Maui’s Soil Power

Whatʻs ‘greenest’ is actually brownish-black

“The shelves are all empty,” he said. One of the most vivid memories I have of early 2020 pandemic life is the day when my husband Joe spoke these words—and he wasn’t talking about the grocery store. He had just come home from a shopping trip and was reporting back that he couldn’t find bags of soil anywhere on the island. Our family, like many others, had noticed the grocery shelves emptying and decided it was time to grow some more food in our backyard. As a result, all of the local garden-supply retailers had run out of their usual inventory of soil mixes.

In that moment, the dissonance rang like a bell through my entire being: Maui residents, who live in the most isolated island archipelago on the planet, who experience weather that allows us to grow plants year-round, depend almost entirely on far-away places to provide the medium in which we can grow food. I was perplexed and frustrated at the madness of it all, and it pained me to think that well-intentioned residents, who wanted to grow their own food in the middle of a global crisis, would find the shelves empty and give up. There has to be another way, I thought.

And it turns out, there is another way—it’s called regeneration.


“Regenerative agriculture,” is a buzzword on everyoneʻs lips these days. It’s become a global movement celebrated among farmers, ecologists, and climate activists, but at the core itʻs nothing new. Methods like cover cropping, crop rotation, composting, managed grazing, and even the making and use of biochar have been practiced by indigenous people the world over for thousands of years.

This is because they knew something many have forgotten: soil isn’t just the brownish-black material that food happens to grow from; it’s actually a lot more important than that. Soil is the foundation of all nutrients we receive from food and is the basis of entire ecosystems. Soil is the medium through which plants communicate with one another, and has more life in a single teaspoon than our minds can comprehend. It can even hold carbon safely underground, instead of releasing it into our atmosphere.

With regenerative agriculture, the very thing that is being “regenerated” is the life of the land, that foundational power that lies beneath the surface. 

Long ago, there were no synthetic additives for gardens and farms, no shipping them from thousands of miles away, no big earth-moving machines, no garden stores. But still, there was plenty of food. People had no choice but to build and tend the soil themselves, with the materials they had available, and today we have plenty of archaeological evidence that they did just that. For example, in Amazon Basin, where soils are normally not very fertile, the record shows that between 450 BCE and 950 CE indigenous farmers created Terra preta do índio (black soil of the Indian) by making and adding biochar to their farmlands. Biochar (essentially charcoal made from locally sourced wood) remains in the soil for thousands of years, binding and retaining minerals, moisture, and water-soluble nutrients, allowing the soil to regenerate itself and making space underground for microbes to thrive.

Biochar has been used by indigenous people for thousands of years. Photo courtesy Flickr / Rob Goodier / E4C

Even with lasting ancient innovations like this, many indigenous land management practices have been lost to the perils and pursuits of colonization. Somewhere along the way, with manifest destiny, population increases, global travel, technological advancements, and rapid supply-chain expansions, we changed our tune. Conventional, commodified agricultural methods became the norm, with a laser-focus on the “productivity” of land (things like crop yield per acre and profit margins), expecting the land to bear fruits indefinitely without a reciprocal relationship, without putting back what was taken and without considering the land’s overall health.

In recent human history we’ve gone astray, with the introduction of chemical inputs to force soil fertility, earth-moving machines to beat the land into submission, and other technologies that are often remnant “innovations” of the military industrial complex. For generations, modern farming practices have taken a stark departure from tuning into the earth’s natural processes. As a result, the world’s prime farmlands have been depleted of nutrients, including the limited lands we have for farming on Maui.

Over a century of conventional, mono-crop sugarcane and pineapple farming on Maui has drained the landʻs vitality and repeatedly torn up the surface, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and destroying the structure of our soils. Heavy reliance on the use of harmful herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers has killed beneficial microorganisms in the soil and disrupted the soilʻs microbiome. In 2023, in between plantings and when new fields are being prepped in windy Central Maui, we’ve witnessed whatʻs left of our precious topsoil literally blowing away. The land is simply exhausted from all of the abuse. Meanwhile, we have hungry mouths to feed and import somewhere between 80-90 percent of our food. Weʻre not having a food crisis—weʻre having a soil crisis.


How can we make soil health a top priority after decades of conventional farming practices, enormous pressure from industries dependent upon them, and leadership that is resistant to change? For starters, we can do some good old-fashioned community organizing, and work to create incentives and public policy to support a better future for our soils. There are several pieces of legislation currently showing promise, on the national, state, and county levels.

In Washington, D.C., we have the 2023 Farm Bill making the rounds in Senate and House committees, and thereʻs a national movement called “Regenerate America” that is lobbying Congress to ensure that regenerative agriculture is supported by national policy. Lawmakers—many of whom have been embroiled in conflicts and partisan politics lately—have until September of this year to get it together and replace the expiring Farm Bill (enacted in 2018) with a new one.

On the state level, as part of a package of bills introduced early this year by the state legislature’s Environmental Legislative Caucus, Hawaiʻi lawmakers are considering HB443/SB660, which would implement a “healthy soils program” within the Department of Agriculture. This bill intends to promote agricultural practices that improve soil health, sequester more carbon, and incentivise farmers to adopt soil regeneration practices.

In Maui County, we’ve seen the recent success of Bill 160, which requires 262 acres of Kula Agricultural Park lands—which are owned by the County and leased at affordable rates to local small farmers—to be farmed organically.

There are ways to get engaged at each of these levels of the public sector, to share your suggestions on all three of these bills, and to encourage the kinds of systemic changes we sorely need. And in the meantime, we can start implementing the changes ourselves, in our own backyards.

Conventional farming practices have depleted our soil’s health. Courtesy Pexels / Rodolfo Clix


On that day back in 2020, after a few passionate conversations about our islands’ vulnerability, my husband Joe and I realized we would have to make our own soil if we wanted to grow food. And in order to make it, we had to use resources that were already on the island. As it turns out, we have everything we need to make our own soil. We have a constant supply of food waste in our homes and businesses, seemingly endless green waste (especially from overgrown invasive species), and recently eased regulations for small “artisan-scale” composting in Hawaiʻi. We are not making healthy soil on Maui at the rate we need it (not by a long shot), which makes us more dependent on imported soil, but the potential is all around us. 

Another easy step we can all take to promote soil health is to filter the water we use to irrigate our plants. Most residents are using the municipal water supply, which is treated with chemicals that kill germs from contaminating our drinking water. Yet they also kill the beneficial microbes in our soil. We can purchase affordable filters that attach to our garden hoses. Sure, it’s an investment and it takes time to build healthy soil, but it is absolutely affordable on the individual scale, well worth it in the long run, and it’s easy—anyone can do it.

When making decisions as an island dweller, it makes sense to consider the many resources we have at our disposal. We have become deeply dependent upon imports, and much harm is happening as a result. We can make different decisions. We can utilize our waste streams to make soil rather than importing plastic packages. We can rethink how we make our home and school gardens, our forestry projects, our land management, and we can return to regenerative practices on our farmlands.

What will it take for us to shift our mindset from seeing the land as something we control into one that respects land as a living being? Years of extractive land practices, in the name of convenience and capitalism, have gotten us into a world of trouble. What if we take care of the land simply because it takes care of us? Let’s not wait until the shelves are empty again. Let’s start now.

Sara Tekula