Growth Industry

What started as an interest in horticulture and a passion for native Hawaiian plants has grown into a thriving business for Ethan Romanchak and Jonathan Keyser.

Eleven years after launching Native Nursery on 4 acres in Kula, the business partners say demand for their native plants and trees is booming – thanks largely to the expansion of forest restoration projects statewide.

This year they expect to deliver some 150,000 trees to state reforestation projects, and “2015 and 2016 are looking bigger,” Romanchak says.

“I feel like we’ve been waiting for this year for 10 years,” he says. “It’s taken patience and perseverance as we’ve waited for these projects to unfold.”

But even more satisfying than seeing their business survive and thrive has been the opportunity to play a part in restoring native forests.

“It’s just so rewarding,” Romanchak says. “In our short careers, we’ve been to places that have planted our plants – they were once kikuyu pasture, and they’re now closed-canopy dryland forest.”

Romanchak began his career with Maui Land & Pineapple’s conservation division. He remembers working on reforestation projects in the West Maui watershed, then feeling frustrated that it was hard to find native Hawaiian plants and trees in island nurseries. He studied horticulture at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, then got a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

Keyser had developed an interest in koa after learning about the tree from his father, a scientist and nitrogen-fixing tree specialist. As a teenager, he started working with sustainability-focused local landscaper Clifton Dodge, who encouraged him to think about using native plants in a landscaping setting. Keyser began collecting seeds and saplings and started a small nursery in Piiholo, where he learned more about cultivating native species.

“There’s just something about them that represents where we are – the plants are always reflected in the culture,” Keyser says. “All the plants in the old songs, those things were far away from humans, and it made sense to bring them back to our doorstep.”

Keyser and Romanchak decided to go into business together and opened Native Nursery at their location off Naalae Road in 2003. The company provides native plants for landscaping and retail sale in addition to reforestation projects.

Romanchak says one of the things he enjoys most about his work is having to figure out how to propagate native species. While most commercial plants have been bred and manipulated for generations to suit the needs of landscapers and home gardeners, Hawaiian plants are still largely “untamed,” he notes.

“There’s no catalog for native Hawaiian plants where we can call up and order seeds,” he says.

The partners usually start with seeds they’ve collected themselves with permission from landowners, or which have been brought to them by conservationists working in remote forest areas.

“After a planting, they’ll come back with any seeds that have matured,” Keyser says.

In some cases, it’s taken years and several generations of plants to learn how to propagate them and select the hardiest and most resilient individuals, they say.

“One of our favorites is the iliahi, or sandalwood, and it’s taken us 10 years to figure out how to produce them well,” Romanchak says.

A turning point came in 2007, after fire devastated more than 1,700 acres of forest in Polipoli Spring State Recreation Area. Native Nursery received a big order for saplings to supply the replanting effort. “That gave us a reason to really expand,” Keyser says.

Over the next several years, the partners watched several state reforestation projects come to fruition – and that meant a growing demand for more native trees. Romanchak says Native Nursery’s plants are like “the icing on the cake” for state forestry workers who have spent years or even decades working to set aside land for conservation, protect it from invasive plants and animals, and clear the way for the restoration of native forests.

“They’ve put their careers into building fence in really rugged backcountry conditions, just sweat and labor, and now they finally get to plant some trees,” he says.

In the past several years, major projects supplied by the company have included the Saddle Road mitigation project on the Big Island, Natural Area Reserve System reforestation projects on the Big Island and Maui, and wind farm mitigation projects on Maui.

The partners say they’d like their business to be a model for other young farmers in Hawaii. “I think it’s inspiring that you can live on Maui and work in agriculture,” Romanchak says. “It ain’t easy, but it’s possible.”

But he says the greatest satisfaction comes from making a lasting difference in the community.

“It’s just a feel-good thing to provide the plants that are going to create habitat for a hundred years,” he says.

* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.