WAIMEA, Hawaii >> The black kabocha, with its vibrant orange, moist and flavorful flesh, grew abundantly on the Hamakua Coast where Anna Peach lived in the early 2000s. She recalls seeing them in home gardens all over her neighborhood in 2006, the year she left the island. But upon returning in 2012, Peach found a completely different landscape: the black kabocha had virtually disappeared.
What happened? Investigating that mystery and resurrecting the squash turned Peach into a master seed saver.
“Seed saving is a worldwide movement, from local communities to the highest level of ivory towers,” said Mikey Kantar, assistant professor at the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. “It is a method for people to maintain the genetic diversity of a crop by preserving it.”
Peach’s goal was to preserve the black kabocha on a quarter-acre of land where she’s grown generations of the squash for nearly four years. She also tested other heirloom squash varieties to find those that could thrive in the environmental conditions of Waimea in particular and the state in general.
To start, she researched squash in Hawaii.
“I learned that after 2007, 97 percent of squash in the state was imported,” said Peach.
What likely happened, she said, was that gardeners tried to grow seeds from imported kabocha rather than the local variety. As a result, that climate- and pest-adapted plant virtually disappeared.
Meanwhile a new pest called the pickleworm took hold, devastating commercial growers. In Waimea the cooler, sometimes wet climate was an added challenge, bringing mildew that can stunt plants. The upshot: The area’s kabocha was nearly wiped out.
Having grown up in a family of farmers, Peach realized that the black kabocha in Hamakua was a “landrace” — an heirloom that had adapted to the particular conditions of a specific place — and if it was lost, it would be lost for good.
“It only takes one generation for it to be gone,” she said.
To preserve it, Peach had to keep its genetic lineage pure. This was not an easy task because squash is a bee-pollinated crop, and bees can bring about cross-pollination when they carry pollen from the flower of one squash variety to another variety. “You must tape the blooms shut before they open to prevent cross-pollination,” she said.
To ensure genetic purity, Peach hand-pollinated the blooms. Once squash seedlings sprouted, she culled all but the most robust plants, roughly every 2 out of 3. This maximized the nutrients available to thriving plants. The point, she said, was to save the seeds of only the hardiest plants.
“Nobody wants to grow a plant hit with pests and diseases,” she said.
The best plants of each generation then provided seeds for the next.
“If you keep doing the seed saving, the seeds become almost bionic,” she said. “Each generation becomes more adaptive to Hawaii.”
Peach has also tested some 100 varieties of heirloom squash from across the globe. Three-quarters failed, but she found success in varieties from Uganda, Thailand and Japan and has saved those seeds.
“Biodiversity is important,” she said. “You don’t want to have all your eggs in one basket.”
Lyn Howe, program director of the Hawaii Public Seed Initiative, provided context for Peach’s mission. Hundreds of heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables have gone extinct in the last century, Howe said, as seed companies have focused on select varieties conducive to large-scale production.
For instance, in 1903, 341 squash varieties were sold by U.S. seed houses — by 1983 just 40 varieties were housed in the National Seed Storage Laboratory in Colorado.
“We’re losing lots of genetics that we need as we’re coming into climate change and other stressors. We need to maintain as large a gene pool as possible,” Howe said. Plus, “growing locally adapted seeds help address the food security issue in Hawaii.”
As part of her seed-saving work, Peach took on other related projects, including cooking her product for chefs, a unique marketing strategy for her farm, which she calls Squash and Awe.
“I worked with chefs to get the kabocha back on the menu,” she said.
Peter Abarcar Jr., executive chef of the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, says there’s no question Peach’s squashes are better than their imported counterparts. “Their moisture content is higher, so they are juicier and have a better mouthfeel. Her squashes cook and eat better.”
He’s made a panna cotta with roasted and pureed black kabocha, as well as savory dishes.
Peach was also determined to run a zero-waste farm. The farm is on land deemed untillable, so her first task — and one that continued with each planting — was improving soil quality.
She used bokashi (fermented organic matter) and a fish emulsion she made from discarded restaurant scraps. Coffee grounds, wood chips from a tree on property, coral sand that releases calcium and hops from a local brewery also went into the ground. Peach even covered the soil with cardboard and old tax booklets to minimize wind erosion, maintain moisture and protect worms that take nutrients deeper into the ground. All those items were reclaimed locally for free.
“Living fertilizers,” companion plants grown alongside the squash, included lima beans and pigeon peas, which produce nitrogen; lemongrass, which controls erosion; as well as chayote, kale and other edibles. Amid those plants, wild chickens laid eggs.
Those plants didn’t just feed the squash; they fed Peach as well.
Her efforts paid off. Her quarter-acre farm yielded as much squash as is typical for an acre.
Now she looks to her next goal.
“I gave myself four years to figure this out. I’m at the point now where I’m trying to pass this information on to others.”
She’s created an online Squash School that is training 20 growers in other parts of the state, providing them with seeds to grow and test. In Kona, where the weather is hotter, one grower is producing kabocha as large as 24 pounds. Another, in Kula, Maui, is doing so well that she supplies a neighborhood restaurant.
“I want to take away all the excuses for importing,” Peach said. “My philosophy is that my ancestors found solutions; I can find solutions. This is soil microbiology versus the chemistry of modern laboratories.”
The Hawaii Public Seed Initiative, a Kohala Center program run by Lyn Howe, operates a website that is a resource for those who want to learn about seed saving. The site covers everything from how to select the best varieties of produce to properly saving seeds.
In 2015, the Hawaii Seed Growers Network grew out of the initiative. Now, seven seed growers supply an online market. By the end of the year, the network should offer 24 varieties of seeds, adapted for Hawaii’s conditions and microclimates.
Coming up on Sept. 23 is “Seed Fest: Local Seeds for Local Needs,” a statewide event to be held at a few farms on each islands. Check the websites below for updates: