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Kalalau Ranch teaches skills for life, survival

Updated: 
March 23, 2014 - 7:48am

“I only had two things growing up … a stick and outside,” said Jeno Enocencio, founder of Kalalau Ranch and Victory Gardens.

The Big Island native has been farming all his life; he started the ranch in 2004 as a way to rediscover the ahupuaa life system. The historic sustainability method of farming and living incorporates elements of Hawaiian spirituality and features a unique land management system.

Enocencio, a third-generation plantation worker, also uses 100 years of plantation knowledge to help mold the island’s next generation of ranchers and farmers.

“The Japanese, the Filipinos and everyone brought over here to work the plantations, all those people contributed something. Everyone had their own way of surviving,” he said. “That is what we’re teaching to the young people today. It’s a survival and life skills center.”

Visitors, students and workers at the ranch, located just outside of Hilo, are exposed to a range of farming techniques, including aqua science, agriculture, Korean natural farming, and animal husbandry skills for horses, sheep, cattle and chickens.

The Kalalau Ranch also acts as an educational resource for at-risk Big Island students.

On March 11, students from the Lanakila Learning Center, an alternative learning center at Hilo High School, were working on the aquaponic and greenhouse gardens they developed. The students visit once a week as part of the program’s mission to integrate hands-on educational and cultural projects to address different learning abilities and methods.

Wendy Hamane, project director with the learning center, said their experience at the ranch has transformed the students both inside and outside of the classroom.

“I think the important thing for the kids is tying what they’re doing up here to classroom learning,” she said. “We’re trying to tie in biology concepts and biological agriculture concepts so they’ve studied things like the nitrification cycle to understand how fish weight is transformed by bacteria into a form of nitrogen that can be fed back into the plants. They’ve studied things like crop rotation and how you put nutrients back into the soil because you plant another crop. So it’s really taking things that kids learn in the classroom and trying to apply it here.”

“Year after year, our attendance rate surpasses the state standard for attendance,” Hamane said. “These kids are the ones on the verge of dropping out or (who had already) dropped out. This is a way of getting them engaged in learning and back in school.”

Hamane said part of the center and its students’ success can be contributed to people like Enocencio.

“The strength of the program is these people lending their expertise and their kokua for the kids so they have access to expertise that you wouldn’t even get in a traditional school system,” she said.

When Enocencio started the ranch 10 years ago, he said people thought he was “crazy.” With no money and no one to work the land, it was simply a vision and a mission that made the ranch what it is today.

“The end product is to have safe and healthy food. All this couldn’t happen without help from volunteers,” he said.

Email Megan Moseley at mmoseley@hawaiitribune-herald.com