Interesting things

January 5th, 2010

Some recent items of interest:

Farm update, tea, biochar sweet potatoes

January 2nd, 2010

Tea: We did our third tea harvest on November 30, processed as a green tea.  We have actual packaging now with a logo and label.  Several people bought it to give as a holiday gift.  As our first green, it was delicate and floral and nice, and it sold out quickly.

Biochar: the first solid results are in.  Test 1 (green beans) didn’t work well as plants varied widely within each plot.  Test 2 (popcorn) showed promise with the char plots growing better, but heavy rains this fall prevented any of the plots from maturing to compare yield.  Test 4 (taro) is still in progress as taro grows slowly at our elevation.  Test 3 (sweet potatoes) was harvested yesterday:

8 plants, control: 13.8 lbs
8 plants, with char and IMO: 21.2 lbs

That’s around 50% more tuber, and here’s the picture, control on the left:

This corresponds what Jay in Puna has reported on his use of biochar with hawaiian food sustainability (see biochar on the Sensible Simplicity forum)

Tea, rain, and recent farm tours

November 29th, 2009

As those of you following on facebook or twitter may know, we sold out of our second harvest of tea in early November.  I can see from the happy growing tea plants that it’s time to harvest again, but the weather has been very rainy for a couple weeks now.  The tea loves the rain, but we’re waiting for a sunny day which is important to the harvest process of picking and sun-withering.

Meanwhile, there have been several recent farm tours, including neighbors, a large group of mothers with their toddlers and babies from Waikoloa, and a couple guys with Kanu Hawaii from Oahu:

really loved the organic farm tour ben and jacoby gave today ... on Twitpic

On October 31, there was the big tour from the Hamakua Sustainable Agriculture Classes, pictures from that event (some by Nicole):

“Chicken…always sunny and useful, will endure”

October 22nd, 2009

Today’s title comes from a very timely article published in The New Yorker (Sept. 28, 2009) by Susan Orlean, “The It Bird – The return of the back-yard chicken.”

Tuesday evening, Ben & I presented “Hawaii Backyard Poultry Management” as part of “Practical Agriculture for Hamakua 2009″. In case you missed the class, here’s the PDF (2 MB) as maintained on our Ahualoa Chicken Notes. The file covers a source of local stock of baby chicks, feeding organically and challenges of feeding locally. We had a lot of fun talking chicken with 15 chicken enthusiasts. (bok, bok!)

Ben and I got started into farming by the first class of its kind in 2006. Back then, Jim Cain was the program manager. Now, Donna Mitts is the lead organizer. Take a look at the classes offered many which are geared towards specifically farming in Hawaii.

There’s plenty of venues to talk chicken story with us:

Saturday, October 24 (9 am to 2pm) Ben and I will host an educational table at Hamakua Alive! (Pau’auilo Elementary and Middle School 43-1497 Old Main Road Paauilo, HI 96776) We’ll be happy to talk story about backyard chickens and tea (camellia sinensis).  By the way, we have a limited quantity of black tea available for purchase.

Tuesday, October 27 from 6pm, Vicky Dunaway will discuss “A Pastured Poultry Model That Works” for about 20 mins. Her talk is followed by a public screening of “Mad City Chickens,” a feature length documentary about the return of urban backyard chickens. We hope you’ll join us for the 1 hr 18 minute movie.

Halloween, Saturday, October 31, join the Practical Ag class for a farm tour on our homestead, “Ahualoa Egg & Tea Farm” from 9 am to 11 am. I hope to introduce you to Ophelia, my favorite Barred Rock hen and Lil’ Buff, my favorite Buff Orpington. Register with Donna Mitts (call 936-2117 or email

In this short video Susan Orlean introduces Tookey, a Gingernut Ranger, one of her original hen who is currently at the top of the pecking order. (In our flock of ten remaining hens, I picked out the top hen: it’s Alpha-hen, an Australian Orpington, commonly shortened to Australorp.) Watching chickens, online or in real life, makes me happy. It’s nice to know the chickens are making a comeback in backyard all across America.

New tea farm site

October 20th, 2009

Now that we finally have some processed tea to share, it was time to make a site for the tea side of our farm. It’s still very simple, just a beginning, but here it is: Ahualoa Tea Farm

Our second harvest, as an orthodox black tea, turned out great. Slightly sweet, no harsh tannins, and keeps giving flavor over 4-5 steepings. Experienced tea tasters tell me that it’s unique, somewhat like other Hawaiian black tea but unlike tea from anywhere else in the world.

We brewed it a couple different ways, and just for fun, did a side-by-side comparison with a “normal” commodity black tea in a bag:

There’s no comparison – they are completely different things. I almost hesitate to call what we’ve made “black tea”, as it brings up entirely different associations for most people.

I visited San Francisco a week ago, and visited the nice people at Samovar Tea Lounge. They have a little Hawaiian tea to sell (not ours, yet) and really nice ambiance and food to complement it. I met the owners and we brewed up 10g of our tea for them and their staff to try.

From their positive reaction, it seems likely that connoisseurs of hand-processed teas will ‘get’ our tea right away.

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!

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.

Tea update

June 29th, 2009

I’ve returned from six weeks in California. It was a big deal to leave the farm for so long. As expected, there is a ton of work to do with pulling back weeds, restarting the compost cycle, and so forth. One pleasant surprise is that in my absence, the tea field exploded with growth:

From Tea

It’s so big and thick now that in some place i can barely walk down the rows! High time to do another round of pruning, and perhaps our very first harvest as well!

Tea and biochar!

April 25th, 2009

I’ve been studying biochar for a year now (see my biochar notes), and just this week the first major book on the subject arrived, Biochar for Environmental Management.  It’s academic, and dense with science, but totally fascinating.  Imagine my surprise in chapter 5 when i encountered a reference to this paper:

Hoshi, T. (2001) ‘Growth Promotion of Tea Trees by Putting Bamboo Charcoal in Soil’, in Proceedings of 2001 International Conference on O-cha (Tea) Culture and Science, Tokyo, Japan, pp 147-150

It even turns out to be online!  See the paper in English as pdf, and the English website which has a more detailed version (in Japanese) with pictures, which shows all the stages from harvesting the bamboo and making the chacoal, to spreading the char in the field and measuring the bushes.

A quick summary: A 10-year test begun 1998, which in year 3 the tea was already showing 20%/40% greater height/volume, using only a rather small amount of char (100g/m2 a year, or 500g/m2 once).  The composition of the harvested tea was the same, so the main benefit is reduced need for fertilizer.

For those of us trying to grow tea organically/sustainably, in poor soils like our Hawaiian clay, this is huge.  They didn’t test with large amounts of char (1-3 kg/m2 is typical of tests on other crops) so more might be even better, and it should be fully complementary to all the other organic approaches (EM, IMO, compost tea, etc.) so there is a lot of exciting things to try!

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.