Walking into Kauai’s Agricultural Past | Ancient Hawaiian Farming

Bob and Linda approached me as they were wiping splotches of ferrous red Kokee mud from the fender of their blue Jeep. “Don’t want to get stuck with an additional cleaning fee from Hertz”, he sheepishly grinned. They had stayed 2 weeks with us in our Kauai vacation rental and it was sad for me to be saying Aloha. Finishing up he smiled cunningly and asked, “We have two hours before we depart, “What is the best thing to do on Kauai?”

Knowing they had hiked all over the island I replied, “Why not take a walk into Kauai’s agricultural past?” The advantages are the proximity to Turtle Cove Suites and an opportunity to learn how the ancient Hawaiians sustained themselves in the semi arid conditions of Poipu.

Poipu's ancient farming past

Ancient Hawaiian Agricultural Complex

Turn on to Kiahuna Plantation Drive from Poipu Road and turn into the road that leads to the Kiahuna Golf Club. Park at the golf club and you will see the signs indicating Preserve #1. This approximately 3.5 acre was recently opened, and while funding is limited, there are signs posted indicating the sometimes disappearing path into this ancient agricultural complex.

Overview of Preserve 1 of the Koloa Fields

The Koloa Field System comprised over 1000 acres that encompasses what is now called Poipu and south Koloa. Its moon like landscape strewn with lichen covered lava rock seems almost inhospitable today by current farming standards. Gone are the deep soiled verdant pastures that lie only a mile away, replaced by a shallow well drained soil that black pock marked rocks inhabit only inches underfoot.

The navigational skills of the Hawaiians is legendary and well documented. However their farming skills are only recently being lauded by present day archeologists and forensic agriculturalists. Employing environmental observations, an understanding of local crop characteristics, along with religious traditions in the guidance of their planting and harvesting they lived in harmony with less than fecund fields.

best use for irrigation water

Diagram of Irrigation Patterns in the Koloa Fields

The time honored key to ancient Hawaiian sustainability in this semi arid tropical environment was respect for the aina or land, and regard for the natural components that make farming possible, such as the plant and water. The Hawaiians ingeniously diverted water from the start of the Waikomo Stream which lies west of the Koloa Fields. They created their ‘auwai or irrigation ditches from natural contours created by lava flows to convey water to fields by branching off the main ditch to individual areas.

Carefully follow the wood chip path from the entrance bearing left or east, and stop at the enclosures with rock mounds. These mounds in sections that would have been flooded are called lo’i. They were developed to promote above ground growth away from the irrigated soil. These areas were probably used to grow sweet potato where the climbing vines could avoid rot while supporting massive starchy tubers that were prized by ancient Hawaiians.

Water runoff was collected to irrigate down slope where the open fields were used for crops such as dry land taro. At the very bottom of the fields were the walled livestock pens that probably housed pigs. In the center of the preserve you will find several rock bases that researchers believed were foundations for housing. Unknown is if the structures there were temporary or permanent.

Keep an eye out for the native Hawaiian nene, they roost amongst the rock walls of the lo’i and they act as if they own the area, and perhaps they do. I believe I found the answer to my question of where do all the nene hang out when they are not laughing at my golf game at the Kiahuna Golf Club.

Preserve 1 can easily be walked in an hour or less the only cautionary advice that I can offer is to be mindful of your footing. Rocks are everywhere and it would be easy to turn an ankle if you are not careful.

With just a small amount of time you can learn about how ancient Hawaiians farmed the lands of Koloa and Poipu and step back into Kauai’s agricultural past, it’s one of the best things to do in Kauai.

About Joe Sylvester

Aloha! I have lived on Kauai for 33 years where I have worked as an Agronomist for 17 years, owned an art gallery for 11 years and own a vacation rental for 17 years in the town of Poipu. I am a former Peace Corps volunteer and have been married since 1985.
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  1. I love the way you walk us back into Hawaiian history with this post. Mahalo for sharing all that you studied!

  2. Kyle Morrison says:

    Nice article Joe, I have lived in Koloa and now Lawai area for 8 years and did not know this was there. So taking the wife and checking it out.

    Aloha a hui hou!

    Hoahānau Kāne Kyle Morrison

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