Anatomy of a Farm

By Matthew

Ancient Hawaiians would split up land into pie slices starting at the top of the mountain and running all the way to the ocean, and each pie slice would be a town. The slices had enough resources to support all its residences, with hunters up in the mountains, fisherman on the coast, and farming all through the middle. Upon arrival in Hana, our host, Nick, seemed to own a whole pie slice to himself. Our first morning Nick took us on a walk through the property, reciting the names of every tree, bush, fruit, and vegetable, and noting which ones he planted. He also outlined his goals and vision for the property, including where he would put each orchard, plant each crop, and eventually build his dream house. After the entire day of touring the property I came to the conclusion that it was just one big hunk of jungle. There was very little actually planted that hadn’t been there in an intertwined mess for decades if not centuries, and although Nick laid out big plans for our time on the farm I was skeptical as to what realistically could be accomplished in 10 weeks and the future of the property as a whole.

During our first month our workload consisted solely of hacking away at the jungle, clearing land and attempting to slow the rapid growth of the bamboo, cane grass, and hau brush. To be able to navigate the rainforest and do battle with its overgrowth, we needed to understand the enemy, so Nick gave us an in depth tutorial during the workday and then again around the evening fire. We would learn much about how and when species rooted and spread, where it originated from and its main purpose for use on the island. We spent many days planting, watering, and harvesting crops. Nick used a sustainable farming technique where he would only use fertilizers, compost, and mulch with ingredients from his own property. We learned that live plants carry more carbon and dead plants contain more nitrogen and learned proper balance of each in mulch. We learned the art of composting and how the quality of the production impacted the growth of plants.  I was amazed and really enjoyed learning about all the science and strategy that goes into having a successful farm.

Nick’s farm was on the rainy side of the island, offering perfect ingredients for plant growth and crop prosperity. I found out early on that the perfect recipe was a double edged sword. While we enjoyed watching our newly planted crops flourish, it was incredibly deflating and challenging to see the bamboo grow back in Jurassic Park fashion right in front of our very eyes. Every plant and tree we attempted to clear for future plantings would come back with a vengeance unbelievably fast. Hau brush and African tulip trees would take root anywhere branches touched ground, and an entire tree could grow from the nutrients from a single branch no bigger than your wrist or longer than your forearm.  Cane grass would swallow entire fields at a time and the homoonu could cover a garden bed in the blink of an eye. It was an uphill battle fending off the jungle, two steps forward and one step backwards daily.  Working with hand saws, clippers, and shovels put us at a slight disadvantage, but each Friday our savior Makani would arrive and provide us with a distinct advantage over our opponent.  Makani was our neighbor and he worked with us once a week and brought not only a wealth of island farming knowledge but also seeds and saplings for us to plant, and most importantly enough heavy machinery to arm a small industrial outpost. We would clear more land on Fridays then seven days of manual work. Without his help we would have stood zero chance of making material progress during our stay.  We also loved him because he brought fresh fish to augment our normal diet of plants and energy bars.

In our last days in Kaoli I felt like the blueprint for the future started to make sense.  Our efforts and manual laboring helped lay the groundwork for a successful farm.  Nick’s vision for the property was starting to take shape. I look forward to returning to the farm when I am older, maybe even with my family, and seeing the land we worked on evolved into a fully functioning farm.  When we arrived all I could see was complexity – and unclear destination amidst a pile of brush.  But, by taking one step at a time I saw many elements fall into place and trusting Nick and Makani made it easier to attack our project.  I had no idea what I was in for, but I learned so much.  I may never help construct another farm again, but finding a way forward and adhering to plan and adapting to our circumstances is something that will always bear fruit.