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october 2010 Minimag

- Ka Lamakua Mini Mag

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A note from the author You need to get to know your food. For something so necessary to our own survival, we spend a lot of time making sure that we don’t have to think about what we eat, where it comes from, how it gets to you, how it is made, or whether or not you should make it yourself. We live in a world where almost 30 million people log onto the internet plantations of FarmVille daily to click on virtual cows and electronic ears of corn, yet the United States Census Bureau says our nation only has a few more than 2.1 million real-life farms. And in our nation of over 285 million people, only about 2 million people grow food for a living. Less than one percent.

The United States is one of the richest countries in the world with a GDP in 2008 of over $14.59 trillion, yet we have to get Jamie Oliver to come from across the pond to show us that American six year-olds can’t tell the difference between tomatoes and potatoes. It used to be that if you were fat it meant you knew food well. Now people connect fatness with poverty. The poorer you are, the more likely it is that your nutrition will suffer. People talk about an obesity epidemic, but people aren’t getting fat because they’re cooking more and more. Cooking is anything but a spectator sport. The shiftless need not apply.

If anything, we are getting collectively unhealthier as a nation because there is a disconnect between us and what we eat. To fix that disconnect we need to not only take charge of our food between the time we buy it and the time we eat it but we also need to become more aware of where our food comes from, how it’s produced, who produces it and why. If we can do that – if we can really get to know our food – we will be that much closer to being able to take responsibility for what we put in ourselves.

Chris Mikesell

Right: A woman stops in front of the fruit stand at the Campus Center vegetable market while it is being set up. The market, open on Tuesday and Friday mornings in front of the ATM machines at Campus Center, provides students with a way to get fresh, sometimes even local produce without having to leave campus. Cover: Members of Ted Radovich’s TPSS 220 Organic Agriculture class venture through the forests of Waiahole to get to the Reppuns’ taro farm. 2

Ka Lamakua Mini Mag - Oct 2010

Oct 2010 - Ka Lamakua Mini Mag

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waiahole wizards Two taro-farming brothers on the windward side are making sustainable agriculture work off the grid - an effort that has its own special challenges and rewards. story and photos by Chris Mikesell

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Ka Lamakua Mini Mag - Oct 2010

Oct 2010 - Ka Lamakua Mini Mag

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G

etting to the Reppun Farm in Waiahole requires a mile-long hike from the nearest roadway, across the foothills of the windward side, through dense, dim forests and over a stream two feet deep with the help of a pair of one and a half foot wide wooden planks of questionable stability. Not enough to drown in or even swim in, but just enough to ruin any electronics that fall from the most precarious two foot drop in Waiahole. Before Oahu Sugar came to the Leeward side of Oahu and built the Waiahole irrigation system in the late 1890’s, the river our class crossed to visit the Reppuns had been three times as deep. But the irrigation system built by Oahu Sugar siphoned off, on average, 27 million gallons of water a day. When Oahu Sugar left in 1995, people on the Leeward side still wanted the water that the company had diverted over the last hundred years. Leeward developers and corporate farms wanted the water to continue flowing, but Charlie and his brother Paul, among other Waiahole activist farmers, are still fighting to return the water to their two foot deep stream in Waiahole valley.

Opposite: Charlie Reppun speaks to students in Ted Radovich’s TPSS 220 Organic Agriculture class in the middle of a grove of papaya trees. Unlike most of the papaya grown in Hawaii, which has been genetically engineered to resist the papaya ringspot virus, Reppun’s papayas are organic, GMO-free varieties. The green basket serves as a mobile chicken coop, providing the Reppuns an organic form of weed and pest control. Previous page: Paul and Charlie Reppun look over their seven-acre farm in Waiahole from the top of a hill while giving students a tour.

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Ka Lamakua Mini Mag - Oct 2010

Oct 2010 - Ka Lamakua Mini Mag

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Right: Paul Reppun tells students about the relationship between his lo’i and the Waiahole Poi Factory. Run by his wife, Laurie, the factory employs about eight full-time workers and accepts help from others who come to see the lo’i or the factory and want to try their hand at making poi. Paul grows a Hawaiian varietal of taro used mainly for its corm but says that a different Chinese varietal is often used for things like luau leaf and taro chips. Flow from the lo’i powers several small hydroelectric plants that power the farm along with a few solar panels. Below: Charlie Reppun shows off the farm’s batch roaster. Built from a repurposed windshield wiper motor, the roaster allows them to do post-harvest processing of the cacao and coffee they grow on their Waiahole farm.

The Reppun brothers make their living at their farm past that stream, off the grid (powered by a couple of solar panels and four hydroelectric plants) amongst the sparse houses and hand-painted signs protesting development that pepper the Waiahole valley. Paul and Charlie Reppun farm organically, though they were farming organically long before organic became the buzzword it is today in 8

Ka Lamakua Mini Mag - Oct 2010

grocery stores. The water that was being diverted to the Leeward side to grow the water-intensive sugar cane of Oahu Sugar a hundred years ago has ebbed and flowed, but enough of the original volume has been returned to allow the Reppuns to grow their own waterintensive crop. “The kalo, they only like grow in cold running water,” says Paul, his arm sweeping across his farm’s

taro patch. “You grow ‘em in standing water, let the water warm up and all you’ll get is rot.” This taro, he says, is for poi production at his wife’s poi factory down the road – to grow for the luau leaf, he says, you have to plant the Chinese stuff. Picking the leaves of these kalo, he says, hurts the plant. You can tell Chinese taro by its purple fibers in the root – when

you buy taro chips from the store, Paul says, they’re all made from Chinese stock. The Chinese variety has fewer of the irritating crystals of calcium oxalate that make taro itchy. They cook out easy. Just slice them and fry them, he says. Grate ‘em into a patty. It’s how the Reppuns feed themselves: Taro fast food. A lot of the other crops on the

Reppun farm end up filling the farmers as well as their wallets. Besides taro, their main crop, the Reppuns also grow guava, breadfruit, papaya, Surinam cherry, mountain apples, cacao and coffee. Those last two they process on site – pulping and fermenting the beans before roasting them by hand a few pounds at a time. One crop they can’t sell, however, is corn. The Reppun brothers grow

a variety of dry corn that they then grind into flour at their on-site mill. It’s local, organic and delicious if they can get to it before their chickens do. But it’s hard to call it sustainable when they can’t sell their crop at a competitive price – part of sustainability and survival as a farmer is making sure that your farm is economically viable. Oct 2010 - Ka Lamakua Mini Mag

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Opposite: Charlie Reppun’s corn is worth about $8 a pound when it’s milled to make cornbread, but his local cornmeal can’t compete with $2/pound corn from the mainland. Near Left: A student from Ted Radovich’s TPSS 220 Organic Agriculture class takes notes on a banana plant infected with the bunchy top virus. Infected specimens are brittle, and growwithered fruit.

to the end consumer than roasted beans. The cocoa nibs Paul and Charlie produce are more valuable than raw cacao. To Paul Reppun, value-added products are the key to making sustainable, community-oriented agriculture work. A farming community, he says, isn’t just a farmer and the goats that cut his grass – it’s having, for example, a commercial kitchen that can take that agricultural product and make it into something new. “Value-added stuff puts people to work in the community,” says Paul. He harvests the taro, and his wife Laurie and her regular crew of eight clean the taro by hand and mill it by machine.

“You can go down to Kokua Market or Down to Earth and get organic corn flour from Iowa for less than two dollars a pound, but if we were to sell ours here, for what it costs us to grow, it would be more than four times that,” Charlie says, as he cradles a pair of ears in his hands. Because of national farm subsidies and low oil prices, says Charlie, it is cheaper for a farmer on the mainland to grow corn and ship it to Hawaii for sale than it is for the Reppuns to grow, mill and sell their own corn here. 10

Ka Lamakua Mini Mag - Oct 2010

“For us to actually make money on corn,” Paul jokes, “the economy would have to collapse, at least to the point where we can’t afford to subsidize corn and have cheap oil. We’re hoping it happens sooner rather than later.” The economic viabilty of a small farm like the Reppuns’ is dependent on more than just what they grow – it’s also about they do with their product. Taro is taro, but poi is a value-added product that consumers are willing to pay more for. This is true for their other products as well: green coffee is less useful

She says that most of the people who come to work at the Waiahole Poi Factory come from Kaneohe and Kahaluu, with a few of their relatives coming from the Waiahole area to help make poi on a regular basis. Some people come to see the farm and end up coming back to learn about the process, most stay from a few days to a few weeks. But her regulars stay on – continuing to mill the poi that flows out of Waiahole. “A lot of people come to make poi,” Laurie says. “It’s a social thing. We hang out, we talk story. They want to learn, they want to see what’s going on. “But whether they come or not, the work is still gonna get done.” • Oct 2010 - Ka Lamakua Mini Mag

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Ka Lamakua Mini Mag - October 2010