New life on the Big Island
In the wake of the Hawai'ian sugar industry's decline, small organic producers like Lou Russo and Bari Green emphasize diverse cropping systems, local markets and long-term sustainability.

By Peter Emerson
Posted June 9, 2005

 

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 require pruning.

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.

“We’ve 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 is remarkable.