Farm visit

February 5th, 2010

On the morning of January 29, we got a visit from a batch of kids from Honokaa Elementary.  I got to spend a few hours with them, showing them many parts of the farm, teaching them about the trees and plants, the fruits and the tea, the chickens and the compost.  They asked great questions and seemed to eagerly soak up knowledge and have a great time.  “Best field trip ever.

They felt the warm compost pile and learned about the billions of little microbes working hard to turn it into nutritious soil..

They got to really interact with the environment, picking fruit and carrots, smelling the cinnamon leaves, touching bugs, petting a chicken..

Funniest moment: I asked if anyone knows why there are so many wild chickens on Kauai. One girl, Pakalana, raised her hand and said, “Because there’s only one KFC?” (The common answer is “because there’s no mongoose.”)

Second tea harvest

September 16th, 2009

The tea has been growing powerfully this wet summer, since the last pruning on July 5.  The field was covered with fresh harvestable tips in an astonishing 1 month after the last harvest, but at this stage, we’re still building up the fullness of the hedges, which means letting the branches grow and fill in.  So, i waited 2.5 months from last pruning.  In retrospect, 2 months would have been just fine.

The pictures tell part of the story, which starts at the 13th picture in the 2009 tea album, read the captions and click forward:

Day 1: at 7:30am, finally a sunny day, down to the field to harvest.  Surprisingly thick wet dew on the plants.  Over 3 hours to harvest all the tips.  Thankfully the sun stays out, so it gets a chance to wither all day.  Brought it in and weighed it, just under a kilo at 958g.  That’s around twice as much at our first harvest!

Day 2: The goal is a black tea.  No heating this time!  I heated a little on our first harvest, aiming for an oolong, but ended up making it a green tea.  The heat changes the enzymes which darken the leaves, so this time no heating until the very end.  It took all day, three periods of rolling then resting.  Here’s a video of the rolling process:

As an experiment, i pan-toasted half the resulting tea in the wok, on low heat for 10 minutes, tossing it by hand. Drying was in the dehydrator that we usually use for drying fruit, around 2 hours at 130F. Result: a total 305g of finished tea, very black in appearance, around 32% of the weight of the wilted primary leaf.

Processing tea is not easy to learn about!  There is no information online, almost no books, on actual tea production.  You could learn first-hand from visiting tea farms, but those parts of the world are very far way.  There are a bewildering variety of ways to process tea, with many steps that take a lot of practice to do well.

The only known book in the English language that actual details production is Tea: Cultivation to Consumption (see tea media notes). Unfortunately it’s rare and expensive. Today Deb pointed me to the popular affordable The Story of Tea which also has a chapter on making tea. I’ve been putting that together with everything we’ve learned from other Hawaii growers, and a few HTS events and visiting experts.

We’ll find out tomorrow how it turned out – the moment of tasting!

Physalis – the Poha genus

September 15th, 2009

The poha fruit is commonly associated with Hawaii.  It grows vigorously in most parts of the state, almost as a weed.  You can buy poha jam at the farmer’s market, and kids snack on it wherever it found.  We have poha on our land, growing vigorously.  On wikipedia i found that it is a member of the Physalis genus, which contains a large number of other varieties beside poha (which is P. peruviana).  On the Local Harvest: Fruit site, i found two varieties of P. pruinosa called “Cossack Pineapple” and “Goldie”.  I figured that since poha grows so well, perhaps some of the related species will too.

I started the seeds in the greenhouse then planted them in three areas: in the garden experimental zone, along the far fence (next to some vigorous poha) and on the terrace in the tea field.  The results: unexpected.

Instead of a large bush like poha, my P. pruinosa grows creeping along the ground!  At first, i thought that perhaps some it was some conditions (too much rain, wrong soil?).  But it’s creeping in all three places, with amended soil, and it is making plenty of fruit which would imply that nutrients aren’t a big problem:

The fruits are small (1.3-1.5 cm, which is around 1/2″ to 19/32″ for masochists who like inch fractions).  That’s roughly what was advertised (1/2″ to 3/4″), but it’s a bit smaller than typical hawaiian poha.  The main problem (beside the creeping low plants) is that it seems to be dropping lots of fruit before it ripens, so the harvest is barely yellow, mostly green.  For comparison, this is how poha grows: easily to 2m (6′):

Here’s some P. pruinosa planted on the ground right next to it:

In regards to fruit, we almost never get any fruit from our poha.  I’ve suspected that the abundant wild turkeys and pheasants devour them, although i’ve never been certain.  My pruinosa tests seem to support the idea: the plants inside my garden fence are loaded with fruit, whereas those by the far fence or open tea field, where turkeys are busy every day, have almost none):

Here’s the harvested fruit:

Conclusion: pruinosa not too successful. Those mostly-unripe fruits are tart, so i’ll probably mash them into a jam with added sugar for balance.  I may as well just grow poha, and do it inside my protected garden area.

There is one other Physalis contender left to try, though: the Giant Ground Cherry from Trade Winds Fruit, which promises “large growing and large-fruiting … up to and a bit over an inch”!  I’ve ordered the seeds and will try them soon.

Farm update

July 16th, 2009

Many bits of unrelated news this week:

  1. To deal with the pig attacks, we added a strand of barbed wire at ground level running all the way around the garden fences.  We also got a trap from neighbors, and the first night we caught a big mama pig:

    She managed to escape, but since then we’ve caught three smaller pigs.  They go to a neighbor who, i believe, fattens them up for eating.
  2. Two more biochar tests area in the ground, this time using IMOs as well as char.  Crops: popcorn and sweet potatoes.  Posted to the hawaii-biochar group.
  3. The HFU Potluck-Seed Exchange in Honoka’a last Friday was excellent, great turnout, tons of food, interesting seeds.

    If you missed it, the next one is August 14.
  4. I had a horrible fever that raged for 2 days, nausea, delirium, then a strange red patch on my leg. At the ER on Sunday, they said it’s a staph infection, put me on antibiotics and bed rest.  Sad to say, this mean little to no farm work for a week or more.
  5. In case you don’t already have Scott of Evening Rain Farm in your blog reader, be sure to read his posts Second Update on Our Food Experiment and Maintaining Food Security in Hawaii. Key insights into what food sustainability means here.
  6. The barrel tax was defeated today.  It’s a little depressing, a sign that the top-down powers that be can’t make even a little step in the right direction.  As it says, “A bill to fund food and renewable energy projects is left to die.”

Potato productivity

July 7th, 2009

This spring i did a test of potato varieties:

  1. Red: a variety we’ve grown for years, probably the common “red bliss”, which has been a reliable producer
  2. White: seeds of change “German Butterball”
  3. Blue: seeds of change “All Blue”

I planted three beds in different areas of the upper garden, with the varieties in equal areas of each bed.  Here are the results in pounds of potato per plant: Red 0.84, White 1.64, Blue 0.33.  The German Butterball was amazing!  In our soil and climate, it’s a clear winner.  We’ll be carefully keeping and replanting that variety.

First tea, pruning, pig attack

July 7th, 2009

It has been a very busy time on the farm recently. Last week, we had a friend visit with serious tree skills, who helped us take down several eucalyptus trees that shade the upper area. With the trees removed, we get more afternoon sunlight which means we can grow more crops!

The next day, i spent two hours plucking the tender tips from the entire tea field, our first real harvest. We did some processing steps, working with the leaves throughout the day. By midnight, we had some nice green tea to brew. Although there is so much to learn, it’s encouraging that on our first try we made good-tasting tea:

After the harvest, i set about doing a full pruning and mulching of the entire field:

Really overdue, that’s the problem with leaving the farm for six weeks! The plants look really strong and healthy, growing very vigorously.

A feral pig came in the night and destroyed our bed of white sweet potatoes. That wasn’t entirely unexpected, as we’d been seeing pig damage around and the bed was outside the protection of the garden fence. But, the same night, the pig got under the fence and destroyed our bed of orange sweet potatoes as well!

We reinforced the fence with stakes and a strand of barbed wire, and set a pig trap out to catch it. So far, no luck, but at least it hasn’t gotten back into the garden.

Biochar update

June 29th, 2009

Biochar 2009

While i was in California, our first batch of biochar arrived, from Biochar Engineering thanks to the nice folks at EcoTechnologies Group. Yesterday i launched my very first field test, using peanuts. I have enough char to do many more tests, in the newly expanded upper field area, with other crops like sorghum, corn and potatoes. There are so many different combinations to test – varying amounts of char, different crops, use of microbial inoculants such as Natural Farming IMOs and Bobby Grime’s Aerobically Activated Compost Tea (AACT).

I have launched a mailing list, biochar-hawaii for the growing community of biochar-interested people here in Hawai’i.  If you are interested in making Hawaii agriculture sustainable and reducing climate change, come join us!

Farm visits

April 14th, 2009

We get a lot of farm visitors, from individuals to large tour groups. People find us many different ways, from word of mouth, mailing lists, community groups (like Slow Food), or from web presence like this blog or Local Harvest.  We’ve had groups of school kids, mainland tourists, neighbors, other farmers, all sorts.  Some are interested in tea, some in chickens, many in family food self-sufficiency.

Last month we had a large group from the Kona Outdoor Circle:

This coming Saturday is another public farm tour here, organized by mala’ai as part of a series of classes and farm visits.  See “It Takes a Garden to Grow a Community” for details.

Farm update, and the state of the world

March 2nd, 2009

We’ve had nine days of very wet and cold weather.  Can’t do much gardening, using the wood stove a lot to drive out the cold and damp.  The tea plants are the only one who appear to be very happy with our wet winter so far.  It seems they love all the rain, with fast and strong growth.  I made another 200 cuttings from the growth (oasis cubes, dip-n-grow); with the success rate i’ve been having, that might become 20 new plants.

Meanwhile, the new house has been moving forward (photos).

Last week we had a mainland visitor, my old friend Aix, who now lives in Arcata, CA.  Incredibly, we hadn’t seen each other since i visited him in Kyoto in 1997.  It was great to catch up, and he briefly got to experience working in the tea field, running to shredder to make compost, and digging on the new house pad.

I’ve been spending quite a bit of time recently studying the big changes going on in the wider world – peak oil, peak everything, climate change, collapse of the banking system, instability in global agriculture.  Will the future look more like Mad Max or the Amish?  While it’s all super complex, one clear conclusion is that in the future, those of us that survive will be growing more of our own food.  I give tours of our farm often, and when i tell people that we grow around 1/3 of our food, they are very impressed and say we are better prepared for the coming troubles.  But i’m not so sure.  Where will the other 2/3 of our food come from?  What about all our hungry neighbors?

There is more to survival than food.  The staple carbohydrates that we can grow here are tubers – potato, sweet potatoes, taro.  We buy/import our other staples, so our food is based on tubers, bread, pasta, and rice.  I realized recently that if ‘the boats stop’, then our food will be based on tubers, tubers, tubers, and tubers.

Down at Evening Rain Farm in Puna is another family, who are growing perhaps >80% of their food, more than anyone else i know of (starting with their Food Experiment).  I haven’t met them personally, but their blog is fascinating.  It is a jungle where they live, so they have fewer tubers, but a ton of breadfruit.  Breadfruit and pig, every meal, every day, “breadfruit alfredo, breadfruit parmesan, breadfruit pesto”…

One major challenge on our land, for food sustainability, is garden space.  We have so many giant eucalypts around, on a L-shaped skinny lot, that shade is a big issue.  We’ve been cutting them back (endless firewood!) but it’s a lot of work, and they are also serve as beneficial windbreak – a complex trade-off.

Learning Small Scale Farming in Mid-life

December 20th, 2008

I read a great article today, From Cubicle Nerd to Cucumber Vendor: Learning Small Scale Farming in Mid-life.  As usual for the Oil Drum, much of the information is in the ensuing discussion (all 30,000 words of it).  An engineer moves to the country (in this case, Virginia), starts to farm, and produces fascinating measures of the activity (950 gallons of fossil fuel, 1,078,700 food calories produced..)  People from around the country add their own experiences, including a guy on Maui.  It seems there are a lot of people in my situation: Moving partly or fully from white-collar work to producing food, attempting sustainability, an incredibly complex set of challenges, a lot that is different in each place, but also a lot of things we can learn from each other.