanianaole in aina ho’opulapula, using their land to feed and teach their families, and produce more to sell. These are examples of perseverance, of resilience, and of beating all odds. These humble beginnings have bore fruit for many families, but they don’t talk about their successes because that’s not the Hawaiian way. They happily share with others, which make them the ‘richest’ people on this island due to their generosity.


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