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Ono Farms Delivers on Organic
Thirty-five years ago, Chuck and Lili Boerner left Honolulu for remote Kipahulu on East Maui to start a family-run, organic farm at a time when most farmers were selling their land to corporations and moving to town.
“It’s actually staggering for us to even comprehend. I hardly remember doing it. You just do it because you love it,” said Lili one Thursday afternoon under overcast skies as she passed around wicker plates lined with banana leaves to a group gathered on her lanai for her weekly farm tour and fruit tasting.
“I’m using banana leaves. It’s a new project,” she said. “I don’t want to buy paper plates anymore. We just got back from India, where they use newspaper.
An Organic Farm in Hawaii
“When my husband graduated from college, he traveled around the world for seven years. He had a degree in engineering, but he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. After seeing the rest of the world, he realized that if you owned a piece of land and had a farm, you were a rich person. When he came home to Oahu and told his parents he wanted to be a farmer, they were not happy. They had big Honolulu plans for him.
“My husband is fabulous dreamer. I just let him dream and create things. I like the tours and my garden, and I run the office.
“We’re going to start with a low-acid pineapple,” Lili says, as she slices the skin off the fruit. “Low-acid doesn’t have that bite to it.” She stands at a table piled high with colorful fruits.
The dream—Ono Farms—started with nine aces and has since grown to 275. When the couple arrived, rock and scrub brush covered the land—holdovers from cattle-grazing days. Today, the couple works 50 acres across an undulating valley that ranges in elevation from 200 feet to 1,000.
Beyond Hana—in Kipahulu—on East Maui
As Lili passed pineapple chunks to her visitors, she looked down the valley and across the ocean. Clouds blocked the view of Big Island, lying in the Pacific Ocean east of Maui. “It looks like we’re maybe going to have a little shower,” she said. “We get 125 to 130 inches of rain a year, a little bit all year round. We can take a two-month drought. We don’t like to, but we can.”
Lili’s farm sits on the southeast shore of East Maui in the off-the-grid valley of Kipahulu, which is tucked between Haleakala National Park to the north and a barren desert to the south. This windward location provides regular and plentiful rain, making it the perfect place to farm. Lili’s isn’t the first family to farm the area. Some call it the breadbasket of Maui. Hundreds of archeological sites, including taro patches and agricultural terraces, dot the area, indicating Native Hawaiians once heavily populated the area.
Back at her table, Lili cut open a papaya. Her dog heard something off in the distance and barked. Lili’s farm doesn’t evoke the image of a traditional farm or fruit orchard, all in rows of this plant and orchards of that fruit tree. Hers looks more like someone jumbled a bunch of different seeds in a jar and, then, sprinkled them far and wide, letting trees grow where seeds fell.
“This is a real papaya,” Lili said, as she dropped a couple pieces onto each of her guests’ banana leaf plates.
Kipahulu is not a stop on your typical tour of Maui. To visit Lili and partake in her tropical fruit tasting, you have to drive the 50 miles--crossing 54 one-lane bridges and making 600 hairpin turns on Highway 36/360 out of Kahalui—to Hana. But don’t stop in Hana. Drive another 10 miles and 40 minutes, past Oheo Gulch, also known as the Seven Sacred Pools, before turning mauka onto Lili’s driveway.
Hawaii Organic Farmers Association
“Do all of you know what certified organic means? Lili asked. “If you go into a store and see something labeled ‘certified organic,’ it means they’ve tested the farm. They’ve looked at what they’re growing on it—and how—and they’ve tested the seeds. You can’t have genetically modified seeds. With GMO, the seeds are all crossed with either insects or animals. That’s one controversy. Papayas crossed with rats. Canola with scorpions. Salmon with beef. We’ve never eaten it before, so nobody knows the ramifications of it.
“The only thing we do know is you can’t replant it. That’s the other controversy. The seeds are sterile. For centuries, humans have been able to reach into their pockets or buy seed and drop it in the ground and grow whatever they want. What are we going to do 30 years from now when we can’t do that and maybe we can’t buy seed. What then?
“So you don’t use any herbicides of pesticides on the whole property,” a man from Arkansas asked. “No round-up or anything?”
“No, nothing,” said Lili.
“Do you do a lot of weedwhacking?” he asked.
“We don’t use weedwhackers,” said Lili. “We don’t like them, because they make a lot of noise. And we’re at the head of our valley and the way our trade winds blow, we’re very conscious, because the sound drifts, like the chemicals would.
“If we were using chemicals here, because we own the watershed, the health of our village would all be in our hands. We don’t have to use chemicals. We’ve got good soil health. Soil is the digestive system of plants. As soil gets in balance, the weeds don’t get that tall. When weeds get out of control, that’s the soil saying, ‘I am out of balance—too much cattle, too much cow manure—I need help.
“We do composting. We’ll use rock phosphate, calcium, seaweeds, green sands, compost, or worm castings. In the beginning, we spread manure and mowed. Now, we don’t have to. The soil is healthy. Now, we only do this with the new babies. We give them a lot of nutrients in their holes and watch them. We have found that if we over-fertilize, the leaves all turn brown. It doesn’t want it. It’s like overeating. And if we plant something that’s struggling, we don’t try to keep it alive. That’s silly.
Organic Farming Requires Intuition Not Chemicals
Lili picked up a mango. “This is a Keets. Aren’t they beautiful?” she said. “This is the last of mango for the season. Hawaii had an amazing mango season this year. It’s probably the biggest citrus year we’ve ever seen.”
She passed around slices of the mango. “You’ll find it tastes a lot like peach,” she said.
“We are not traditional farmers. We did not go to school for this. We learned by instinct. It runs in our families—more homestead farming than big farms. When we speak at big conventions and stuff, we introduce ourselves as intuitional farmers. We walk through our fields and we listen. It doesn’t matter what it is. I feel like the papaya goes, ‘Nobody pick me.’ Or something else will say, ‘I have weeds.’ If you just pay attention to what pops into your mind, that’s the tree telling you what it needs.
“My son is our manager and the main farmer here right now. He was raised around it. We told him to always pay attention listen be kind to the trees. We don’t want any fighting in the fields. We want our fruit to go out to the public with happy energy. We know if we’re angry or fighting or anything, then that’s in the foods, so we’re really particular about it all.
“We are now to the point where we realize that we have more value in our seeds and root stock than we do our food. Our next venture is a nursery.
“Now, we’re going to try dragonfruit. It’s a cactus, but they call it dragonfruit, because of its flames of color. It’s a beautiful fruit. Isn’t that pretty? It tastes a bit like Kiwi. It originates from Southeast Asia. Anything that can grow there can grow here.
A Tropical Fruit Farm
“We were always interested in tropicals. We can grow lots of varieties. I think we have more than 75 varieties here. We don’t really know, because we’re always bringing in something new. When we came back from India, we brought in green tea. We’re really excited. It’s such a beautiful crop. It’s not nearly as labor intensive as coffee, and it’s just gorgeous. Plus, it’s good for you.
“This is called sweetsop,” Lili said as she cut into another fruit.
“And these are star fruits. It acts like an apple. It holds its shape that way. These are very ripe, so it might taste a little tart. Makes a great startfuit-upsidedown-cake.
“We do six markets a week. We ship to Honolulu—mostly bananas. Bananas are the backbone of our farm. Then, avocadoes. We harvest on Tuesdays, box on Thursdays and they’re gone Friday. They go from tree to home within a week.
“It’s these bananas that definitely pay the bills. They’re apple bananas. You’ll taste a little tartness, like an apple. Banana is the most eaten fruit. People love it.
“Where do you suppose that saying, ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees’ came from? Around the world, the foundation of life is in agriculture. I wonder when that saying started.
“These are ruby-red guava. Guava is yummy. It’s that tart fruit that makes good jellies and good jams.
“A few years ago, my husband discovered value-added grants. He figured we could make jelly. So that year, I hustled with the jellies. I wanted something different, though, so I made apple banana butter, papaya butter, starfruit orange marmalade.
“These are mangosteens, you don’t often see these. They are called the queen of fruits. They take 20 to 25 years to fruit and then only under certain conditions. These are from the Big Island.
Sustainable Agriculture Grows in Hawaii
“We started Hawaii Organic Farmers Association, a certifying agent. We also distribute for other farmers. We’re really here to help Hawaii’s farmers grow.
“I think what we’re going to see more now in Hawaii is that it’s going to be cheaper, in the long run, for the stores to buy locally. That’s changing, and that’s good, because the Hawaii farmers matter.
“We have two young men here on the land from the Philippines on a farm-work exchange program. They have taught us so much about medicine and our fruit. Avocado, guava, all these things have medicinal properties, banana, papaya. Since we have a solar dehydrator, we may go into medicinal herbs. What we’re doing now is we’ve made land available to our children and if they want to come home—because time on the mainland aren’t the best—and try to put together a business, they can do it.
“I call this a real orange. It’s a navel. Lots of people eat oranges on the mainland, but they’re dyed. If they have a real consistent color, they’re dyed. It’s a color enhancer that’s put in the irrigation. Our oranges may not be picture perfect on the outside, but they are really delicious.
“We have a lot of trees that are beginning to come all on their own. At this point, we call this farm a tropical fruit forest, and it’s sustainable within itself, so babies are coming up. That’s another reason why we want to start a nursery. We probably have 50 avocadoes that started all on their own.
“These are pomelos. Very yummy, like a sweet cream fruit. They’re super good for you.
“Have any of you had rambutan? In the same family as lychee, like a grape. All the chefs love them because of the red color.
“One thing I am hoping we get to do is with the local school. Hana school just got a grant to buy local foods. They asked us to provide citrus and banana. To me, that’s a market I like.”
Lili looked up from her table, gazed down the valley and across the ocean. “Look,” she said. “You can see the top of Mauna Kea on Big Island now.” The squall had passed. A little rain. Sunshine. Perfect ingredients for farming.