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In Conversation with John Parziale, CG Farm Manager

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.

Tell me a bit about the CG Ag program: What are its goals? What problems are you trying to solve? What's your vision for the ag program and where should it go?

The ag program is the foundation for the Food Innovation Center. Agricultural concepts at Common Ground are based on regenerative agriculture or ecological agriculture, which in its simplest definition is designing the farm as an ecosystem.  

Regenerative and ecological agriculture can look like a lot of different things depending on where you are. It’s adaptable to pretty much any growing environment. With the rainfall that we have and the location that we’re in, if we were to let things completely go and the mowers were put away forever a tropical rainforest would emerge from that site. Because of that, the type of regenerative and ecological agriculture that we’re running with is what they call “successional agro-forestry.” This is the integration of crops and animals with trees. At its climax this creates a forest ecosystem.  

In addition to the plantings, we’re integrating multi-species grazing, which provides a tremendous amount of ecosystem services but the chief among them would be the fertility in the system. So, we’re managing the fertility of the soil on-site, which is a core principle of regenerative agriculture. That’s the overarching concept that we’re working with. The goals of that system would be to harness these ecosystem services. The system itself is a classic example that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. 
 

What are you growing that you're really excited about? 

Now is a great time to plant annual vegetables with the advancing light of the spring. It’s the real beginning of the juicy, growing season. Currently, one of the things we’re doing in the agroforestry area is integrating some vining annuals, such as tomatoes and cucumbers. We’re doing some trials, we have about three varieties of tomatoes and three varieties of cucumbers that we’re trellising up some perennial shrubs. It’s like a living trellis system, so that’s kind of cool.  

The other thing that we’re engaged in: we just did a massive amount of pruning and opened up a tremendous amount of light in a mature area of the agroforestry which is a good chance to reestablish some of the understory. We are planting kava and an heirloom coffee variety, there are a couple of other amazon rainforest specimens that are pretty exciting, and because the pruning was pretty deep there’s so much more light we can actually grow some annuals there as well. 

The heirloom coffee is interesting and, I think, speaks a lot to what you’re trying to do. When I think of coffee, I think of the large coffee plantations, not coffee growing in the undergrowth. How does that work? How do you harvest that? 

I’m sure you’ve probably heard the term “shade grown” coffee. While it is possible to do coffee in massive, monocrop plantations it also grows in the shade and it’s like a shrub or small tree so it’s a perfect candidate for agroforestry because it can live happily in the shade or partial shade under productive larger trees. The specific genetics come from, I believe, one of the oldest coffee strains in the state. It was grown on the Napali coast of Kauaʻi and then it was pretty much naturalized in that region. The plantation was sort of abandoned, or production stopped, but the plants were naturalized. This was, I believe, the 1850s, and just through the process of naturalization we now have the genetics from this particular variety. In my mind, it’s pretty resilient. Obviously it’s been growing for over 150 years with no fertilization, no real human interaction, so I’m interested to see how that one does especially with regard to the presence of some new coffee pests.  

You talk about how the tropical rainforest is sort of the template for what you’re doing because that would be the default for Common Ground’s campus. How do you approach integrating things that aren’t local to that place into a model that is trying to, if not replicate, build upon the pre-human condition of the location?

There’s a long history in the Pacific Islands of introducing food crops into agricultural ecosystem design. I think one of the things that most people don’t realize is that there was essentially no food on the land pre-human. When the first canoes showed up there was really nothing to eat on the land. Everything we think of as “Hawaiian native food” – whether it’s taro, breadfruit, banana, sweet potato – all of it are what’s called “canoe plants,” those were brought here by people. So really, we’re not trying to replicate a pre-human condition. 

And the concept of successional agroforestry, that’s how forests are created in nature, through a process of succession. The succession is basically just this community of plants and animals that evolve over time and replace each other over time and then the climax of that is a forest.  

We’re not just mimicking the template of a forest – planting a forest and waiting for it to grow into itself – we’re using nature’s operating instructions on how to create a forest. It’s not just the food forests, which at the end of the line is a regenerative thing, it’s also the pathway that we take to get there. Along the way we’re harvesting abundance from shorter-term crops that have played their part in the succession. 

As an example of that, we’re breaking new ground, we’re planting a lot of trees, understory specimens, and at the same time that we’re planting those long-term trees, we’re surrounding them with vegetables: cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes. Because we have that niche in time, we’re managing the space anyway because we’ve already planted trees and they have to be weeded and mulched while they’re young. While we’re doing that we’re also integrating new crops. In the case of the latest agroforestry planting that we did about a year ago, we’ve already had 4 or 5 rotations of vegetables. 

 

You talk a lot about trying to reconstitute viability in a specifically Kauaʻi / Kilauea landscape when it comes to agriculture, and I imagine there was a time when that viability existed – so which aspects of Hawaiian agriculture and where it stands now have you concerned? And are there solutions / things that are happening that have you excited?   

I think if we start from a broad look at the landscape of agriculture in Hawaiʻi one of my biggest concerns is some of the structural impediments. First off, the long history of plantation-minded agriculture. You have the largest landowners and that plantation mindset of top-down. Nowadays that takes the shape of agricultural corporate lobbyists.  

In a way, the state subsidizes the type of agriculture that is happening by granting leases of state land and, traditionally, those have gone to large corporate agriculture. If we’re going to move the needle and try to empower diversified agriculture, agricultural entrepreneurship, it’s going to have to challenge that power structure. 

That’s more a concern structurally. From a farming perspective, one of the biggest concerns I have is farm inputs. Being the most isolated island chain on the planet, thousands of miles away, I think that when we talk about local agriculture, or just local food production, everyone would be on board with that because there’s this concept of food security. However, if the necessary inputs are still being shipped in, it’s necessary to take a hard look at how our food is produced locally.  

To be the devil’s advocate, you could ask what then is the value of local food if the necessary inputs are still being shipped in? Of course, there’s freshness, there’s local economy, there’s jobs, however you can’t automatically tack on concepts like resilience and food security. As growers, we get proficient at what we practice. If your system includes going to the docks and picking up a pallet of fertilizer from thousands of miles away and you take it home, and that’s the foundation of your fertility program, if that resource is interrupted or disappears, you really need to reinvent your entire system. 

Again, another reason why I feel regenerative agriculture that accounts for its fertility is so important. And it’s not just fertility and fertilizer, it’s also feed. If you are raising animals but all of your feed is being shipped in, you’re hard-pressed to call that a “resilient” or “food secure” model of production. 

  

So what you’re trying to do with CG isn’t just about the quality of food, it’s more so that with these regenerative, successional agroforests, you would be able to detach from a good chunk of that external dependence system.  

Right, and I think it’s a worthy practice to entertain. I think a way to look at it is: yes, we want fresh vegetables, we want fresh milk, we want fresh eggs, we want fresh fruit, right? But if we put all of those elements into an ag ecosystem, not only do we get all of those products, but the presence of all of them together and the interconnectedness between them builds the resilience and food security that we want to harvest from.  

I also think it’s important to explore what cooperatives and collaborations look like. Because again, we’re talking about these ecosystems – as those things start to scale up, to conduct that symphony of interactions is a job in and of itself. To do this successfully is going to require collaboration.  

I think of a cooperative relationship, for example, between a grass-fed beef rancher, someone who’s raising chickens, a tree crop farmer….  all of those entities could be producing on the same footprint of land, enjoying or benefitting from the interactions and interconnectedness between those systems, and that’s just the growing side.  

Then you throw into this collaboration chefs, entrepreneurial people who are doing the processing, value-added things. When you bring all of these elements together and you start to have all of these collaborations and cooperations, you really build the ecosystem out even further so it’s not solely an ecosystem of agricultural production but an ecosystem of social interactions as well. 

To me, that’s the vision and the strength of the model of Common Ground… it’s that circular economy, the vertical integration, all of those pieces that move in. I’m always thinking of ecosystems, I think about ecology – sometimes we forget that humans and human interaction is part of that ecology. From that perspective it’s an extension of that agricultural ecosystem. There are so many elements within that system, there are more players that get woven into that tapestry of production and interaction. 
About John Parziale

John has practiced organic, ecological agriculture on Kauai for 23 years. He founded Kauai Authentic Farms in 2001, home to the Center for Regenerative Agriculture. He has taught permaculture and sustainable agriculture in Hawaii, the US mainland and in Europe. 

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