Korean natural farming uses organic items to replenish soil

‘Harvesting as much as possible locally’

Hawaii Farmers Union United President Vincent Mina (right) holds up a shovel full of hot soil for Kerry Beane and Paul De Filippi to touch during a workshop Sunday on Korean natural farming techniques at the University of Hawaii Maui College. A mix of fermented ingredients including white rice, brown sugar and a mill-run of wheat were placed in the soil to help culture microbes. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

KAHULUI — The world of Korean natural farming is like a glimpse into a mad scientist’s lab. At one end of the table, Ricky Apana is toasting crushed eggshells in a giant wok while Seth Raabe pours charred animal bone bits into a jar. Vincent Mina is sprinkling brown sugar over smashed banana peels.

But there’s a science behind the curious concoctions, and it all comes down to making healthy soil naturally, cutting down on “inputs” like fertilizers that are among the costliest investments for farmers.

“It’s empowering the farmer on how to recycle his nutrients back onto the farm,” said Mina, president of Hawaii Farmers Union United. “Empowering the farmer to be connected to his plants more instead of just throwing some granules down and not really knowing what’s going on.”

At the University of Hawaii Maui College on Sunday, Mina, Mahele Farm manager Raabe and Maui Bio Char owner Apana were finishing a two-day workshop with farmers on the techniques pioneered and popularized by South Korean master farmer Cho Han-Kyu.

The heart of the approach lies in applying natural and fermented “preparations” to plants at different growing stages, explained Raabe, who’s certified in Korean natural farming.

Maui Bio Char owner Ricky Apana (from left), Hawaii Farmers Union United President Vincent Mina and Mahele Farm manager Seth Raabe create lactic acid bacteria using a mixture of fermented rice wash water and milk. The resulting product helps improve soil ventilation and is a strong sterilizer. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

What drew some farmers Sunday was the simplicity of the ingredients, things like leftover bones, bananas, vinegar, brown sugar and rice. For example, fermented plant juice only requires weeds and brown sugar, which creates a liquid that can be applied during the early growing stages to aid in plant protection. A mixture of eggshells and brown rice vinegar makes a formula that helps during a plant’s fruiting stage. Fermented steamed rice with brown sugar encourages microbes in the soil that nourish plants.

“One of the higher costs for farmers is the inputs, and this is about harvesting as much as possible locally,” said Phyllis Robinson, program director for UH-MC’s Beginning Farm program. “It’s not being sourced from the Mainland, and I think that’s been the key thing for everyone. . . . It’s so important for us to grow our own fertilizers.”

Mina said that the technique is not a silver bullet, but he was impressed by how he could “use fermentations to bring about the nutrients” in the soil. Last year, his family’s 2,000-square-foot garden produced 21,000 pounds of food, and the Minas noticed that the vegetables grow bigger and last longer now that they use Korean natural farming and plant-based compost.

“When we have a healthy soil system, it grows healthy plants,” Mina said. “Those plants specifically grow into a complete protein. And it takes too much energy for bugs to eat healthy plants.”

When Paul De Filippi first heard about Korean natural farming methods, it sounded like “sorcery,” he joked.

Maui Bio Char owner Ricky Apana marks the date on a jar of crushed eggshells and brown rice vinegar that will ferment over seven to 10 days. The chemical reaction extracts calcium carbonate. Calcium mobilizes nutrients in the soil, Hawaii Farmers Union United President Vincent Mina said. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

“It was just too easy,” De Filippi explained. “Too many household items, too much stuff that I’ve already got going on. I was just like, ‘Wait, I can use this stuff for more . . . other than just food and waste?'”

De Filippi, a native of Canada, grows citrus, dragonfruit, mangoes and assorted vegetables on 6 acres in Omaopio. As a farmer and treasurer of Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers, he’s always looking for new ideas. He thinks Korean natural farming is useful for both conventional and organic farmers, like him.

“It’s time consuming, but I think it’s probably worth it in the long run,” De Filippi said. “Especially because it’s more about building the soil rather than just using it and flushing it . . . every single year, every single crop. You’re actually building an ecosystem that you’re maintaining, and that makes your farm more valuable.

“You can see it’s a lot more scientific than it is sorcery,” he added. “That changed my mind.”

Kerry Beane is a home gardener who makes the most of the space outside of her Kihei apartment. In a 25-by-25-foot plot, she grows Swiss chard, parsley, kale, carrots and a citrus tree. An urban farming advocate, Beane is in search of better ways to grow food on a small scale.

“This is a technology that really fascinates me,” she said.

She said that the Korean natural farming formulas are “a great alternative to commercial chemical fertilizers.”

“I think I will make some of these formulations myself eventually, but to start, I’m just looking forward to bringing some home from this class and using them on our landscape and see what I see,” Beane said.

For farmers who are hesitant about doing the fermenting themselves, the Hawaii Farmers Union United hopes to open a dispensary in the future, Mina said. Right now, farmers are doing trials on dryland taro on a half-acre plot above the Maui Tropical Plantation, and they’ve seen hopeful signs that the nutrient content is comparable to that of crops grown with petrochemicals. The trials and workshops have come courtesy of a $90,000 grant from the state Department of Agriculture, and Mina added that the organization hopes to get additional funding to open a dispensary.

“It’s not that it takes a lot of time more than it takes a commitment to go down this path,” Mina said. “It’s like anything else. You have to invest yourself in whatever result you want to see happen.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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