Common Ground

(image: Common Ground farm, Kauai)

Fewer than 50 miles from the world’s largest open-air test fields of genetically modified crops on Kaua’i’s southwest side sits the Common Ground café and farm on the island’s north shore. Founded four years ago by Chris Jaeb, a dotcom-era entrepreneur, the 62-acre former guava plantation situated in a lush section of Kilauea is a haven for organic farming and a true farm-to-fork dining experience. 

Common Ground’s “Farmer Dave” Vestol and agriculture manager Frank Vittoria beam as they introduce the farm’s many delectable fruits and vegetables. The ground is bursting with so much goodness, they barely know where best to start the tour. We wander towards rows of some rather healthy looking kale plants. The farm is now producing more than 125 pounds of kale per week, used in the café’s most popular salad. They’re growing tomatoes, eggplants, squash, beans, and grains like quinoa, amaranth and corn. Pest-repelling herbs are planted strategically around the gardens.

Common Ground

(image: Common Ground agriculture manager Frank Vittoria and “Farmer Dave” Vestol)

Despite Kaua’i’s soil challenges, Farmer Dave’s reputable magic green thumbs manage to grow an unbelievable abundance of produce. Organic compost and a healthy balance of Hawaiian rain and sunshine creates so much food that Common Ground just recently opened a market on the premises where customers can take home freshly harvested produce at reasonable prices. That the island imports roughly 90 percent of its food from the mainland makes this an incredibly appealing attribute to residents and tourists wanting truly local food. What the farm doesn’t produce—meat, dairy, fish, sugar, coffee, etc.—it sources from other small-scale growers and ranches in the area. There’s even locally grown cacao (chocolate).

Common Ground’s fertile green spirals of hardy vegetables are a stark contrast to the barren and sterile clime of southern Kaua’i where companies including DuPont, Syngenta, Pioneer and Monsanto crowd out the island’s native flora with rows of experimental soy, corn, sunflower and other genetically modified crops. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes just the day before, it would be near impossible to imagine such a poisonous landscape is so close by while Vestol and Vittoria guide me through the farm’s fruit orchard where we sample fresh mountain apples, wild raspberries off the vine, and marvel at massive tropical jack fruits clinging tightly to modest branches.

Mountain apples

(image: mountain apples at Common Ground)

Jaeb’s vision for Common Ground extends far beyond what’s growing for use in the restaurant. Community is as much a part of the organic lifestyle as the cooperative systems employed to produce the healthy food. On the company’s website, Jaeb says he “wanted to create a container that would facilitate sustainability, environmentalism and green business, to be held by everyone involved, and to set an example of how local community can affect world thinking.” Yurts under construction behind the cafe will house the many interns that come to live and work at the farm. A stage behind the fruit orchard occasionally hosts musicians and speakers. There’s a yoga studio.

While the errant biotech industry curries favor with Hawai’i’s politicians and landowners in order to continue experimental testing of GMOs and pesticides, the organic community is also transforming Hawaiian commerce and consciousness. Considerably less of the state’s agricultural land is organic versus GMO, but according to Makana, musician, food producer, community builder, and member of Hawai’i GMO Justice featured in a recent documentary about Hawai’i’s GMO battle, it’s an opportunity. “Food is free, it grows on trees and in the ground. We don’t need patented science experiments to survive,” says Makana. He urges locals to source local food—to meet their growers. “The revolution isn’t going to happen through government regulation; it will happen when the people remove their dependency on commercial ag and look to each other, their local communities, for sustenance.”

Lee Roversi

(image: North Country Farm founder Lee Roversi posing with her plants)

Lee Roversi founded North Country farm more than 25 years ago. Along with her then-husband and three children, the Roversis left the bustle of the Northeast for paradise. Just a few miles from Common Ground, North Country sits on a stunning four-acre plot of land in Kilauea. Along with a small bed and breakfast, Roversi and her sons supply produce for 50 families every week through a unique program. “Families who you know are always incredibly full of gratitude,” Roversi says of her setup. Every Tuesday, the fresh lettuces, beets, carrots and fruits are carefully picked and packed and set out for her clients. They leave their money in a little unattended basket, and if Roversi is around, they seek her out for conversation. She’s as refreshing as her gorgeous organic produce—full of ripe stories, nourishing hugs and bountiful information. It’s clear that her customers get much more than they pay for.

Like Common Ground, Roversi sources as much as she can from the island. Aside from her booming CSA program, she also sells her produce at the Kilauea farmers market every Saturday and often barters there with other organic growers for fruits and vegetables she doesn’t grow. What she absolutely must get from the mainland is pooled with other locals for a once a month pallet delivery to reduce costs and trips to the supermarket.

North Country Farm

(image: produce ready for pickup at North Country Farm)

Well aware of what’s happening on the island’s south side, Roversi thinks the best defense is a good offense—walking her talk, and supporting her community to do the same. “The best impact I can have is just to do it, to bring balance by serving the community with healthy food.”

Across the islands, biotech and big ag companies are snatching up land quickly. They’re spraying toxic untested combinations of pesticides and planting patented pesticide-resistant seeds that are making people sick and contaminating ecosystems. It is not pretty. But what those companies can’t seem to modify, no matter how hard they try, is Hawai’i’s aloha spirit. For those who become truly aware of the benefits of organic farming, like Jaeb and Roversi, they send ripples out through the community, making lasting changes like “good old fashioned love for our bodies, the land, the process of creating and producing things of real value, like our food,” says Makana. “We must once again become involved in producing our essential needs if we want them to be met in a fashion that serves our health and well being, physically and economically. We must become the producers.”

Did you miss part one of this story? You can read it here.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Images: Jill Ettinger