Gone are the days of sugar plantations,
cane trucks and mills on Hawai'i's Big Island. Only
patches of sugar cane remain aggressively rooted on scattered
parcels of land stretching up the slopes of Mauna Kea volcano
from the Pacific. While much of the land along the island's
windward, northeastern coast has been transitioned from sugar
production to plantations of eucalyptus trees grown for paper
pulp, many smaller parcels are now being privately farmed.
One such property, the Laughing Pig Farm, is rapidly putting
down roots following the sugar industry's departure. Lou Russo
and Bari Green saw opportunity where few others could. In
2000, they purchased 17 acres along the Hamakua Coast. Invasive
plants including grasses, scrub guava trees and sugar cane
stretched from one end of the property to the other, and the
fertility of the fragile tropical soils had long been depleted.
Nevertheless, Lou and Bari moved onto the farm with a vision
of improving on the forestry and farming practices used here.
They also imagined the wild pigs laughing at their efforts
and decided to name the farm accordingly.
With Bari’s background in Environmental Science and
their joint background in permaculture design, the couple
set out to develop a farm plan that would integrate mixed
tropical hardwood forestry with organic market farming. Combining
land management strategies with crop selection, the plan they
came up with included a timeline that gave them the flexibility
early on to build infrastructure, transition the land to organic
and start planting trees while still working off-farm, part-time,
to maintain cash flow. Rather than starting with short-term
cash crops, they first focused on implementing their forestry
plan and developing the infrastructure necessary to operate
the farm long-term.
A commitment to diversity
While the dominant forestry practices in this area center
on a single species, Eucalyptus grandis, Lou and Bari have
begun a diverse forestry program that integrates valuable
tropical hardwoods like teak, African and Honduran mahoganies,
pheasantwood and rosewood with faster-growing windbreak trees
and other plants. The windbreaks, which were planted one year
prior to the hardwoods, include multi-purpose species such
as coconuts, avocados, mangos, breadfruits, loquats, ironwoods,
clumping bamboos and bananas along with several native tree
species. Bari remembers the land at first as being “depressingly
barren, with very intense wind.” After living on the
farm for just a short time, they realized they had no choice
but to plant windbreaks. They also knew those windbreaks could
generate revenue in the medium-term by providing marketable
fruit and/or nursery materials.
"We always wanted
the plantings to seem as natural as possible while still
being able to efficiently manage them."
Twelve of the farm's 17 acres are now planted to trees. Rows
were laid out to follow the contour of the steeply sloped
land. According to Lou, this has made tractor work much easier
and helped minimize erosion when the trees were first established—a
critical consideration in an area that can get over 150 inches
of rain a year. But aesthetics are important as well. “We
always wanted the plantings to seem as natural as possible
while still being able to efficiently manage them,”
says Bari. Small blocks of less than half an acre are planted
to a single species; most of these are shaped like trapezoids
or triangles rather than squares, creating a beautiful patchwork
of trees. If a tree seedling doesn't survive transplanting,
Bari and Lou replace it with either a nitrogen-fixing tree
like cassia or an ornamental tree like jacaranda, which is
covered with striking purple flowers.
So far, the couple has planted approximately 6,500 hardwoods
and more than 1,000 windbreak trees. The hardwoods are spaced
eight feet apart in rows ten feet wide, a spacing that accommodates
540 trees per acre. To prepare the land, Lou mows down the
scrub weed trees and remnant sugar cane where they plan to
plant and then a neighboring farmer is hired to disk the ground.
After the seedlings are planted they are side-dressed with
a balanced organic fertilizer every three months for at least
the first three years. Due to reliable rain brought by the
trade winds, the trees don't need to be watered in.
Following planting, grass quickly establishes on its own.
Not surprisingly, maintenance has proven to be the biggest
obstacle in managing the forestry program organically. Although
extension agents, neighbors, and even friends and family tried
to convince Bari and Lou to use herbicides, they've stuck
to their principles, relying on regular schedule of mowing
and trimming to keep the weeds and grass down in between the
trees. For the younger plantings, they cut back the growth
closest to the tree by hand with a sickle. This chore goes
fast and is followed by light pruning for the pheasantwood
and rosewood plantings. The teak and mahogany trees rarely
Another method of maintaining the trees was introduced after
a neighbor gave them five sheep. Using a portable electric
fence charged by a solar panel, Lou has experimented with
rotating the sheep through some of the older tree plantings
to keep the grass trimmed. As long as the sheep are not left
in one area for too long, he says, they don't harm the hardwoods.
On some occasions, however, the animals have escaped from
the fenced area or gotten bored with eating grass and chosen
an expensive alternative. “I’m still weighing
the benefit and cost to see if we‘ll keep sheep on the
property for the long run,” Lou reports.
Building, testing, planning
Along with the hardwood trees and windbreaks, Bari and Lou
have planted an orchard, constructed a nursery and greenhouse,
and started preparing four acres for annual market crops.
To design their orchard, they started by planting a test
area with a wide variety of fruits to determine which types
and varieties grew best on the property, without suffering
significant pest pressure or succumbing to the wet climate.
To minimize maintenance in here they planted the low-growing,
leguminous groundcover perennial peanut (Arachis glabrata).
Although it's slow to plant and get established, Lou and Bari
say they have found the effort worthwhile and plan to expand
their use of perennial peanut to other parts of the farm because
it reduces maintenance, adds free nitrogen, and looks attractive.
The nursery is currently being used to produce ornamentals
such as plumeria, monstera (philodendron), and dracaena. When
traveling anywhere on the island, Bari is sure to bring tools
like loppers and shovels to gather plant material for propagation
from roadsides, friends' houses, or the edges of parking lots.
“We’ve learned never to return to the farm without
a truckload of stuff,” Lou jokes. Whether it’s
scrap cardboard for sheet mulching tough areas or cuttings
to start in the nursery, the truck usually does come full.
In this warm, damp climate, open-sided greenhouses are used
to produce seedlings and vegetables too sensitive to withstand
large amounts of rain. Lou and Bari have also used the space
to produce lettuce seed from varieties that do well in their
area. They say they appreciate having a dry place to work
during persistently rainy periods.
Now that they have achieved their goals of building the farm's
infrastructure, establishing windbreaks and starting their
forestry program, Bari and Lou are starting to work on the
last major component of their operation: the market farm.
learned never to return to the farm without a truckload
of stuff,” Lou jokes.
Since this is the most labor-intensive piece of their enterprise,
they are being extra careful to plan well and time things
right. While still earning some off-farm revenue from part-time
work, they are researching what crops to grow, where and how
to market them, and what equipment purchases they need to
make. A test garden, much like the test orchard, is underway
to determine what crops do best in the warm but challenging
environment. They are also experimenting on a small scale
with tillage techniques and stale seedbedding to reduce weed
populations. Among other things, this experimentation is helping
them make decisions about equipment.
Marketing is perhaps the most difficult aspect of this part
of their operation, since the farm is located in a relatively
remote area of this largely rural island. They are considering
a full range of direct-marketing strategies, from selling
at farmers markets to connecting with restaurants to launching
a CSA. For starters, Bari is making trips to beautiful downtown
Hilo, the island's largest town, to sell their first crops
at the farmers' market there.
Overall, the transition from abandoned conventional plantation
land to a diversified organic operation is something Bari
and Lou are obviously and deservedly proud of, although they
joke about never wanting to do it again. (After learning how
much people get paid to give facials, Bari jokes, “I’m
ready for a new career.”) Despite the challenges and
occasional discouraging moments, they have created what they
set out to—and the contrast from the surrounding land