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In Conversation with Adam Watten, Director of Food Systems

This piece is part of a new series featuring insights from the Common Ground Experts, team, and community on the various ways that our lives are touched by food – from the production to the meals we share with each other.

What is the motivation behind the food program at Common Ground?

A: At Common Ground we’re focused on creating more opportunity through agriculture, and reimagining some of the systems that are broken. For instance, looking at the environmental impact of a food system that relies 90% on imports when we live in a place that is capable of producing everything we need – we want to show people that a circular system can be created here, can be viable, and can create opportunity. In the microcosm of Common Ground, we can do the work of planning and testing new food systems and building support structures around that. 

From a chef’s standpoint, the purely selfish part of it, homogeneity in food is the most boring thing in the world to me. To really celebrate a place and the people there for its uniqueness – I want to harness that and show that to people... Uniqueness is something to be celebrated. 

What is the role of the food program in taking on broken food systems: Ideation? Demonstration? 

A: I think it is both of those things, in roughly equal parts. The ideation period is identifying and coming up with creative solutions for them. And then demonstrating these solutions – with a little bit of trial and error, I’ll admit. It’s always easier to show somebody something and have them understand it than to just tell them. If we can demonstrate some of these things, show the results, and show that they work, then hopefully they’ll be adopted – it’s a long game. 

Are there examples you can give of systems that you’re trying to break down, and solutions you’re trying to develop? 

A: Absolutely. Let’s look at the market share of imports, that’s an easy place to start, you can put a value on that. That dollar amount of food that we import, that’s business and that’s money that’s leaving. How do we capture more of that value chain? We’re really trying to figure that out and figure out how we can create more markets for things that are produced here. Not only for the local market, but also for export. Hawaii is a small place. If you look at it just in business terms it’s not a huge market but it is enough to create more opportunity and diversify the economy here. 

And the world landscape is changing. Demand is changing. The focus has historically been on commodities here because it’s manageable, it’s scalable. But we know that doesn’t work for a number of reasons so what does something else look like? And that’s where John [Parziale, farm manager at Common Ground] comes into the picture with his techniques in agriculture – what can we do here to create more market for the agriculture sector?

Are there products that you are working with or even that you have seen that are good examples of this high value-add, Hawaii-specific opportunity? 

A: There are these emerging niche markets, like vanilla and cacao, that we’re trying to help people capitalize on. There are things that we do very well here – turmeric, for instance. Turmeric that is grown in Hawaii is exceptional. Ginger, things like that. There is a fairly unique fishery here. A pretty robust cattle industry here that can be scaled. Everything on Hawaii is grass-fed, grass finished out of necessity because grains don’t grow here and it’s expensive to import them. That’s created a beef product that’s actually done quite sustainably vs. other places. Focusing on these things: good practice, unique ingredients, interesting experiences created through those ingredients that can’t necessarily be replicated elsewhere.

And then there’s the techniques that add value. Preservation techniques, obviously distillation adds a great amount of value to a product and also makes it shelf stable. Creating products that make people say “hey this is really, really unique and interesting, I like this.” Creating products like that with the things that are here, that are unique – I think there is a lot of value in doing that. 

Can I ask you to put your Chef’s hat on for a second? Is there an ingredient that people get on the mainland where the Hawaii / Kaua’i version really pops and is really distinct? 

A: I’ll use beef again. Hawaiian grass-fed beef tastes like no other beef I’ve had before. And while I haven’t had ALL the beef out there, that is something that I think people could easily wrap their heads around and be like “wow, that is something very different to what I’m used to. 

Vanilla also – vanilla here is not like Madagascar vanilla and it’s not like Tahitian vanilla. This is something unique. Coffee, too, to some extent. Really high-end Kona coffee has that thing that’s just like “wow, this is unique.” 

You talk a lot about creating the opportunity for people to come back to agriculture. Can you tell us more about that and what that means? How do you see that process taking place? 

A: That boils down to economics. It frightens me how dependent we are on imports here, given what we’re facing as humans across the globe with climate and conflict, and everything else. The other thing is being here and seeing how dependent we are on tourism and knowing how fragile that is after seeing it in real time during the pandemic. As tourism grows and property prices and cost of living go up, it makes it difficult for anyone to come back to agriculture because the perceived value of food is so low due to all of the importing of subsidized, cheap commodities that’s being done. 

Until you can create more opportunity in terms of financial gains for people in agriculture, they will not go back to it. It’s just that simple. It’s not that people don’t want to do it. It’s hard work, but look at how hard you work vs. what you gain? There is a pressure here to make a certain amount of money just to survive and live comfortably, and until that is addressed, it’s never going to change. 

So, to me it’s fairly urgent to create more opportunity in agriculture. Agriculture is something that Kaua’i has been doing since humans got here, and doing it well – so to honor that and to create opportunity that way. There is a huge demographic that came here to work in agriculture that have been converted into service industry employees. And the more focus that’s put on that, the less resilient this community is. I want to see people have more equity in the community through the food that we take care of each other with.
About Adam Watten

Adam Watten, Director of Food Systems, Common Ground / Culinary Manager, CG Ventures is committed to building robust local food systems, Adam is an expert in vertical supply chain integration and product procurement. As an entrepreneur and Executive Chef he brings decades of experience in the food industry to the Common Ground team. His expertise in vertical supply chain integration is evidenced in his founding of Hanai Market, a local food retail outlet that exclusively sold Hawaii-grown and Hawaii-made products to the local market.

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