story by Rose Kahele
photos by Peter French
To call Bill Beach’s yard a little kapakahi would be a big understatement. The part-time farmer’s two-acre property in the hills of ahualoa features a small dry-land lo‘i of eight varieties of kalo (taro), a patch of three different types of sweet potatoes and a cozy greenhouse, where he is cultivating five additional potato varieties.
Out back, a handful of tea plants grow beside a nursery of 350 potted coffee plants, sixty-five lychee and a dozen or so mango trees. Next to the tool shed is a tangled pile of kava root, which he’s preparing for planting in the fall. And along the perimeter of the property are nearly eighty milo and kamani trees that Beach plans on planting before the end of the year. The slow-growing hardwood trees are the farmer’s “retirement fund,” hopefully ready for harvest in a decade or two.
“We’ve been talking about hopes and dreams for a long, long time,” says Beach. “Now it’s time to put things into the ground and perform.”Beach is the past president of the Hamakua North Hilo Agriculture Cooperative, (HNHAC), a collection of ninety-three, five-acre to twenty-acre farms stretching along the Big Island’s rural, northeast coastline from Pa‘auilo to Honoka‘a.
The state-owned parcels, which total approximately 1,500 acres, once made up a large swath of the lower fields of the Hamakua Sugar Company, which in its day was the single producer of the coast’s sole crop.
In mid-1994, Hamakua Sugar brought in its last harvest and shut down operations, a development that closed the door on more than 100 years of agricultural history and crippled the region economically for nearly a decade. With approximately 400 sugar workers losing their jobs, unemployment rates in the region reached as high as 13 percent that year.
At the time, Beach was a truck and tractor contractor and his biggest customer was the sugar plantation. After three years of struggle, he went bankrupt and, like many of his neighbors, found a job at one of the Kohala Coast’s glittering resorts an hour’s drive away. Today, he works nights as a banquet waiter.
“As soon as the sugar company announced that it would be shutting down, I knew everything would change,” says Beach. “But I never knew how quickly it would happen.”
Sugar’s demise in Hamakua was bitter. But it also promised to be sweet, because the end of production freed up tens of thousands of acres of prime agriculture lands, which came replete with a complex irrigation system and an extensive network of cane haul roads. HNHAC was founded in late 1994, with its membership comprised of displaced sugar workers. At first glance, Hamakua and its vast fields of green seemed like diversified agriculture’s biggest and best chance.
And after several harvests it was. Where there once was only sugar cane, there was now vanilla, lettuce, coffee, papaya, watermelon, tomatoes, taro, dairy products and grass-fed beef. However, less than five years after farms went into production, an infestation of ringspot virus wiped out Hamakua’s papaya groves, which were supposed to be the region’s next “cornerstone” crop. Then in 2000, the lower Hamakua Ditch, the area’s nearly 100-year-old irrigation system, suffered a series of catastrophic failures. Farmers were without water for more than six months. Crops dried up, and dreams blew away.