Lyn Howe and Geoff Rauch, Beach Road Farm, Pahoa, HI
Lyn Howe and Geoff Rauch cultivate a diverse three-acre polyculture on a 750-year-old lava flow spanning the main island of Hawaii. Over 130 different varieties of fruit are interplanted with nut and spice trees, medicinal and culinary herbs, some vegetable crops, sugarcane, and the island’s traditional starchy staples: breadfruit (ulu), taro (kalo), sweet potato (uala), and cassava.
Beach Road Farm produces close to 90% of the farmers’ diets, with excess feeding the neighbors or being sold at a local store. Medicinal herb value-added products and hand-pollinated vanilla generate additional income.
“First we’re soil farmers,” said Howe. They have been building soil organic matter for the past twelve years, using a method called “chop and drop.” Howe and Rauch plant nitrogen-fixing crops, like pigeon peas and perennial peanut, and cut back the crops to incorporate biomass into the soil.
Saving Hawaii’s Seed
Howe has been saving seed for over forty years. “I’ve kind of grown up with seed-saving,” said Howe. “When you grow a plant, if it is o.p. [open-pollinated], you select and save seed.”
She also acts as the Project Director for the Hawaii Public Seed Initiative, working with communities, farmers and gardeners across the state to select, grow, harvest, store, and improve seed varieties that thrive in Hawaii. The tropical islands present a distinct agricultural region in myriad ways, from unique soil conditions to the prevalence of invasive plants, animals, and diseases.
“They have so many microclimates on one island, as well as in between islands,” said Howe. A variety which performs well on a given farm, is not likely to meet the needs of a neighboring farm at a higher elevation, for example.
Seed growers in Hawaii face additional challenges when it comes to saving seed. “So many plants will not go to seed,” said Howe.
Biennial vegetables requiring a winter vernalization period, will not naturally set seed in the islands’ tropical climate. And if a specimen does, it is due to environmental stress. Saving seed from such a plant would result in selection for a very undesirable trait− early bolting. “It’s a whole different set of rules,” said Howe.
Another concern for Hawaii growers is specific to papaya, a fruit in wide production throughout the state. Contamination from genetically engineered (GE) papaya is an on-going threat to seed purity. Beach Road Farm tests all new trees for GE presence. “Once we know they’re GMO-free, we have to bag our flowers.”
“There is a whole educational component that is really necessary,” she said. People need to learn to grow and save seed, and then re-grow that seed to, over time, create regionally adapted varieties. Howe hopes to see sharing of Hawaii-suited varieties facilitated through online networking, and hopefully one day via a tropical seed company.
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