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Want to Farm on Maui?

Panel of ag experts offers inspiration and down-to-earth solutions to increase food production on the Valley Isle.

August 8, 2013
Dr. Janet Six , Maui Weekly

Organic farmer Gerry Ross of Kupa'a Farms spoke to a room full of agriculture enthusiasts about what he referred to as "his journey." No, his successes didn't happen overnight.

Ross, who holds a Ph.D. in geology, will be the first to tell you he is not a farmer by training. He is, however, a scientist, so one of the first things he did after purchasing farmland on Maui was analyze its existing conditions and obtain baseline data by which he could measure his efforts.

On July 30, at the University of Hawai`i Maui College (UHMC) Ag4Maui presentation, Ross told the audience that the lower Kula property he bought in 2003 had been cleared in 1979 to grow corn and asparagus. When he purchased the property, the soil PH was 5.5 and contained only 1 to 2 percent organic materials.

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Gerry and Janet Ross have turned Kupa‘a Farms in Kula into a profitable and healthy enterprise after employing biological principles such as composting.

"We were losing an estimated six tons of topsoil per acre, per year," Ross said.

However, since employing biological principles such as composting, Ross has altered the soil PH to 6.7, which he said is "ideal."

Additionally, organic materials now comprise 6 to 7 percent of the soil matrix and erosion has been dramatically reduced to approximately 600 pounds of soil loss per acre, per year. And, said Ross, this isn't the end of the good news.

Today, Kupa'a Farm operates in "the black," averaging a 15 cents profit on every dollar spent.

Ross concluded his inspirational opening statements by encouraging the audience to "Grab the journey by the horns and hang on!"

The audience was hooked. All they needed was to be pointed in the right direction for necessary information. And that was what Ag4Maui was all about--bringing together multiple stakeholders with a range of resources.

The panel's agricultural experts seated in Pilina Multipurpose Room were like pieces of a complex jigsaw puzzle. The parts were all there--they just needed to be interconnected to form a meaningful whole.

Panelists included educational experts offering training opportunities, community organizers putting that training to good use and policy wonks there to discuss real-world problems associated with farming on Maui. In several cases, panelists represented more than one organization.

Panelist Cynthia Nazario-Leary from the UHMC's Agricultural Associates Degree program and New Farmers Network spoke of faculty efforts to provide students a hands-on overview of agriculture on Maui. Nazario-Leary emphasized the need to bridge knowledge and training with real-world experiences.

Lorrain Brooks of the Maui Master Gardeners (MMG) and the Cooperative Extension of the UH College of Tropical Agricultural and Human Resources (CTAHR) talked about how the MMG provided non-formal horticultural training to senior citizens and other community members.

Brooks also spoke of her work with urban horticultural and the cut-flower industry, referring to attendee Vincent Mina, president of the Maui Farmers Union United, and a prime example of a successful urban agriculturalist. Mina, who "farms" less than 2,000 square feet in his Wailuku backyard, supports his family by sprouting a range of seeds, including sunflower, for local distribution.

A Maui farmer since 2000, Evan Ryan encouraged audience members to join the Maui Farmers Union United (MFUU), a grassroots organization. The MFUU agenda is "member driven," said Ryan. He called for "people looking for a purpose" to attend MFUU's monthly "potluck" meetings at the Ha'iku Community Center, where approximately 150 members have an opportunity to network.

The brains behind the Maui School Garden Network, retired elementary school teacher and self-described "communicator" Lehn Huff, spoke passionately about the network's many successes.

"Since 2008, we have formed 17 partnerships and have 40 Maui Nui schools on board," Huff said.

She spoke of the connection children make when they grow their own food--not to mention the nutrition that comes from eating the locally grown produce. Huff said the School Garden Network is not just about growing food; it is about teaching children at a young age the importance of education, nurturing, discipline and respect for themselves and the world around them.

Rebekah Kuby of Malama Maui Nui (formerly Community Work Day) echoed Huff's sentiments, stating that many lower-income children live in "food deserts," where, for whatever reason, they do not have access to affordable, healthy food. According to Kuby, Malama Maui Nui actively works to remedy this situation, constructing 23 community gardens to date, including several at Maui's homeless shelters.

Melanie Stephens, who also served as the event's host and moderator, informed attendees about the 18 C3T non-credit Ag Certificate Programs currently available, including xeriscaping, aquaponics and beekeeping. Stephens encouraged even those seasoned agriculture veterans in the audience to get a certificate in best practices, composting and/or food safety.

Then it came time to discuss the more pragmatic, "down-to-earth" aspects of the journey.

Dale Bonar of the Maui Affordable Farming Project spoke of the need for understanding the "business of farming." Bonar said, when it comes to obtaining land, there are limited choices. If you are blessed, your family may already own farmland on Maui. If not, your other two choices are to purchase or lease. But the first option is not always a viable choice and the second not always desirable, he said. Bonar explained that many capital improvements on leased land remain there when the lease expires. Buildings and other infrastructure and/or improvements become the property of the landowner.

Warren Watanabe of the Maui County Farm Bureau touched on the politics associated with agriculture in Hawai'i. Still living on his family's farm in Kula, Watanabe spoke of the loss of agricultural lands in this area to housing developments and gentleman farms.

"Farming is tough," Watanabe said. But that doesn't mean we have to give up, he added.

By providing scholarships and educational opportunities, the Maui County Farm Bureau positively impacts hundreds of Maui students each year.

The last panelist to speak was Kenneth Yamamura of the Maui County Land Link. In the past, similar land links have been successfully employed in states such as California, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to bring together farmers and farmland.

Yamamura said he often is asked, "Where can I find land to lease?"

Like Watanbabe, Yamamura also spoke of evaporating farmlands and how the Upcountry landscape has rapidly changed in his lifetime.

The problem comes down to supply and demand. Land on Maui is often seen as more valuable as residential real estate than as farmland. Those in control of the land sell to the highest bidder--not to those serving the highest good. With approximately 90 percent of our food imported, this current land use trend is short-sited and doomed to fail, said Huff.

The Ulupono Initiative at Kapalua is a shift in the right direction, but still falls short due to complicated leasing agreements. Of the 158 acres currently available for lease under the Ulupono Initiative, only a fraction is actually under cultivation.

Each of the groups represented on the panel demonstrated that they will continue to play an important role in the future of agriculture on Maui.

Want to farm on Maui? It may not be easy, but it will be worth the effort. In the words of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, "All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare."

So, "grab the journey by the horns and hang on!"



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