Ka’u: Rural, Resilient, Relevant

We are very pleased to publish this extraordinary piece by our first guest writer Michelle Galimba. She kicks off our current exploration of food system issues – hearing from women on the frontline. She grows food interviewed Michelle for our profiles on women food growers. She is a scholar, writer, rancher, mom, and a valuable voice for food system recovery here in Hawaii.

I live in the district of Ka’u on the southern end of Hawai’i Island. It is one of the more remote, sparsely populated areas in Hawai’i. There are two small ex-plantation towns, Na’alehu and Pahala, and several sprawling sixties era “agricultural” subdivisions. The traditionally designed towns are pleasant places to live – walk-able communities with an organic feel to them; imbued with the character of the open space around them and by the agricultural activities, both past and present, that brought these communities into being. The subdivisions have very little infrastructure, no town centers, and are extremely auto-dependent in design. It is really striking to see the way in which land use decisions in the past and community design shape our lives.

The sugar plantation shut down in 1996 and the transition has been long, difficult, and ongoing. When I first moved back here it seemed like the only time the media took notice of Ka’u was as the poster community for the devastation caused by ice and other drugs. Most people were driving one or two hours to a resort for work. The community was very much out of balance.

Right from the start, there were ex-plantation workers that were looking for ways to make the transition. They planted coffee or tried other diversified crops. They started ranches on the land that had once been used for sugar-cane. The macadamia nut orchards have continued right through, although they have weathered some really difficult times with low prices for macadamias.

The Ka’u coffee farmers really struggled too. There probably wouldn’t be Ka’u coffee industry without the help of Senator Dan Inouye’s RETA-H (Rural Economic Transition Assistance – Hawaii) grant program. However even with that help getting started there was not much of a market for Ka’u coffee. Even though their coffee was always very good it had no identity. It wasn’t Kona but it cost as much as Kona to produce, and the farmers were having a lot of trouble selling their coffee.

Over the last five years or so there has been an ongoing effort to brand Ka’u coffee, mostly using “guerilla” marketing techniques, since the farmers don’t have money for an expensive traditional marketing campaign. They entered their coffee in international cupping contests, they started a Ka’u coffee festival, they got help in getting media attention for their accomplishments. The state and county of Hawaii have helped out with marketing grants, and they have gotten the support of the community behind them and their product. Now they are getting much better prices for their coffee and have no trouble selling it. They worked together to do this, as an industry. It wasn’t easy, there were a lot of bumps along the way, but slowly they have built a brand for their coffee and viable businesses for themselves.

Branding, which is a form of communication, has been very important in bringing local beef to local markets as well. Our ranch has created a brand to tell its story, and there are several other local beef brands that are helping to transform our industry towards a more locally-supported, diversified business model. It really goes against the grain of most people in agriculture, to be promoting oneself rather shamelessly, but it’s what we need to do. We need to communicate what it is that we do, so that the public can see the value in our products and how they differ from products that are imported. This is how we can create vibrant agricultural businesses and strengthen our rural communities.

To be honest I have to say that the macadamia nut company and the coffee farmers have had to use imported labor to harvest their fields because the locals will not do that work. Finding people that fit on the team at our ranch is really difficult, too. This says volumes about our cultural attitudes towards agricultural labor. It’s amazing how powerful the stories that we tell ourselves are, and how unconscious we are of that power, for good or ill.

The story about rural communities and the work that goes on there generally is cast as: backwards, boring, low-class, poor, demeaning, repressive, unsophisticated, comical. That’s the story that we’ve lived with for as long as I can remember. It’s very difficult for young people to feel good about working in agriculture or to stick around in a rural community when they get negative feedback continually from the culture at large.

On the other hand, in the last few years, there are good things starting to happen in rural communities around the state because of an ongoing cultural shift which has manifested, among other things, in consumer demand for local food. The market for locally grown produce and meats has been and continues to be key towards building a more diversified, resilient agriculture in Hawaii. It is really an exciting time to be in agriculture. Although it’s still a difficult, risky way to make a living, at least there is more social support; there is a story being told that is supportive of agriculture and rural communities.

My experience of living in a rural community is of deep multi-generational relationships among people, plants, animals, and the land itself; of lives lived in direct contact with forest and ocean; of a relatively egalitarian and unregimented society; of people rich in the skills of subsistence and nurturing life.

In some ways the most important element in revitalizing a rural community is to change the story that people tell themselves and that they hear from those around them. It’s not something that requires much money, however it is not without difficulty. We’re used to our stories. It’s hard to let go of our mistakes, even when they are bringing us down. And it’s not as if only rural communities need to change the story they tell themselves. It’s equally true for urban or suburban communities.

To me the crux of the change lies in how we imagine and relate to life, to the life within us and around us. Do we continue to devalue and deny the fact that we are highly dependent, both physically and psychologically, upon the great web of life that brought us into being? Dependent upon but also highly responsible for? With every privilege comes responsibility and we have taken great privileges. Now we would be wise to use our ingenuity to build a civilization that nurtures life, rather than exploiting it.

This is where women have something very important to offer civilization at this juncture. Whether our difference is culturally constructed or actually hardwired into our physiology, in any case, we are less aggressive and more nurturant in our emotional, and therefore intellectual, tendencies. We have a big responsibility in helping to make the shift towards a less aggressive, more ecologically balanced civilization.

Our rural communities are resources for this shift as well. It’s not that we need to go backwards, but that we need to seek out alternatives to our current structures and ways of life. Rural communities have been quietly negotiating the impact and opportunities of modern and post-modern civilization without losing contact with the biosphere, and those skills, practices, and values are important resources for the change in story that our civilization needs to make.

Michelle Galimba
Kuahiwi Ranch, Naalehu, Hawai’i

More about Michelle and Ka’u:

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5 Responses to “Ka’u: Rural, Resilient, Relevant”

  1. Michelle, this is excellent! I am sharing it in other venues!

  2. Millie May says:

    excellent article. I remember when I lived on a very large cattle ranch in Wyoming and women were not allowed in the field but told our job was to have babies and keep our spouses happy. Michelle is an example of how women have always participated in the growing of food – following in the footsteps of our grandmothers.

  3. Gail Armand says:

    Excellent and meaningful article, Michelle. I wish for all of us, for Hawaii ne, and for the health of all our people that the stories that bind us to the land become the stories we use to define ourselves, more and more.

    Now that I am not living in Volcano anymore, I miss seeing you at the market, and miss your delicious meats.

    much aloha.

  4. Aloha Michelle…

    We’d love to host you and your `ohana in Wai`anae….

    I was struck by your omission regarding agriculture labor in your community “To be honest I have to say…. have had to use imported labor”; in contrast to your own experience of ag as “of living in a rural community is of deep…..”

    I think you have the crux of the past/future of ag in these statements…we’d love to have you visit MA`O to enjoy/witness a different future for ag…I think we can collaborate to fulfill your own experience for more people.

    Me Ke Aloha

    Gary and Kukui Maunakea-Forth
    MA`O Organic Farms

  5. It was a huge pleasure to read Michelle’s words. Each sentence and paragraph brought back the amazing memories of Ka’u’s ongoing transition and its stubborn commitment to rural Hawaii values, the wild and free lands, the kindness of elders, the determination of Ka’u paniolo to preserve the old ways, and the hope, hard-work and laughter of the RETAH farmers and their successors. I know there is still much work to be done, but please count on my family’s support in all you do … and mahalo for all the aloha and memories as a tribute to all those who have taught Ka’u ways … Florence Schultz, Pele Hanoa, Lani Cran Francis and her wonderful parents, Michelle Galimba, the Josephs, Hanohanos, and so many friends … bless you all! //Paula Helfrich (teacher) Sitagu International Buddhist Academy, Yangon, Myanmar — helfrich.paula@gmail.com