Episode 9: Agricultural innovation with Dr. Peter Vitousek

Feb 5, 2016

In the lush green hills of Kohala fierce winds blow steady and hard. Many farmers might consider those winds an enemy—but centuries ago Hawaiian farmers made them an ally. In the ancient Kohala Field System they built low, mounded walls that stood two feet off the ground, walls that succeeded in trapping moisture from that wind; and then they planted sugar cane and banana along those walls to trap even more moisture, which fed the sweet potato and kalo growing below. Hawaiian farmers in Kohala studied the land and determined where soil fertility began to change; they used that knowledge to create boundaries for growing different crops. The scale of the Kohala system was huge: It was eight miles long and three miles wide, and required thousands of workers and intensive field rotation. Ingenuity was the hallmark of Hawaiian agriculture, says Dr. Peter Vitousek, an ecologist with Stanford University.

“They were a tremendously dynamic and innovative society—their accomplishments in navigation prove that beyond any doubt. And I think their abilities and drive as farmers was probably akin to their abilities and drive as navigators. They developed some of the most amazing agricultural production systems and sustained them for centuries and supported enormous numbers of people entirely on local resources.”