It’s confession time. I didn’t grow up on a farm and I didn’t have much experience in the agriculture industry before joining the Valley team. I often tell people I’ve learned more about irrigation in two years than I ever knew there was to know, and I’ve still barely scratched the surface.
Now that I’m enmeshed in the ag business, I see things differently. I read news articles about farming more critically. I question social media claims decrying agriculture. I understand the sacrifices growers and farm families make. I notice center pivots and different crops while driving. Living in Nebraska, the crops I see are pretty standard: corn, beans, wheat, some vegetables, plus livestock – such as cattle, dairy cows, hogs and chickens. But a recent trip to Hawaii brought home how narrow my ag experience continues to be.
We (my husband and I) spent a little more than a week circumnavigating the Big Island, exploring its eight climate zones and different farms. We started on the eastern side near Hilo, an area that gets more than 130 inches of rain annually. In contrast, the northwestern portion of the island (where many of the resorts are located) averages 5 inches per year.
As expected, there were boundless tropical flowers and fruits such as pineapple, mango and papaya, but we also tasted baby bananas and guava. And, I learned that the strawberry guava we tasted is one of the island’s most invasive species and is threatening the Big Island’s native forests. In fact, the island is filled with invasive species that cause extensive damage and threaten other species – but that’s a story for another time.
We passed a ginger field, and our guide explained that the small field – planted and harvested by hand – would generate a ridiculously large sum of money. Enough to make me seriously consider a future in ginger farming.
We saw acres and acres of macadamia trees behind fences adorned with Private Property and No Trespassing signs. The signs puzzled me. A little research revealed that macadamia nuts just fall off the trees when they are ripe and are harvested off the ground. Apparently, passersby need to be reminded that they can’t just wander up to a tree and gather the nuts off the ground.
The exclusive Kona coffee bean thrives in the high elevation and rich volcanic soil of Hawaii, so we visited a couple coffee plantations that have tasting rooms similar to the wine trails of northern California.
And, I discovered taro. This root crop is intrinsically tied to Hawaiian culture. According to HawaiiHistory.org, taro was so important to “Hawaiians' survival and prosperity that it was considered an elder sibling to the Hawaiian race.” Taro is primarily used to make poi, which turns out to be a gelatinous, grainy oatmeal-type dish (that truly could not be more bland). The taro root chips, however, are excellent!
There are similarities as well. Did you know the fourth largest U.S. cattle operation is on the island of Hawaii? Parker Ranch is home to about 26,000 head of cattle and extends over 130,000 acres. Sweet potatoes are a staple crop. And, yes, I did see corn.
What I found most amazing about Hawaii – although not directly related to agriculture – were the lava fields filled with dense lava rock. They appeared so desolate, yet nature finds a way, and delicate plants sprouted from the hard, sharp rock.