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How her garden grows: Nancy Redfeather reflects on The Kohala Center accomplishments and retirement priorities

Updated: 
May 16, 2017 - 1:15am

WAIMEA — Nancy Redfeather, whose name is synonymous with school gardens on Hawaii Island, recently retired from a prestigious 10-year career at The Kohala Center in Waimea.

She started working at The Kohala Center in 2006 and accomplished so much that people assumed she’d been working there much longer than 10 years. But for Redfeather, the time flew by and was not so much a job, but a labor of love.

“Reflecting on my life and career, I see now that everything I did before 2006 was an apprenticeship for the work I was finally privileged to do for The Kohala Center,” she said.

Her first assignment at The Kohala Center was chairing the Hawaii Island Food Summit in 2007. The relationships she built with schools and teachers led to her creation of the Hawaii Island School Garden Network (HISGN) in 2008. As its program director, Redfeather grew the number of school gardens on Hawaii Island from 20 to 63 by 2016.

Her work with school gardens proved to be a cornerstone for her next project: charting a course for the statewide Farm to School Initiative. It involves agriculture and education working together to increase the procurement of fresh, locally grown food for school meals and snacks.

A current beneficiary of the program is Kohala Elementary School under the direction of Principal Danny Garcia. He first met Redfeather in January 2010 when he was among a group of principals that listened to her talk about the benefits of a school garden program.

“Nancy’s a legitimate bona fide trailblazer,” Garcia said. “She was an anchor in establishing our school garden, and from that very first meeting has been with us every step of the way.”

Redfeather lobbied for the state farm to school bill and nominated the Kohala Complex to serve as a model for the program statewide. The school garden there began in 2010, and their farm to school project started in October 2016, with students served lunches following the new menus in January.

“Our kitchen is now a farm to school kitchen and we’ve been granted a waiver to purchase fresh local produce to make healthier, farm-fresh lunches for our students,” Garcia said.

Kayla Sinotte, who serves as one of two garden educators at Kohala Elementary, said she regularly seeks Redfeather’s expertise, support and networking skills.

“Quite honestly, our garden wouldn’t even be here without her, and now our school may become the demonstration model to eventually have all public schools in Hawaii become farm to school,” she said.

Other Kohala Center projects spearheaded by Redfeather included the Ku Aina Pa School Garden Teacher Training Program and writing curriculum for the Hawaii School Garden Curriculum Map. She also oversaw the FoodCorps Hawaii program, and created the Hawaii Public Seed Initiative and Hawaii Seed Growers Network.

“All these programs were possible to begin here in Hawaii because there was, and still is, plentiful space for creative innovation, interested funders, supportive organizations and plenty of colleagues with similar interests to share in the pioneering work,” Redfeather said. “Every day presented new challenges of how to help teachers, principals and gardeners with the resources they need for their program and projects, yet based on what I know, increasing the number of home and school gardens would create the greatest potential for meeting the governor’s call to double the local food supply in Hawaii by 2020.”

Her innate connection to gardening and food sustainability may stem from growing up on her family’s urban farm in San Gabriel Valley, California. It was a time when small farms, roadside stands and citrus orchards were a natural part of the Southern California landscape.

By the late ‘70s, however, the area had morphed into a concrete jungle, and Redfeather found herself in search of a more rural lifestyle and a more creative and less stressful life than in Los Angeles.

She found what she was looking for on the Big Island of Hawaii. After arriving in 1978, she lived in diverse environments, from the oceanfront at Kealakekua Bay to the high rainforests of Honaunau and everywhere in between.

In 1998, she and her new husband, Gerry Herbert, settled on a 1.2 acre mini-farm they named Kawanui, 1,500 feet above Kona.

“At Kawanui, we strive to grow the food we like to eat and create organic sustainable systems that support the land and the creatures who live here,” Redfeather said. “We are always experimenting with new varieties and developing land systems that create a partnership with the natural environment.”

The farm also takes on interns with a goal of passing on knowledge and skills to the next generation.

The newly retired Redfeather is as busy on the family farm as she’s always been, but still finds time to volunteer on her Kohala Center projects. She keeps track of developments on the farm to school program, and works at the state policy level for the Hawaii Farm to School and School Garden Hui. She also serves on the P-20 Agriculture Education Working Group and works on the Farm to School teacher’s curriculum.

Redfeather is a board member for the Friends Kona Pacific Public Charter School. Current plans are in the works to create a full farm to school program there and new cafeteria with construction to begin this summer. She’s also on the board of her own non-profit, Ka Ohana O Na Pua.

Lastly, Redfeather stays closely connected with the School Garden Teacher Training Program Ku Aina Pa group, which will hold their sixth Summer Intensive next month on Hawaii Island.

It sounds like a full-time work schedule, but Redfeather has been relishing her retirement.

“The word retirement doesn’t really speak the truth about the time when one ends formal work with a company or organization,” she said. “It really is the beginning of the next phase of life; one that presents new opportunities for healing, letting go of stress, increased self-expression, exploration of new areas of interest and growth through reflection.”

To that end Redfeather plans to spend at least part of her days reading and writing, speaking and listening, creating and observing, and of course working in the gardens on her family farm.

She’ll also continue working on ways to engage with her community, children and youth because “Passing on the treasures of learning is the way of the kupuna,” she added.

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