Evan Nauka, right, and Keawe Tolontino, both 9 years old, haul a pumpkin out of the patch at the Kohala Mountain Farm during a school field trip as farm coordinator Stacy Hasegawa supervises. ( photos by Anna Pacheco/Special to West Hawaii Today)
Colorful pumpkins and gourds of all shapes, sizes and colors lay out for sale at the Kohala Mountain Farm Pumpkin Patch, which will be opening to the public this weekend. (Anna Pacheco/Special to West Hawaii Today)
Kanu o ka Aina New Century Public Charter School third- and fourth-grade students learn about cover crops, such as buckwheat, as they toured the Kohala Mountain Farm Pumpkin Patch & Corn Maze during a class field trip. (Anna Pacheco/Special to West Hawaii Today)
Third- and fourth-grade students from Kanu o ka Aina New Century Public Charter School learn to make cornmeal as they grind kernels husked from the cob at the Kohala Mountain Farm Pumpkin Patch & Corn Maze. (photos by Anna Pacheco/Special to West Hawaii Today)
River Horsley, left, and Gabriel Ruiz, both fourth-grade students at Kanu o ka Aina New Century Public Charter School, make their way through the Kohala Mountain Farm’s corn maze during a school field trip Thursday.
Pumpkins, pumpkins everywhere, and plenty of them to pick. Everything from the big and bumpy to the lopsided and lumpy can be found at Kohala Mountain Farm Pumpkin Patch & Corn Maze, which opens this Saturday.
Picking is planned from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekend and from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays, or until pumpkins are sold out, at the picturesque patch located between mile markers 12 and 13 on Kohala Mountain Road. The road, also known as Highway 250, runs between Hawi and Waimea.
The farm is open midweek to accommodate those who work on the weekends. While there’s no farm entry fee, and parking is free, admission is charged for the corn maze: $9 for adults and $7 for children 6 to 12. For $2 off that price, attendees may bring a nonperishable food item to donate to the North Kohala Food Basket. Last year, the farm donated 2,600 pounds of food to the organization, said Stacy Hasegawa, coordinator of this North Kohala Community Resource Center project.
Picking the perfect pumpkin for Halloween, or in celebration of autumn, has become a tradition for many Hawaii Island families. The farm is a vibrant gathering place and tremendous source of community pride. Here, attendees make memories while maneuvering through the maze, scouting their favorite gourds, learning about farming, going on hay or pony rides, and participating in various activities, Hasegawa said.
New this year are a juggling workshop and a duck race, where contestants use an old-fashioned water pump to get their rubber duckie down the track. There’s also a Glow in The Maze event Oct. 26, she added.
The attraction exists because of Hasegawa’s tenacity and seven years of dedication. But Hasegawa is quick to credit community support and Benjie Kent, who moved from Kansas City and eagerly stepped in to take on the role as the full-time farm manager two years ago. At that time, Hasegawa was overwhelmed by running the operation mostly alone and was about to give up. Kent — a friend, former construction company owner and hobby farmer — didn’t want this to happen. He was inspired by what Hasegawa had created and wanted to help her take the mission further.
Hasegawa used to work at Aloun Farms on Oahu. She started a successful pumpkin patch and hands-on educational program there. She witnessed the value and lessons attendees learned by visiting a working farm.
Wanting to start something similar on Hawaii Island, Hasegawa approached Kahua Ranch about growing pumpkins on a farm that ceased production in 2008. Kahua Ranch welcomed the idea and donated the 1.5-acre plot. Today, Kohala Mountain Farm has grown to 23 acres, of which 5 acres are pumpkins, 6.5 acres are a corn maze, and nearly 12 acres are cover crops.
Kahua Ranch, owned by the Richards family, has continued to provide land, water and unconditional support to the farm, which employs approximately 35 seasonal workers. The farm also benefits from contributions from local businesses, community groups and volunteers, Hasegawa said.
Approximately 4,000 to 5,000 pumpkins are expected to be harvested this year. Pumpkin planting began in mid-June. A major challenge the farm had to overcome were cutworms that fed on young plants. Because of this pest, the farm had to replant pumpkins four times, Kent said.
The cover crops being grown are buckwheat and sunflower. These crops will allow the farm to convert to no-till farming methods. They are also effective in attracting pollinators key to the farm’s success. Last year, the bees disappeared at the farm, where 4 acres of pumpkins were planted. With less production than expected, pumpkins from Oahu had to brought in, Hasegawa said.
“After losing 80 percent of our pumpkin crop due to lack of pollination caused by the decline of our bee population, we purchased five bee hives and planted pollen-rich plants to support our bees,” said Hasegawa. “Although the crop loss was unfortunate, it initiated an incredible community awareness campaign that helped educate the community about the state of our pollinators here on the island.”
Cover crops also help improve soil quality, reduce erosion, help with pest management and eliminate invasive weeds such as the spiny amaranth. One spiny amaranth plant can produce more than 250,000 seeds that can last in the soil for up to seven years, Hasegawa said.
Besides entertainment, the popular corn maze is important because it’s made of silage corn that will be converted to feed for Kahua Ranch’s livestock, which “will get the best Thanksgiving ever,” Hasegawa said.
This year’s maze features a design concept by Kanu o ka Aina New Century Public Charter School student Sofia Peterson. It depicts a farm scene with a large tractor, barn, corn stalks, pumpkins, sun pattern and puu. A professional maze designer in Utah used her rendering to create the layout, which was slightly modified to accommodate the corn’s growth, Hasegawa said.
“The field this year is 20 percent larger than last year,” she said. “We are really pleased with this year’s design because it’s going to be larger and a lot more challenging for our visitors to navigate.”
The farm’s mission remains to “develop a community outreach education program on the Big Island that offers residents the opportunity to enrich family bonds through hands-on activities that may include harvesting of pumpkins and other agriculture commodities, corn maze exploration, and tours that educate the community about agriculture.” All proceeds go toward maintaining and improving the farm, Hasegawa said. Last year’s funds helped the farm build a pavilion and purchase a mobile chicken coop and bee hives.
Hasegawa and Kent hope to raise $150,000 to construct a barn, to use as an agricultural education center, store front for Kahua Ranch meat products and farm produce, community events and farm equipment storage. They also want a vegetable garden, where the public can pick what they like. Other goals include hosting regular tours, providing seasonal grazing opportunities to Kahua Ranch livestock, establishing hedgerows of pollen-rich plants to support the farm’s pollinators, further developing an apiary program, and being an “open book” for those in the agricultural industry or studying it.
Another important goal, Kent said, is educating children about the importance of agriculture and how it can be a career choice. He hopes to promote food self-sufficiency. If something were to happen to prevent food importation, there would only be a 10- to 14-day supply of food on the islands, he said. He encourages families to support local producers and start gardening in their own backyards if possible.
Roughly 1,800 children from 38 school groups will visit the farm this year, Hasegawa said.
During a tour Thursday, Blaysin Bernard-Erece, a fourth-grader at Kanu o ka Aina, was excited to learn about the importance of corn in our society. The 9-year-old boy was surprised to find out most of the corn produced does not end up on our dinner tables. He liked learning how it’s used to feed animals, make bombs, and is in soap, chewing gum, fuel and plastic.
Bernard-Erece thinks it’s important children have the opportunity to visit farms because “you have fun learning new stuff and it teaches us how to better malama our aina.”
For more information, call 345-6323 or visit kohalamountainfarm.com.