10/31/2013 11:14 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Having Nothing Teaches You Something For Life


My dad grew up at a time when people were literally dirt poor. They were lucky to even get a full meal on a day to day basis. Most of their food was grown on their own farms too. Getting enough food was a simple pleasure back then. By the time he was old enough to follow simple directions, he'd be working on their own family farm to help feed their growing family. He was steering the tractor of the time, a water bull, by the age of 10 or so. Every kid worked on the farm because it was a necessity for survival.

At the tender age of 3, he was clever kid. My grandmother used to fasten the hook at the top of the door to keep him in the house. It never worked because he had figured out that a broomstick made a great way to unlatch that contraption. He spent many days wading in the rice paddies and taro patches for hours. My grandmother used to joke that she thought he was dead because he'd always disappear and she could never find him because she in the fields also. She later learned that he was safe and sound with the Chinese farm help, Mr. Ah Kong.

His days as kid were filled with wonder despite having nothing. He would have many adventures going down to the dump with his dad to find all kinds of treasures and scraps that might be valuable. A little screw, a few bent nails, pieces of tin, and other precious objects seemed like junk to many, but to my Jiji (grandfather) and my dad, it was useful. It didn't matter if it came from the dump, they could use it. That was true recycling going on back then. It was a hard life but when you live it, it never appears that way.

Growing your own food taught him the lessons of hard work and learning how to process it. If he wanted milk, he had to milk the cow. If the dinner was chicken, someone had to kill it. If you wanted to eat eggs, someone had to go and harvest them from the coop. If you wanted to have some pork, he had to feed them and eventually kill them. The taro had to planted and the irrigation ways had to be cleared to keep the water flow just right. If needed, someone had to go and catch the fish if there was nothing else to eat. Getting one's food was an entire day's job for many local families. No one cared where or how the food was processed, just to have something to eat and not be hungry was a luxury. That is what my dad called the old days.

What has happened from then to now? Why are we all fighting about our food? Why are some people wanting to go back to the old days of farming? Was it that much better back then? Would you really want to be the one to kill your own animals and grow all of your food? Is that really something that can be done given our current lifestyles and modern ways? What has happened to our values through this transition from the old days to now?

From growing up with nothing, my dad instilled in me many key values. Be thankful for what you have. Take care of the things you do have, whether it be your land or your resources. Work hard to earn that thing you want because it teaches you the value of what it takes to get it. That's the same values of many farmers who lived through that era experienced. Some like my dad are still farming to this very day. Many of these farmers look at the current state of agriculture where there is a divisiveness caused by consumers demanding the kind of agricultural systems to be used. If you grow anything other than organic, these farmers are being vilified for their choice of tools. We don't eat like we do 50 years ago and it should be no wonder that we don't farm the same way either.

Many consumers have lost the basic values of what it meant to grow your own food and clamor to return to the "old days." We can simply drive to the store, grab a cart and pick whatever food we want. We have choices galore and if we want, we can pay that extra dollar or two for perceived premium food. Food is everywhere thanks to the many farmers who grew it. For most of us, there is never a day or ever prolonged periods of time where we're worried about our next meal. We are so lucky and privileged to have an abundance of food and clean water. Many times we take it for granted because as much as the old days seem idyllic, it really wasn't. Ask people who lived through it.

I sometimes think that we have lost our core lessons learned on the farm which leaves us where we are in the food debates. We don't have to kill animals for our meat and we cringe when we hit a bird with our car! We don't spend hours harvesting and processing crops but we can spend hours reading things on the internet on how to grow food. We don't drive the tractors to plow fields and prep it for the next round of crops and nor can we drive all that well on the freeway in the rain. We don't even have 1 percent of the skills and knowledge a farmer has and yet, consumers want to tell them how to farm. Something is wrong here.

The modern consumer has no clue about the luxuries we have available to us. We're pretty lucky to be able to live the way we do in my opinion. When we don't have something is when we realize how precious that thing is. When we have time to protest about something, we forget about the wonders of modern life has given us because we never have to worry about it.

I think many times, we do have to go back to the old days to remind us of that. My dad was born during World War II on the Windward side of Oahu. There was martial law for many years and he grew up with blackened windows and no lights at night. Light was provided by candles. When martial law ended several years later, my grandmother flicked on the switch to the light fixture. Being the curious kid, my dad pointed up and asked, "What's that?" The simple light bulb was an amazing wonder to him every time it got switched on. Maybe that is how we have to look at our food again and be amazed at how it got to us every time we sit to eat.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.