|Image: Jamm Aquino/Star Advertiser|
Farmer Samson Delos Reyes reached into his bluejeans pocket to grab a phone call from a buyer and ended up smiling but shaking his head.
The caller wanted to triple her order of his pungent Thai basil, to 60 from 20 cases a week, but S&J Farms of Waianae is already booked solid. Since trying “natural farming” last year under the guidance of a folksy South Korean master farmer known as Han Kyu Cho, Delos Reyes said production on his 10-acre plot has doubled — and demand is growing even faster.
“This is my first time having earthworms on my farm,” he said, scooping up a handful of earth and nutrient-rich worm castings in his fingers. “They’re cultivating the soil for me.”
Unlike conventional or even organic farming, “natural farming” is a self-sufficient system to raise crops and livestock with resources available on the farm. Rather than applying chemical fertilizers, farmers boost the beneficial microbes that occur naturally in the soil by collecting and culturing them with everyday ingredients such as steamed rice and brown sugar. They also feed their crops with solutions containing minerals and amino acids made from castoff items such as eggshells and fish bones.
“What others consider rubbish, we use,” Cho told gardeners and farmers at a workshop in Honolulu last month. “Natural farming uses local resources, but you have to give what the plants need, when they need it and in the right amounts.”
On land once classified as unsuitable for farming, Delos Reyes’ sturdy stalks of Vietnamese kalo now stand taller than he does, and his basil bushes are thick with leaves. He no longer has to buy fertilizer, herbicides or pesticides, and he has cut water use by 30 percent. The indigenous microorganisms in the dirt — bacteria, fungi and protozoa — help nourish his crops. The plants grow hardier because their roots have to reach further to find water, according to Cho.
“You use less water, you use less inputs and you end up with a healthier plant which produces more nutritious food, of a higher quality,” said landowner David Wong, who ran Oahu’s last dairy on this Waianae property and is working with Delos Reyes in the first commercial operation using Cho’s methods on Oahu. “Here’s a system that is not freight-dependent, and it changes the economics of how agriculture could be done in Hawaii.”