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A farm of gardens

Updated: 
January 13, 2016 - 4:03pm

The early morning air at Kawanui Farm was filled with the sweet scent of wood smoke. Gerry Herbert emerged from the house to greet me, dressed warmly. “We have a fire in the fireplace almost every morning in winter,” he said, rubbing his hands together to retain their warmth. He and his wife, Nancy Redfeather, are a pair of excellent gardeners who have created a lovely farm with numerous well-tended gardens and fruit orchards on an acre in Honalo.

This morning, Herbert was anxious to show me his creative use of the leaf-eating Chinese rose beetles to put his grape vines into dormancy.

“Without the winter frost to defoliate the vines, I am just letting the beetles do the job,” he said. And they are doing a darn good job.

Redfeather also looks to nature to help her solve gardening problems. They both insist that they learned all they know about good gardening practices by observing nature and gaining agricultural wisdom from the works of great masters like soil scientist William Albrecht and organic grower Sir Albert Howard.

The Kawanui pair bought this rock and grass covered piece in 1998 and set to work using their love of the land and years of gardening and farming experience to create their productive homestead farm. The 18 years spent stewarding their land have presented many challenges as well as excellent lessons.

Their first challenge was to evaluate the land and determine its assets and best uses. They hired a small D4 dozer to move large rocks and unwanted invasive plants. Then they started using the abundance of rock on the land to build walls on the perimeter and around interior garden beds. During their first year, they also began feeding the soil with compost made from the grass and weeds they were removing.

Herbert imagines that his visits to his grandparents’ dairy farm in New Hampshire sparked his interest in farming. With parental encouragement, he started small gardens in each of his many different childhood homes. After high school, he pursued a college degree in international agriculture development. Then, in 1971, he bought 22 acres in Potter Valley, California, and began the steep learning curve of turning over-grazed, hard, white clay soil into arable farm land. He even managed to find water with a makeshift dowsing rod made of coat hangers and dug a 16-foot well that supplied all his water needs. This was where he learned the value of observing nature to get guidance. Perhaps the best lesson was learning to put weeds to work to improve the soil.

Redfeather also had early gardening exposure on her grandmother’s chicken farm and in her dad’s rose garden. By the time she was in the third grade, her gardening interest led her to be the only kid in her class to show enthusiasm when the teacher asked for volunteers to help put in a salad garden. In 1973, she bought her first house in Long Beach, California, immediately dug up the lawn and planted vegetables to great success. Her tough lessons came later when she bought property in Kona Heights in 1978. Lots of rock and very thin soil meant she needed to study soil building. John Jevon’s “How to Grow More Vegetables” became her bible. She piled on the mulch and gradually had enough healthy soil to begin growing vegetables again.

Their past agricultural experiences brought Nancy and Herbert together in a biodynamic gardening course in 1994. They soon decided to try pooling their knowledge on a new farm. Along with the clearing and soil building activities of their first years at Kawanui, they built a barn to live in and began mapping the land and deciding what to plant.

They were soon able to grow enough food to feed four families in a community supported agriculture (CSA) collective of friends. They continued experimenting with new varieties of fruit and vegetables to get the tastiest crops possible while making sure the soil remained healthy by rotating crops with weeds and continuing to mulch. They also began saving seeds from their best crops and growing new and healthier plants from the seeds that had adapted well to their location.

In 2006, Redfeather was offered a job working with the Kohala Center to coordinate the Hawaii Island Food Summit and afterward founded the Hawaii Island School Garden Network and the Hawaii Public Seed Initiative. Though this meant she had less time on the farm, she saw the long-term value of getting kids growing and knowing what they are eating.

“The gardens need a dedicated garden educator to keep the garden healthy and work with the teachers” to make the system work well, she said. Currently, about half of the nearly 70 schools on Hawaii Island with gardens have a funded school garden coordinator.

Redfeather was quick to point out a recent success, the passage of the Farm-to-School bill that created a program in the Department of Agriculture and a coordinator, Robyn Pfahl. She feels that community support for school gardens may encourage the Department of Education to lend greater support to the program.

Veg head Redfeather is a believer in growing edibles and declares, “A home garden is so efficient, you can eat everything you grow.” She grows all kinds of greens and herbs as well as corn, carrots, squash, beets and beans in the many small gardens throughout the farm. She constantly rotates crops with weeds and uses the diversity of produce to create tasty meals. What she doesn’t use fresh she dries, freezes or preserves for later consumption.

While Redfeather coordinates school gardens, Herbert tends the farm full time. His dedication to diversity is apparent as he has planted numerous fruit producing trees to satisfy his fruitaholic tendencies. His love of fruit means that he makes a different multi-fruit juice/smoothie every morning and spends his breaks in the orchards tasting whatever is ripe. This morning we tried two varieties of tangerines, the large “honey” tangerine and the smaller “Fremont” variety that is packed with sweetness.

Today, the pair harvest daily all of the fruits and vegetables they eat and have plenty to give away. Without raising domestic animals, the omnivorous duo manages to get plenty of meat from the unlucky few wild pigs and chickens who venture into their on-farm traps. Friends on Molokai supply them with occasional beef, and they buy fish and dairy products locally.

The take-away messages from my visit to Kawanui Farm were that healthy soil is the key to gardening success and observing the natural world can often offer helpful ideas for solving gardening problems. Planting a diversity of plants including fruit and vegetable crops, as well as beautiful ornamentals, to provide “food for the soul” will likely keep you happy and keep your plants healthy.

Redfeather’s parting advice to beginning gardeners was, “Start small. Begin by growing what you like to eat and what’s easy to grow where you live, then build on your success.”

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