When I ask Chuck Boerner of Ono Organic Farms how long he’s been selling produce to Down to Earth, he pauses, bemused, and says, “Geez, I don’t know.” After consulting with his wife, Lilly, he settles on “twenty, maybe thirty years. I was supplying Bobby since he was up in Wailuku. They’re our best customers.”
Ever since Down to Earth was founded in 1977, we’ve supported local farmers unflinchingly because we know how vital they are to the health and well-being of the islands. Each year we purchase produce from over 150 local farmers and growers, and we make it a policy to buy whatever they’re willing to sell us, even if it’s only a crate full.
Since they first founded Ono Organic Farms, Chuck and Lilly have gone from farming five to fifty acres of lush, tropical fruit orchards located on the southern slope of Haleakala on Maui. After spending most of his life practicing, experimenting with and teaching organic farming, Chuck enjoys a well-deserved reputation as an expert in tropical organic agriculture. Avocados, bananas, mountain apples, durian, strawberry papayas, lychees, mangos, breadfruit, jackfruit, soursop, pomegranate, kumquat, and rambutan are only some of the varieties of fruit grown on their farm.
Still, the Boerner’s don’t consider fruit their most important product. Like the staff of Ma’o Organic Farms (which was recently featured on our blog), the Boerner’s say that healthy, soil-smart kids are the most important fruits of their labor.
In Hawaiian culture, the concepts of ‘ohana, family, and ‘aina, land, are intimately linked. Ancient Hawaiians appreciated that the health of the land is interwoven with the health of family and community. They were keen observers of nature, and they took great measures to ensure that their sources of food were maintained in sustainable ways.
Throughout history, communities have bonded around growing, preparing and eating food. Nowadays, food is considered a commodity, and people’s taste buds are regularly exploited for profit. The antidote to this comes not just in a change of methods, but a change in how we see and relate to the land and the food we grow.
The biggest difference between the organic and conventional method of farming is that organic farmers work with the earth, instead of against it, appreciating that they are one small part in a very large and highly organized system of planetary life support. The soil, for instance, contains billions of different microorganisms that are all working in a highly specialized, beautifully coordinated dance that, when encouraged, results in colorful, hearty, nutrient dense plants. Synthetic fertilizers and sewage sludge are poor substitutes for healthy soil. Organic farmers understand that these microorganisms are the hardest working members of their farm family, and they need care and attention like anyone else.
Chuck advises his fellow farmers and organic gardeners to recognize the role these microorganisms play in producing healthy food, and to enlist their help. “Talk to them when you’re out in the field!” Chuck exhorts, “tell them you’re really happy with the job they’re doing, and ask them what they need to keep doing such a good job.”
You might think talking to dirt is crazy, but you can’t argue with success. The roots of our environmental problems lie in the modern belief that the environment is a dead, inert thing. We need to appreciate the life that is flourishing in every corner of the natural world, and see ourselves as part of a larger family made up of all living beings that inhabit this earth together.
Those who consider “sustainable agriculture” and “sustainable energy” no more than passing fads should ponder the words more deeply. “Sustainable” means “can continue to exist.” The modern method of conventional farming is unsustainable because it depletes soil resources and contributes to the loss of genetic diversity in crops. As dominant as this method of farming might seem now, it will end at some point, and sustainable farming will continue, as it always has, with local farmers taking the lead.
Customers will continue to prefer local produce because it is fresher and better for the environment. It consumes less energy in transporting products to our islands. In addition, purchasing from local vendors supports our local communities and we especially appreciate the opportunity to help farmers succeed.