Cody Lee Meyer buzzes with energy when he talks about farming on Kauai. It’s not just about everything he’s accomplished over the last 18 months creating The Farm at Hokuala and transforming an overgrown golf course trampled by wild pigs and chickens into a bountiful fruit orchard and organic vegetable garden. It’s not only about providing Chef Luis with the cream of the crop, so to speak, when it comes to creating fresh, seasonal farm-to-table dishes for Hualani’s Grill. Or the fact that Meyer has created a true community farm with an agriculture education program for local schools and weekly tours for visitors who have the opportunity to pick their own food for special chef-prepared farm-to-table dinners during their stay.
For this third-generation farmer (his great-grandfather Henry Meyer lived his whole life on a farm in Kentucky), growing organic food isn’t just about sustainable farming, it’s about sustaining life. He describes his crops in staccato bursts, ticking off plant varieties and farming techniques in the same breath that he might wax poetic on ancestral Hawaiian agriculture or what it meant to be able to feed his infant daughter mashed banana straight from the tree. He clearly has passion for farming, but it’s about so much more than that. “I’m not a farmer, I’m an edible food artist,” he says. “My pen and scribe are dirt and seed and I make things colorful using those.”
The 32-year-old Ohio native has a degree in physical geography but became interested in food after graduating from Trent University when he decided the best way to travel would be to become a cook. The closer he could get to what he calls “the most remote places on earth,” the better. With no formal training, he learned on the job in kitchens all over the world, from Costa Rica to Antarctica and Alaska. “I wanted to see what we could feed people living in the wild. To me, that was exciting.”
Eventually, he landed on Kauai where he immediately felt at home. “It was very special, very sacred, and very green. After having worked in a cold place surrounded by grizzly bears, penguins, and wolves, seeing all that vegetation was so therapeutic.” After working in a few kitchens, he wanted to get outside, so he sought out the most experienced local farmer he could find. That lead him to “old Kapuna” Phil Sheldon, a farmer from the South Shore who started the first organic association on Kauai. Meyer worked for there for three years, learning everything he could about farming on the island. From there he went on to Steel Grass Farm and then to the Farm at Hokuala, where he has been given the opportunity to literally create something from the ground up. “My passion is to learn farming from our elders to bring back our roots and to educate the kids how to grow their own produce, because if we don’t do it, who will?” He donates as much surplus food as he can to local schools and shelters. “I want to give away as much food as I can,” he says.
With the farm-to-table movement taking hold on the mainland, one might assume organic farming would be abundant on Kauai, which is, after all, known as The Garden Island. But that’s not the case, Meyer says. “Kauai imports 90 percent of its food. Growing food should be essential, but somehow, we’ve lost that. The farm-to-table philosophy is kind of like a revolution and eco-tourism is booming, so there’s more opportunity. But there’s a responsibility for taking care of the land. Agriculture has gone the way of machinery and chemicals, but you can grow a lot here with the dirt and sun and water. It’s easy. It just takes dedication, sweat, blood, and patience.”
As a father to 5-year-old daughter Rosa and with another baby on the way, he feels strongly about teaching this to future generations. “I want to teach the future farmers because there’s so much that’s being lost in terms of agriculture. I want to teach them that we can have food security, teaching our children how to grow their own food. If they don’t know how, who is going to do it for them?”
At the Farm at Hokuala, the sky is the limit for Meyer, who is only now just getting started. Phase 1 was to get the fruit trees planted and orchard established. Phase 2 was focused on the vegetable garden for the Chef. Now he has his sights set on creating “value added” proprietary crops like chocolate, coffee, honey, vanilla bean, and maybe even Kauai’s first wine vineyard, if for no other reason than all the times he’s been told you can’t grow grapes on Kauai. “If you say I can’t do it, I’m going to find a way,” he says. “Hawaiians believe that life on this island came from a higher power and I believe that, too. It’s not just planting a seed and picking it and eating it. There’s a deepness to growing food. It’s what connects you to this Earth.”