An Appetite for Culture + VIDEO

How Maui farmers are cultivating ancient wisdom to feed a population—and a hunger for culture.


Simpliciano’s mission—to establish an ‘ulu forest at his farm—is fitting. Lahaina was once famous for its abundance of ‘ulu trees. The area’s traditional name is Lele; and chants refer to it as “Ka malu ‘ulu o Lele,” translated as “The breadfruit shade of Lele.”

You might say that Simpliciano is also cultivating the next generation of environmental and cultural stewards. He is president of Hawai‘i Farmers Union United’s Lahaina chapter, and through the organization’s Hawai‘i Farmers Union Foundation, he and others are developing the Ku‘ia Agricultural Education Program to share sustainable and traditional Hawaiian agricultural practices. Each summer, he invites Hawaiian youth to learn about the history of canoe crops, plus growing methods that include planting by the Hawaiian moon calendar.

“Our goal is for the keiki [children] to understand their history and the value of growing food. I want them to see that there are opportunities here to become land stewards,” Simpliciano explains.

This reciprocal relationship between the land and people was once integral to Hawaiian survival. If these farmers have their way, those connections will flourish once again.

“At its heart, farming is about building community with others, and also with the land that you serve,” Fisher says before offering an ‘ōlelo no‘eau (Hawaiian proverb): “He ali‘i ka ‘āina he kauā ke kanaka.” “The land is the chief; man is its servant.”


Simpliciano also cultivates honua‘ulu, a sugarcane variety brought to these islands by the first Polynesians.

When early Polynesians set sail across the Pacific, they packed a carefully curated variety of plants that would help them thrive in their new home—plants that are commonly referred to today as canoe crops.

“As the ancestors of the Polynesian people moved down from China . . . they were constantly picking up new plants, and possibly discarding others that didn’t serve them,” says Scott Fisher, associate executive director of conservation at Hawaiian Islands Land Trust. “You can kind of split the canoe crops into three categories: medicinal plants, edible plants, and general utility.”

Fisher explains that Hawai‘i experienced two waves of canoe crop introductions. The first, around A.D. 950, imported plants such as kalo, kō (sugarcane) , mai‘a (banana), and niu (coconut). The second wave, around A.D. 1200, brought ‘ulu (breadfruit), ‘uala (sweet potato), and ipu (gourd).

“The key to thriving was—and is—diversity,” he says. “If there was a drought, for example, you might lose one crop, but still have other ones to rely on. You had no insurance policy other than your wits; diversity was a way to address it.”

Read the last page for a list of upcoming events featuring canoe crops.



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