by Esha Chhabra
“Hawaii’s food system is broken,” says Constanze Niedermaier of Common Ground, a new platform to find regeneratively grown Hawaiian foods.
The islands export 80% of their crop, and import 90% of their food products, despite being a fertile land which has the potential to grow an abundance of its own needs.
John Parziale has been a farmer in Kauai for over 20 years, growing crops like ginger and turmeric. He’s seen the farming challenges first-hand: an emphasis on monocropping, high land costs that prevent young (and new) farmers from getting into the profession, and the emphasis on exports instead of self-sufficiency.
That’s why Niedermaier, Parziale, and others have come together, backed by a group of like-minded eco-forward investors, to create a hub for local food entrepreneurs: The Common Ground is a physical space in Kauai that serves as a base for a new food community focused on regenerative agriculture on the islands. With an accelerator and an incubator, Common Ground wants to support small and medium size food businesses who are trying to deviate from the conventional model of agriculture.
They include enterprises such as Maui Nui, which makes a venison jerky bar with wild-caught Axis deer, which have become an invasive species in Hawaii, explains Niedermaier, and yet are a nutritional meat. There’s Vintage Vinegars which produces a raw pineapple vinegar made from excess fruit and otherwise waste, at a pineapple processing unit (one of Hawaii’s most popular exports). Or ulu-based products that have provided an alternative to traditional grains and wheat-centric pastas; ulu, or breadfruit, is grown widely in the tropics and plays a pivotal role in agroforestry on the islands, says Parziale.
While the physical space set on an 83-acre agricultural campus once home to Kilauea Sugar Plantation and Guava Kai Plantation will serve as a meeting place for these entrepreneurs, allowing them to convene, share, ideas, and cross-collaborate, Common Ground has also launched an online marketplace to reach consumers beyond the islands. “We want people across America to discover these stories and products,” he says.
For Parziale who is a passionate advocate for a healthier food system and now operates a 5-acre farm which serves as a model and testing ground for those looking to convert to permaculture or regenerative practices, this is a heart-felt mission. “Agriculture has become one of the most destructive human activities on earth. Either we change, and model our agricultural systems after ecosystems, or regenerative agriculture is going to sprout from the ashes of our civilization.”
Agroforestry plays a huge role in this transformation for Hawaii. Unlike mainland farms that can rely on vast open spaces to have rows of planted crops, in Hawaii, its tree fruits, such as breadfruit, nuts, coffee, cacao, and more, can help produce a more regenerative system, Parziale says. The trees not only help keep carbon in the soils, but provide shade, help retain water, and allow for intercropping.
The last two decades, he says, have seen a massive consolidation in how we produce and consume food. “That has to change. Those destructive and extractive agricultural products have to be reckoned with.”
Common Ground’s campus will open in 2022. But till then, the online marketplace is available for consumers around the U.S. to discover some of these new innovative food companies, and get a taste of the islands, through a regenerative lens.