For Chris Kobayashi and her husband, Dimi Rivera, it all started with Japanese cucumbers. “In 1997 we said, ‘OK, let’s grow Japanese cucumbers, but let’s grow it organically,’” Kobayashi tells me as we walk around her farm in Hanalei Bay on Kauai’s North Shore. “You know, because they are crispy, crunchy, and yummy and you can eat the skin and everything,”
The couple knew that it would be a tough vegetable to grow. Cucumbers are prone to extensive damage from fruit flies in Hawaii. So they covered every single cucumber that came up with plastic bags. “We’d charge a dollar for each at the farmers market,” says Kobayshi. “We set up a sign on that said ‘Japanese Cucumbers, $1.’ We offered samples and people got hooked because it’s so crunchy. Then they started asking, 'Do you have any kale?' I was like, ‘Kale? What is that?’ So that’s how we started growing other kinds of veggies. It was just all an organic thing that happened. None of this was planned.” Today, Kobayashi’s family’s 10-acre Waioli Farm, named after the stream that runs beside it, grows produce using organic practices — mainly taro, which they supply to families and traditional poi (taro paste) makers on Oahu and the Big Island, but also some fruits and vegetables for their local farmers market stand.
Kobayashi, whose family has been growing taro commercially for generations, is a member of Hawaii SEED, a coalition of grassroots citizen groups and food activists that promotes ecological food and farming in Hawaii. I met with her when I went to Hawaii to report on the growing citizens’ movement against the genetically modified seed industry in the islands. (Read my in-depth story on the issue here.) To be more specific, I met with her, and several other small-scale farmers on Kauai and Oahu, in an effort to understand whether there were indeed any viable alternatives to industrial-style farming in Hawaii. Could this remote island chain, which currently imports nearly 90 percent of its food, transition to growing enough food to feed itself though small-scale, agroecological farming?