HAWI — From panel discussions about agricultural sustainability to cultural demonstrations and the music that filled Kohala Village Hub, Saturday’s Aina Fest was a celebration of land and those who cultivate it.
“I think we are very much kind of like a back-to-the-roots, back-to-the-land kind of organization,” said Lauren Ruotolo, director of development at the Hawaii Institute of Pacific Agriculture, or HIP Agriculture. “We’re here to inspire people to move away from maybe the mainstream type of farming, and I think it’s just kind of a back-to-the-land movement.”
This year marked the ninth annual Aina Fest, which supports HIP Agriculture, an organization focused on the education and practice of conscious agriculture.
That, Ruotolo said, happens through “growing food and growing farmers” with educational programs aimed at children in kindergarten through 12th grade as well as post-secondary training opportunities.
And those efforts are critical in a place like Kohala, said Ruotolo, particularly given the changing status of land and agriculture here.
“Kohala historically is super agriculturally-based,” she said, “and it’s like we’re losing that to people buying up land, and we’re losing that to professions being shaped and geared to go into the hotel economy. And so we’re slowly but surely losing that agricultural roots, and we’re saying ‘Hey, no this is valuable, and it’s not something we are willing to lose.’”
Those at the festival agreed with the need to support those steps toward sustainability.
“Everything gets shipped into Hawaii,” said Kaeo Sugse, “so without these local farmers, we’d be paying double the price, and we wouldn’t even know where it came from.”
Likewise, Leilani Aveiro and Brenden Mickelson of Captain Cook said the event is a great opportunity to inspire people to learn about where their food is coming from.
“It’s a good way for people to get educated about planting their own food and being sustainable,” said Mickelson.
That focus on sustainability permeated every part of Saturday’s festival, including the musical talent that Ruotolo said was carefully cultivated to include artists who celebrate stewardship of the land in their work.
Among the artists who took the stage was Noelani Love from Oahu’s North Shore, who said the festival is not only an example of North Kohala’s potential as a model for what’s possible when it comes to growing food throughout the islands, but also a demonstration of the creativity of the people on this island.
“There’s so much more connection to the aina and nature here, because it’s more rugged and raw,” she said, “and I think that the world could just be inspired by that to create changes in the planet to support the Earth, because we are all guests on this planet.”
Lanakila Mangauil, founder of the Hawaiian Cultural Center of Hamakua, said the festival is an opportunity to recognize those working to grow food in a way that is good for both the planet and the communities they feed.
“It’s celebrating the health of this land — of Hawaii land — and the people that are working it,” he said. “We’re supporting that mahi ai, that farmer, people who normally get kind of lost in the background.”
In a world where many don’t focus so much on where their food comes from or how it’s produced, Saturday’s event he said demonstrates that there is a community of people who are conscious of the origins of what they eat and the impact it has on their bodies.
And while the festival, he said, is a great opportunity to catch people’s attention and could spark someone’s interest to return to their own community with what they learned during the day, the big impact is what the money the festival raises for HIP Agriculture means for its ability to continue providing programs that empower local youth and benefit the community.
“The resources get to our local people,” Mangauil said, “so I know a lot of local kids, a lot of native Hawaiian children that are in the school system, they’ve been able to benefit from this. Because this is helping to fund that education that the (Department of Education) otherwise wouldn’t support or never has funding to teach.”
Ruotolo said she hopes those who come to the festival leave inspired to bring what they learned to their own communities, wherever that may be.
“This festival too is inviting people outside of our small, little Kohala bubble and saying ‘This is what we’re doing here; bring this back to Kona, bring this back to Hilo, bring this back to Ka’u,’” she said, “and maybe you can’t implement it all, but maybe you can implement a small part of it.”