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Regenerative farming bears fruit

Maui farmers look to heal soil, grow sustainably for next generation

Lapa‘au Farm owner Michael Marchand harvests produce at his Olinda farm. — HAWAII FARMERS UNION UNITED photo

Operating diversified and regenerative farms requires a lot of hard work and dedication, but local farmers and ranchers find that contributing to Maui’s future sustainable food systems and building a healthy and collaborative community makes all the challenges worthwhile.

During the Hawaii Farmers Union United annual convention earlier this month, farmers shared their typical work day on the land and their successes with growing organic produce. Some also shared insight on financial strains, pest control management and dealing with drought, as well as the importance of maintaining good relations with the community and local businesses to keep up with supply and demand.

“The community aspect, it’s huge. It’s a deep reservoir of not only physical health, but there’s camaraderie, there’s a sense of working together,” said Mark Damon, who, with his wife Leah, have operated Maui Bees Inc. as a family business in Kula for the past decade after their passion for bees and organically grown food was a hit with the local community. “To me, when I’m worn out and I go into the staff’s corridor and they’re all laughing and having a great time, to me, it just lifts my spirit.”

Using regenerative farming techniques, the Damons produce garden-fresh produce, organically fed pastured eggs, honey, jarred goods and other products, all available at their Kula farm stand and cafe that was established two years ago.

Mark Damon said via Zoom that they opened the commercial kitchen, which offers organic entrees and soups using produce grown on the farm, the week that the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Hawaii Farmers Union United President Vince Mina tends to his garden. — HAWAII FARMERS UNION UNITED photo

“It was a monumental effort, believe me. It was really difficult,” he said. “It was amazing though because the community, they loved it. They didn’t have to go into the grocery stores. They could come and get their stuff here.”

Because of the demand, Maui Bees hired three employees during the first year of the pandemic, so “it was a success in that regard,” Damon said.

Still, farming and contributing to sustainable food systems is “about the quality of life,” not about the money, he added.

“Many times the question of, ‘what’s the point of all this? Is it really worth all this hard work?’ will come up,” Lapa’au Farm owner Michael Marchand said with a laugh. “It’s thinking about the future and being in that place of service and wanting to live a life that feels more free, even though there’s a ton of obligations and responsibilities.”

The 2-acre lot in Olinda grows a selection of root vegetables, leafy greens and mushrooms.

Although the farm “got hammered this year with deer” eating and trampling a lot of crops — some of the many hardships farmers must endure — Marchand said that he has since invested in black polypropylene fencing that has “done wonders.”

And so his mission of creating a resilient and vital agricultural system lives on.

Focusing on “body and soil,” Marchand does not use conventional farming techniques, like pesticides, but rather focuses on biodiversity and seasonal crops. He values building organic matter in the soil, which leads to higher-quality vegetables, he said.

Lapa’au Farm also collaborates with local restaurants, distributors, grocery stores and other farms.

“I wanted to grow food for the community, I wanted to eat the healthiest foods for myself,” said Marchand. “For my kids, I wanted to be able to leave something behind that is valuable for them in the future and for them to take care of the land in a good way, I felt like that was my mission here.”

With the goal to create a regenerative farming community that incorporates family, culture, forestry and livestock, the third-generation Frost family worked for a decade to restore and transform 258 acres in Makawao into Hokunui Maui farm.

Half of the land was dirt when they acquired the property in 2012 and the entire lot was full of grazing cattle.

“Our project isn’t just about farming,” Karin Frost said. “It’s about building a community, living on a farm.”

Dealing with recent droughts and managing grazing animals, the family slowly revitalized the soil and land, bringing back natural water sources for agricultural use, planting native trees and plants and growing organic produce for consumers.

As part of their multipart goal, Karin and Erik Frost said they hope to eventually build up to 42 green-modeled homes and workforce dwellings that would run off a water well and solar micro-grid for power.

“The important part to understand of our ambitions is to treat this land mass in a holistic fashion,” Erik said. “It’s an ambition of ours to emphasize the connection between the aina, the land, and the humans that live upon it.”

In the Hokunui forestry and livestock programs, they teach regenerative and Hawaiian farming practices that show next generations how to reestablish native habitat, revive the soil and provide food for the community.

“The transfer of knowledge is really important,” Forestry Manager Koa Hewahewa said.

Hawaii Farmers Union United President Vincent Mina, who helped to organize and mediate the virtual convention last week, said that one thing he noticed throughout the process of visiting farms is “how passionate everyone is” about regenerative farming practices and education.

Mina and his wife Irene own and operate Kahanu Aina Greens in Wailuku, which produces 300 pounds of microgreens a week and markets to local businesses. The farm sustains them enough to make a living.

“It’s really important to raise the awareness locally as to the importance of local agriculture,” he said.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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