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ONO Organic Farms

Star fruit beer, NatGeo shout-out and aloha attitude keep spotlight shining on Ono Farms

An aerial view of ONO Organic Farms -- Photo courtesy ONO Organic Farms

Almost half a century ago, Chuck Boerner dropped his first papaya seeds into the fertile earth flanking the House of the Sun. Rich with nutrients and kissed by sun and rain, the nurturing soil along Haleakala’s southeastern slopes proved perfect for growing papaya, as well as a bounty of other tropical fruits, coffee and cacao.

“Papaya has always been a favorite of our family,” recalls Boerner, who grew up on Oahu. “I remember my dad scratching the ground of property he was surveying and dropping in dried papaya seeds he had pulled from his pocket, tapping them down with his foot. Later, when we moved into a house built on that land, we were picking fresh papaya.”

As trees and bushes sprouted in the 50-acre parcel, so did Boerner’s dream of crafting a viable farm rooted in respect for the aina, fed with the spirit of aloha and fueled by the love of family.

Over several decades, the engineer-turned-farmer worked the land using organic methods long before the practice became fashionable. Word of the quality produce grown at ONO Organic Farms and the easy nature of its owners blanketed the island like a sweet spread of lilikoi butter.

“I’ve always been organic,” Boerner says. “I’ve never done it any other way. I don’t even know how to do it with sprays, and I’m never gonna learn.”

Chuck Boerner boxes up some of his delicious papaya -- Photo courtesy ONO Organic Farms

Trees and keiki grew side by side as Boerner and his wife, Lilly, raised five children on the farm, which eventually blossomed into a trio of grandchildren who call the farm home. It’s a family affair with Boerner’s son, Pueo, serving as farm manager and Pueo’s wife, Ae, overseeing customer service. Autumn, Boerner’s daughter, runs the popular fruit tastings and tours while Autumn’s husband, Michael, acts as sales manager.

“We’ve always said that the main thing we’re growing on the farm is kids,” Boerner says with a laugh. “Everything else is incidental.”

That philosophy has paid off. Today, ONO Organic Farms is one of the largest tropical fruit providers in the state, growing and selling a wide variety of exotic fruits, cacao for chocolate and Arabica estate coffee.

“We harvest on Mondays and Thursdays, deliver on Tuesdays and Fridays and meet the barge to Oahu twice a week” Boerner explains.

Certified Organic by International Certification Services, the farm harvests and packages thousands of pounds of tropical delicacies weekly for distribution to a growing clientele that includes top restaurants, chocolate producers, private homes and food retailers such as Whole Foods in Kahului. Even craft brewers are getting on the tropical fruit train. Last year, Maui Brewing Co. collaborated with Smog City Brewing Co. to produce a specialty release, Star Maps Kolsch, infused with the essence of star fruit supplied by ONO Organic Farms.

ONO Organic Farms signature coffee blends are a big seller -- Photo courtesy ONO Organic Farms

In addition, Boerner and family operate an open-air market daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in nearby Hana featuring organic tropical fruits and roasted organic coffee beans and cacao.

Boerner is considered a leading expert on tropical organic agriculture and regularly speaks at workshops, schools and agricultural events. His expertise and reputation spawned Charles Boerner Consultants, a sought-after service utilized by farmers in Hawaii and around the globe.

Even with its tremendous success and continuous growth, ONO Organic Farms favors personal attention over automation.

Boerner and his team of WOOFERS (a network of workers on organic farms) still pick all of the produce by hand to ensure optimum ripeness and the ono taste that gave the farm its name. And when his family sits down to dinner, it’s a cacophony of shop talk.

“All we do is discuss fruit and trees,” he says. “I keep telling them we need to write a book on organic family farming.”

ONO fruit displayed for the benefit of tour takers, who are invited to partake in the tropical bounty. -- Photo courtesy ONO Organic Farms

The Boerners draw publicity easily and are no strangers to media outlets, from newspapers, magazines and food-oriented cable shows such as the Food Channel, inquiring about ONO Organic Farms. So when Gordon Ramsay’s people contacted them earlier this year to visit the farm for possible inclusion in the premiere of “Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted,” on the National Geographic channel, Boerner took it in shaka stride.

“When we heard that Gordon Ramsay wanted to shoot some food scenes at the farm, we were like ‘Sure, why not?, “ Boerner recalls.

An introductory crew of about six descended on the farm at the beginning of the year. They wanted to see the wild stuff, Boerner remembers, not what tourists or visitors on the tour see.

“I took them in some fields we hadn’t mowed in six months, with cane grass so high it was over your head,” Boerner remembers. “Then we picked fresh papaya from a tree.”

It wasn’t long after that Ramsay and the film crew arrived, placing ONO Organic Farms in a segment about Hawaiian food.

You can catch the first episode of Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted,” featuring ONO Organic Farms at 4 p.m. Sunday on the NatGeo channel.

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ONO Organic Farm’s Exotic Tropical Fruit Tasting Adventure

Tours of ONO Organic Farms are offered at 1:30 p.m. every Tuesday, with same-day reservations accepted prior to 12:30 p.m., if space is available. Sample 10 to 12 in-season fruits — everything from abiu and ice cream bananas to egg fruit, tamarind, rambutan and so much more — plus home-grown coffee and roasted chocolate beans. Then stroll the lush farm grounds and learn about tropical fruits and organic family farming.

Cost is $45 per person with children 10 years of age and younger admitted free.

Visit www.onofarms.com to make reservations and download a tour brochure or call 248-7779.