Growing Farmers

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Diversity is key at Pono Grown Farm Center, where a mix of plants varying scents and colors attracts beneficial insects and deter pests.

Not long ago, Brad and I graduated from the FAM program. We now understand that the towering Guinea grass that once plagued us can be an asset in creating compost, that building an irrigation system is easier said than done, and that relatively inexpensive hoop houses and other tools can help alleviate the cost of farming. And, as its acronym suggests, FAM program graduates reap more than an education—they join a family of farmers working to reverse decades of deepening dependence on imports.

One of those farmers is Gerry Ross, who runs Kupa‘a Farms in Kula with his wife, Janet Simpson. In 2003, the pair moved from Canada to Maui to start a farm on land they inherited from Simpson’s parents. At the time, their growing experience was limited to a home garden.

“We did a lot of things on our farm that some people would call mistakes,” Ross says of those early years, explaining that he and Simpson learned from each setback. “It would have been fantastic if the FAM program was available when we started out, because starting farmers get the opportunity to learn from what other people are already doing.”

Raising fish in an aquaponic system produces nutrient-rich water, which is an ideal organic food source for plants grown in a soilless environment. Longtime farmer John Dobovan and FAM graduate Max Powell stand amid beds of watercress, the crop of choice at their Kulahaven Farms.

Today, their four-acre organic farm is a thriving ecosystem that produces award-winning coffee and a broad range of crops destined for private chefs and farm-to-table restaurants, including The Mill House.  They also sell directly to the public at the Wednesday farmers market in Kula, and via a monthly subscription program.

A self-described “soil farmer,” Ross focuses on building a soil ecosystem of critters and microbes that interact with plants to promote naturally healthy growth. He shares his techniques with FAM program apprentices both in the classroom and on his farm. “You can do all kinds of classroom work, but getting out there and getting it under your fingernails makes all the difference,” he says.

FAM program graduate Max Powell is proof of that. When he landed on Maui three years ago, he knew exactly what he would do. “I was going to become a realtor,” says the twenty-four-year-old, who had previously traveled the globe while working in the music industry. He nods his head and lifts his eyebrows as if to say, “Imagine that.” But then he met John Dobovan through a mutual friend, and everything changed.

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