Once a sugar plantation and an industrial guava farm, Common Ground, on 80 acres of land tucked into a Kilauea neighborhood on Kaua’i’s North Shore, is a veritable regenerative agro-forest whose team dreams of creating a model for the “farm of the future.” Common Ground opened in 2018 as a “creative campus” intended to be the connective tissue between farmers and chefs whose abundant gifts would bring together community in a myriad of forms, from local residents to seasonal visitors. It’s also a kind of education hub with pleasure at the center.
We don’t often consider it when we visit from the U.S. mainland, but the island chain of Hawai’i is a delicate ecosystem with both tremendous abundance in some areas and stark frailty in others. Chairman Oliver Niedermaier calls Common Ground a “petri dish” in Hawai’i’s growing efforts to re-invent its economy and become an epicenter for food-systems innovation. Common Ground is one piece of the state’s complex and integrated 2050 Sustainability Plan, which, as defined by the task force, incorporates respect for the culture of all the island communities, fairly balances economic, environmental and social priorities, and stewards the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
At the center of this effort at Common Ground are Jennifer Luck, COO, and Adam Watten, Director of Food Systems, who work together to design a wide variety of programming. While visitors to Kaua’i are a big part of the island’s economy, one of Common Ground’s chief missions is to create a sustainable farm that includes tourists but doesn’t depend on them — and to offer visitors an immersive experience of island life while teaching them about local foods (and, by extension, culture and history). Watten says, “The more of the value chain we can keep here in Hawai’i through food systems, the more we all win.” And one of those wins for the visitor is a delicious experience of true island life.
The best way to esperience Common Ground for the first time is to sign up for a farm tour, where you’ll be guided though the regenerative food forest, designed by Director of Agroecology John Parziale, and learn about permaculture and biodynamic planting systems that speak to long-term goals of sustainability.
You can also walk to the Historic Stone Dam, built in 1880 to ensure enough water for the guava plantation operation. It’s now a lush, tranquil, meditative spot for all to enjoy.
Lounge Nights at Common Ground have quickly become a hot reservation and include cocktails, a four-course tasting menu prepared with ingredients grown on the farm, and live music. Chef Watten brings in rotating guest chefs from across the islands and further afield, allowing for a creative dance of people, recipe traditions, and cultural exchange.
Parziale says, “I think one of the things most people don’t realize is that there was essentially no food on this land before humans arrived. When the first canoes showed up, there was really nothing to eat. Everything we think of as “native Hawaiian foods” – taro, breadfruit, banana, sweet potato – are called “canoe plants” because they were brought here by people. So really, we’re not trying to replicate a pre-human condition. In agro-forestry, the succession is basically just this community of plants and animals that evolve over time and replace each other cyclically, and the climax of that is a forest.”
And, of course, this isn’t just about food. It’s about the ability of this local community to have its own sustainable ecosytem that isn’t dependent on the global supply chain — we saw the need for this in a very stark way when the Covid-19 pandemic began.
No matter your entry point, Common Ground is a place to gather, to enjoy, to eat and to learn.