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Local Farmer Says ʻUlu Theft Sparks Deeper Discussions About Education and Community

Ulu Courtesy Joe McGinn 2.jpg
Courtesy Joe McGinn

Dependence on imported food and the need for more sustainable agriculture in our islands is an issue that has been magnified by the pandemic. When local families who struggle financially can’t buy food or don’t know how to grow their own, some resort to desperate measures — like stealing — in order to feed their families.

Joe McGinn, an Oʻahu farmer and farming instructor, says he’s recently seen an increase in the theft of ʻulu, or breadfruit.

He said he caught a guy last year who picked his ʻulu tree bare. This year he has already caught four different people trying to steal from it — and he's hearing similar stories from people in his network and on neighbor islands.

"That's happening with the large farmers, it's happening in the schools where education is happening, and even for us here," he said. "We're a small family farm, we do mostly education and what we grow we mostly give away, so we share with our ʻohana, we eat for ourselves. And it was really tough for us last year because we put a lot of work into caring for our trees, right? When it comes to the fruit, the fruit is just a reflection of all the work, all the care, all the love that happened in the previous year."

He shared why he thinks people specifically target the fruit, and how increased community agricultural efforts could help eliminate the need for stealing.  

"As we're getting healthier, getting in touch with who we are, reconnecting with our culture, we are finding oh my goodness, ʻulu is such an amazing fruit, the way it grows, the way it produces, and even the health benefits of ʻulu. So ʻulu right now is really getting popular and I think what's happening is all of the other things around ʻulu aren't happening," McGinn said.

Joe courtesy Joe McGinn.jpg
Courtesy Joe McGinn

Taking ʻulu and not reciprocating, even if it isn't money, has brought to light a bigger problem in the community that McGinn thinks needs to be addressed.

"It's just the taking of it, we're not talking about the stories of what it represents, how to grow it, how to share it," McGinn told Hawaiʻi Public Radio. "For some Pacific Asian cultures, they believe that if you plant two ʻulu when a child is born, those two ʻulu trees will provide enough sustenance for the rest of their life."

McGinn said he understands some people are stealing to feed their children, so he would love to build a course that teaches people how to grow, cultivate and cook ʻulu — and teaches why we grow ʻulu.

"I saw one father that wanted for feed his children and that's who I am. That's why I grow ʻulu, for feed my children. And he's picking the ʻulu for feed his children. And if we realize that, why are we doing this, right? Why are we doing this? I really believe that at the root of it all, we want the same things," McGinn said.

Another aspect of the situation, he said policing agricultural theft is not a common practice in Hawaiʻi like it is in California or other areas.

"They have specific police units that monitor and go after ag theft. Here in Hawaiʻi at least and specifically to Honolulu County, call the police, oftentimes they don't know what to do. They won't even take a report," McGinn said.

Others in the farming community have said agricultural theft is one of the most underreported crimes.

"We don't have the laws and the people watching out for us. So a lot can be done on the administration side, allocating the funds, allocating the resources — setting up the laws so people who do get caught, that there is one penalty involved that's going to deter them," he said.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Sept. 23, 2021.

Russell Subiono is the executive producer of The Conversation. Born in Honolulu and raised on Hawaiʻi Island, he’s spent the last decade working in local film, television and radio. Contact him at
Sophia McCullough is HPR's digital news producer. Contact her at
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