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Fighting for Food and Seed Sovereignty in Hawai’i

Nancy Redfeather is a farmer, teacher, writer, program director and activist.

By Allie Hymas

“Start with one row,” says Nancy Redfeather, a farmer, teacher, writer, program director and activist. In addition to decades teaching at Waldorf schools and advocating against GMOs in her home state of Hawai‘i, she recently retired from a decade working with the Kohala Center as the director for the Hawai‘i Island School Garden Network to put organic gardens in schools across the big island. Her advice to would-be seed advocates: “Get some success with a few rows of vegetables, then add some pole beans, then make sure you’re composting effectively. Once you get going, you have something to share with friends.” 


To Redfeather, staying grounded in the work informs the direction and motivation for organizing people. Her life’s arc of prolific educating, organizing and advocacy can be traced back to a desire to see land flourish and food sources multiply for the community to enjoy. “You’ll have more of an appreciation for the whole system if you participate in it yourself.”

While it’s well known that tourists flock to the Aloha State, few are aware that the biotech companies have fought for decades with locals to carry out their field trials with the benefit of Hawai‘i’s isolated land and year-round 75 degree climate. “Hawai‘i didn’t really give them a welcome mat,” Redfeather says. “That’s because they use too much pesticides, communities were getting sprayed — especially Kauai.” Some, like Grist’s Nathaniel Johnson, argue that newcomers to the islands eschew GMOs to protect their own vision of paradise. Others point out that small farms are Hawai‘i’s legacy, and monoculture threatens to erase it.

“Eighty-six percent of farms on this island are small farms, one to nine acres,” Redfeather says. She acknowledges that before colonization, the Ko Hawai‘i Pae‘ina (Hawai‘ian Kingdom) grew food in many small, contiguous gardens, and that model is as much Hawai‘i’s future as its past. “They fed a population that’s roughly as big as we have now, and everyone participated in the food system.” 

In Oahu, a gallon of milk might cost $8.99, a pound of carrots $3.49. “That’s because we keep shipping food here from the Central Valley, which is completely unsustainable,” Redfeather says. “When you think about the price of groceries at the big box stores here, there’s every reason to throw in with small farms.”

Redfeather’s many shades of activism and work in seed sovereignty comes in a long list of directorships and leadership roles, but she sums up her work with a very practical motivation.

“Who owns the seed? This is the time for people to come together and to share their old seed varieties with our home growers and market growers in our communities to help develop regional and local food systems. We need to keep growing varieties that are adapted for Hawai‘i.”

From Mainland to Island

“My ancestors were farmers. They came from Scotland in the 1800s and brought the black angus cattle to the United States,” Redfeather says. “People who were breeding animals in that time always had a complete farm — they had crops for their cattle, seed for the winter and food for their family.” The family had collaborated on the cattle breeding operation for generations, until the 1930s, when they lost their business and farm in the Great Depression. “Eventually, when their farm was foreclosed, they sold all their machinery and came to California.” Redfeather’s grandparents bought two acres in the San Gabriel Valley and started the farm where she was born.

“When I was a child in Los Angeles, there were tens of thousands of small farms: Los Angeles had become an agricultural center back in the 1920s. The chamber of commerce back in that day had decided that instead of big farms, many small farms would create a stronger economy for Los Angeles.” Redfeather says the early vision for a multiplicity of small farms led to the region’s early success in becoming a food hub for the western United States. “They made it easy for farmers who went bankrupt in the midwest to come out and buy a piece of land — and that’s what my grandparents and great grandparents did. “My grandparents had a small egg farm,” Redfeather says. “My grandmother bred a chicken that was a good layer but really docile. I grew up spending a lot of time with chickens.”

Initially after graduation, Redfeather was not drawn to the agrarian life, but she turned to it again when the stress of college began to wear on her health. “I was working on my master’s degree in education, and I realized that I didn’t feel that great. If I’m 21 years old and I don’t feel like I have a lot of energy, there must be a reason.” It was around 1971, and a recently-published book, Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé, had influenced several of Redfeather’s friends. “I read that book and I realized this is exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to grow my own food.” 

“There was a big Back to the Land Movement in California in the 1970s. It was such a progressive time; consciousness was really opening.” Redfeather purchased a house in Longbeach with a backyard. “When I got there, I dug up the entire backyard and I put it all into a garden. I’d never done this before! I had seen my grandmother’s gardens but I really didn’t know what I was doing at first.” Five rows of zucchini and other rookie mistakes would teach Redfeather that first year about how to plan and organize her garden. “I had so much food coming out of my garden, I would teach all day and then come home and work until nightfall.” 

It wasn’t until Redfeather moved to Hawaii in 1978 that she began to overlap her career with growing food. “Through teaching at a Waldorf School I was introduced to biodynamics,” she says. The soil on the big island was much different from Southern California, and Redfeather needed to majorly pivot her approach to growing food. “I couldn’t believe how hard it was to garden here,” Redfeather says. “Every island is different: Kauai is very old and has soil, but I live on the newest island and there was hardly any soil on the land I had.” Reading Rudolph Steiner’s books offered a framework within which Redfeather could pivot some of her strategies. “I started practicing biodynamics by myself, because I couldn’t find anyone else that was doing [it.]” After spending some time outsourcing her materials from the Josephine Porter Institute in Virginia, Redfeather began meeting other practitioners of biodynamics in her region and they formed an organization, Biodynamics Hawaii. “We had over 65 different gatherings and conferences over a ten-year period,” she recalls. “At that time there were many more practitioners of biodynamics than there are today.”

Redfeather’s interest in seeds and seed saving became a passion in 1994 when she took classes from John Navazio. “One day I was sitting in class and he told us that he had just read a report in FAO that by 2005 we’re going to have lost 90 percent of all crop varieties that were grown in the 1900s. Those are the seeds that fed all our ancestors!” Redfeather found the report herself and launched a personal study into her state’s history of seed-company buy-outs and loss of seed diversity. “Before the 1980s, over a hundred different seed companies used to come to Molokai and do their winter grow outs, but by the time I learned about this in the ’90s, all of those seed companies had been bought out.” 

The GMOs Next Door

It was this growing awareness of a threat to seed diversity that sparked Redfeather’s attention when she learned about a massive wave of field trials happening quietly on several islands. “There hadn’t been a word about this in the paper,” she says. “By the time people found out, around the year 2000, Hawai‘i was the center for field trials of genetically engineered crops.” Later, Redfeather would learn that in 1999, the Hawai‘i Department of Health submitted concerns about the field trials, but were overruled. “We had congressional members who thought it would be a great thing for Hawai‘i to become a center of production for a new kind of seed that was going to feed the world.” 

Redfeather remembers a letter to the editor written by a local librarian, alerting the public that at the time roughly five to six thousand field trials for genetically engineered crops had already occurred in their backyard. “I called her, asked what we should do as a community. At the time, I didn’t know anything about it, but it seemed wrong to violate the nucleus of a plant that has grown for millions of years and then decide that it’s yours: you can patent it, own it, and change it. It seemed like the wrong thing to do.” The librarian called her back and connected her with five other women who had reached out with a similar desire to take action. “We got together and it turned out that we were all mothers, we were all organic growers, none of us had ever been an activist and none of us understood genetic engineering.” The group committed to a year of learning and study before taking any action, seeking out the help of their local USDA extension. Using their resources and a conference room one night a week, the group independently researched and shared their findings with one another, culminating in a position. “After a year and a half, we felt like we knew enough to speak up.”

As the group began to solidify their arguments against GMOs in Hawai‘i, the University of Hawai‘i began to invest more resources into genetic engineering. The university hosted a two-day conference, inviting professors and extension agents from all over the state to come discuss genetic engineering as the future of agriculture in Hawai‘i. In the spirit of discourse, however, the university searched for an organization to present the perspective of organic agriculture. Redfeather recalls that other leaders in the state’s organic agriculture scene were either uninterested or unavailable to join this discussion. “They needed an opposing voice, and they couldn’t find one,” she says. “In desperation, they called me. It was like being thrown into the fire!” Redfeather says she felt nervous, but determined not to miss this opportunity. “To think that we wanted to go up against the biggest corporations in the world — Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, Dupont, Bayer and so on. It was daunting!” 

Redfeather gathered her materials and created a speech outlining the concerns shared by the organic farmers in her group. She walked into the conference thinking her position would be postured as an afterthought, but when she arrived at the conference, she was surprised to discover the organizers had rearranged the schedule. “The person before me dropped out, so they told me I had an hour and a half to speak.” Redfeather says that this speech was a pivotal moment for her, not only in platforming the collective voice of her group, but also in learning the university’s systems and language for discussing the issue. It was an important opportunity to shift the debate away from merely a blanket rejection of genetic engineering itself and to primarily focus on how seed patents and modified crops have disrupted the agriculture on a small island ecosystem. This message would become the foundation of Redfeather’s organizing mission in the years to come.

Redfeather and her cohort of activists worked on the GMO issue for seven years, during which they wrote a widely distributed pamphlet. “We didn’t really have the internet in the early 2000s so we travelled across the state and had live gatherings.” The group maintained a good rapport with the University of Hawai‘i, getting speakers for their events and setting up debates. 

The Garden Teacher

In 1994, Redfeather submitted a proposal to the board of the Waldorf school where she worked to begin a garden program. Splitting her time between the classroom and a new school garden, she was among the first teachers that decade to promote the benefits of agrarian classrooms. 

“I brought the 8th graders out to a big field filled with tall grass and said, ‘Okay, we’re going to make a garden here!” Refeather says. This was the beginning of eight years running this program with kindergarteners through eight graders. “By 1999 I had a really good idea of the role agriculture could play in education and the classroom.” With her background and decades in classroom teaching and child development, Redfeather saw many layers of benefits in overlapping her skills and passion for growing food. “The children were not only adding to their skills by working in the infrastructure of the garden, they were using the garden for their learning.”

Redfeather had lived in Hawai’i for over twenty years before she was able to purchase land of her own. “I’d always had gardens everywhere, but the piece of land we bought in 1998 was the first time I’d owned a small farm.” With this new opportunity, Refeather retired from teaching and developed Kanuwani Farm with her husband, Gerry Herbert. Herbert is an agriculturist graduated from UC Davis and an agricultural historian. “I was doing the GMO work while building the farm and the house simultaneously.”

Not long later, a local conservation nonprofit, the Kohala Center, reached out to Redfeather with the opportunity to organize a two-day conference. “I wanted to include everybody: the dairymen, the ranchers, the farmers, the educators, the policy makers and the scientist.” In 2007, the Hawai’i Island Food Summit launched with over three hundred attendees. “One of my breakout sessions was about school gardens and I didn’t think hardly anyone would attend since it was so specific, but as I watched almost a hundred people cram into this tiny room, I realized the time had come for organic agriculture to merge with education.”

Following the conference, the Kohala Center hired Redfeather to run the Hawai‘i Island School Garden Network, and for ten years she pursued the goal of starting organic gardens in each of the island’s 75 schools. 

But seeds were always on Redfeather’s mind.

The Hawai‘i Seed Growers Network

“In the following year the OREI had a grant to run a seed symposium for the entire state, so I applied and we got it.” At this point, Redfeather had been attending local seed exchanges for over seven years. “They would be huge! Five hundred people would come, but only about five people would bring seeds.” 

The first year of the symposium brought together 150 farmers and the Organic Seed Alliance. “The Organic Seed Alliance brought their A team; they put on presentations and did demonstrations — it was awesome.” By the time the symposium was over, a working group of 25 farmers and gardeners from across the state had formed to collaborate on preserving and sharing open-pollinated local varieties of seed. “Everyone in this group was growing seed independently; we just weren’t connected. Many of the group were extension agents or professors, so it was a nice combination of private and public.” This working group became the Hawai‘i Seed Growers Network.

Through the Cirrus Trust’s fund aimed at seed-saving initiatives, five members of the network began putting on statewide seed saving trainings. “We called it Seed Basics,” Redfeather says. “One thing lead to another: we started to see seed networks, seed libraries, and seed exchanges on the islands.” The unique climate, soil and half rainy-half dry seasons in Hawai‘i heighten the impetus to protect regionally-adapted seeds and the knowledge to grow them. Redfeather and her group began discussing how to build an effective market for sharing seeds and connecting various knowledge bases. “This is what Hawai‘i needed in order to protect food security moving forward.”

The necessity of seed saving came into focus during the pandemic. With many of the Indigenous food systems displaced by colonization and expensive industrial food shipped in from the mainland, gaining back access to fresh, nutritious food is a matter of survival.  “After March of 2020 we were quickly sold out,” Redfeather says. “Home gardening is one of our biggest food security assets, because you can always grow something here all year-round. Even a small yard can have a small garden and fruit trees.”

Growing an Impact

Today, Redfeather and her husband work with Western SARE on a table grape trial at their farm, 

Redfeather acknowledges that working on policy for small farms is difficult, because many lawmakers and policy influencers don’t see small farms as participants in the agricultural economy. “They would rather there be two or three 1,000-acre farms rather than a thousand 2- or 3-acre farms, but I know from living in Los Angeles what ten-thousand 1-acre farms can do.” 

Redfeather advises all seed and small farms advocates to start by truly dialing-in their own growing operations. “Grow what you can and share with friends; invest your time in organizations moving the same direction — that is the alternative system we’ll end up with in the end, so you might as well start investing in it now.”

To learn more about Nancy Redfeather visit kawanuifarm.org. Read more about the Hawai‘i Seed Growers Network at hawaiiseedgrowersnetwork.com.