WAIMEA >> Anna Peach is a squash farmer who goes to art shows and ballroom dances. Surrounded by a sea of grass in North Kohala, she considers herself an “urbanist.” Somewhere in this clash of concepts, there is also the term “guerrilla farmer.”
They’re not the only things that are quirky about this 45-year-old transplant from Wisconsin, who traces her agricultural blood back six generations to Ireland.
There is also the blue 1979 MG Midget, which she tinkers on herself and which serves as her delivery wagon — it’ll haul 300 pounds at a shot, no problem, if she takes the spare tire out. And the fact that she walks up from the patch and says hello with a pet feral chicken tucked under her arm — she’s treating it for avian pox because the veterinarians will have nothing to do with the bird.
There is also her uncanny ability to coax a simply huge crop from this small patch of ground in the Lalamilo Farm Lots. And for those who care about effective, small scale and alternative agriculture, her message is becoming impossible to ignore.
“The idea was that I didn’t need new seeds,” Peach said. “The seeds were already here.”
Peach started out with a set of basic problems and pests that plague many farmers here: Drought, pickleworm, melon fly and powdery mildew. They’re potent enemies that have laid waste to many a field. They are part of the reason that Hawaii imports 95 percent of the squash it consumes, a number that she decided one day was unacceptably high.
Peach — who has been involved in alternative agriculture for years — then sought out the old “backyard” varieties of kabocha squash growing on the island, and tested some 65 to 70 strains from similar climates all over the world. The result has been three years of experiments and networking with other farmers that have kept her mind buzzing.
She now has an arsenal of 14 varieties which work well with the aina here. Her favorite, which she calls Hawaiian black kabocha, has been on the island for a long time. She crossed Hawaiian butternut squash with the Hawaiian black to produce another resilient and productive strain. She named it Dream Keeper.
Peach figured out how to stamp out powdery mildew by cutting off infected leaves and reburying the stems. She keeps worms out of the fruits by placing them on small blocks off the ground. Her squash have prevailed while heavy rain and temperature fluctuations rotted crops in other fields.
Her basic principle: Go back to the old seeds to find your answers.
“All this, I had to figure out,” she said. “There was no research on it.”
Walk into the squash patch, and you’re struck first with the sheer density, and height, of green. The next impression is completely incongruous. The place smells like a brewery. That’s part of the secret of how Peach is able to harvest 2,000 pounds of gourmet squash every month for quick delivery to leading restaurants in North Hawaii.
Her nickname for the patch is “The Beer Garden.”
“Why put on nice clothes?” she said. “At the end of the day, I reek like a barroom floor.”
The source of the smell is a half-ton per week of fermented hops and coconut, which Peach collects from Waimea’s Big Island Brewhaus and spreads on the ground. The compost is dense with nutrients and keeps moisture in the soil, reducing the need for irrigation.
“It’s about efficiency in every sense of the word,” she said.
Ancient Hawaiians knew how to use heavy composting to grow gigantic sweet potato tubers. Peach’s own ancestors in Ireland were building richness into small fields with seaweed centuries ago. Today, she is hooked in with a network of farmers around the globe who send her heirloom varieties of squash to test in the soil she has built. The idea is to spread the seeds as widely as possible so they aren’t lost forever. It’s about keeping an agricultural legacy alive.
Peach has given seeds to some 200 growers and helped one Oahu farmer get restarted after his crops failed repeatedly. The Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. flew her to California over the summer for trials of the Hawaiian black kabocha to see how well it performs in other regions. Peach gives presentations in schools and increasingly is on the speaking circuit to talk about squash breeding in Hawaii and turning fallow land into very rich plots without spending money.
There are the naysayers who tell her she’ll have her turn at getting wiped out. And she occasionally gets called — yeah — a girl.
Her landlord, Howard Hall, has watched it all.
“She gained an interesting respect from some of the older farmers in this area,” Hall said. “Because you look at her and you don’t think so — but she hung in there and hung in there. I have to think a research paper will come out of all of this, because all that research shouldn’t be for naught.”
Peach has had a few brushes with the industrial machine — enough to remind her why she didn’t want to go that way. Some chefs won’t deal with her because her produce doesn’t come through a distributor. The distributors don’t know what box to put her in — literally — because the squash are not uniform in size. But other chefs prize the dense, nutritious food, which she allows to sit for 30 days to sweeten and slightly dry out — even if the package isn’t as pretty.
Peach went to business school at Loyola University Chicago and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She spent a number of years in New York City, where she volunteered in what she calls “urbanism” projects, the trendy push for high-yield, small-space gardens on city rooftops.
She considers her quarter-acre Lalamilo plot a rooftop. And the seeds are free for the asking.
“I have no secrets,” she said. “We keep this knowledge alive by sharing it.”