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."
Cho, founder of the Janong Natural Farming Institute in Chungbuk, South Korea, held his first workshop in Hilo last February. Dr. Hoon Park, a retired physician in Hilo, heads Cho Global Natural Farming-USA, a nonprofit that promotes Cho’s approach. Its workshop last month was sponsored by the Hawaii FFA Foundation, the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Kamehameha Schools, among others.
Across the state, an unusual piggery in Kurtistown on the Big Island is another showcase for Cho’s system of "natural farming." The pig farm’s claim to fame: It does not smell or attract flies or even require cleaning. And its pigs are thriving.
"It is the first piggery of this kind in the United States," said Michael DuPonte, a livestock extension agent with the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and a technical adviser on the demonstration project. "It’s been in production for 20 months, and I haven’t cleaned the piggery yet. It looks the same as the day I opened it. No smell, no flies. It’s a combination of the dry litter soaking up all the liquids and the microbes working together to break down the manure."
DuPonte said the idea of not cleaning a pigsty did not sit well with him at first blush. "When Master Cho came to see me, I was a skeptic," DuPonte said. "I asked him, ‘What about disease?’ You don’t clean a piggery in Hawaii, guarantee your pigs are going to get sick. He said, ‘Don’t worry about disease. The microbes will take care of that.’ I didn’t believe him."
But after a trip to Korea to see a piggery in action, DuPonte became a convert. The Kang Farms "Inoculated Dry Litter System" piggery building, opened in August 2009 in Kurtistown, measures 30 by 60 feet and handles up to 125 pigs. It uses natural ventilation and is oriented for sunlight. The pens are filled with a deep bed of dry sawdust and wood chips, spiked with microorganisms cultivated from local soil that help break down the manure. The pigs are fed rations made from agricultural waste, including sweet potatoes, macadamia nuts and bananas.
DuPonte says the pigs seem "stress-free and contented," and they are good neighbors because the piggery produces no waste, runoff or telltale smell. That is important for Hawaii’s swine farmers, who have been pushed from one location after another by urbanization and complaints from neighbors. The piggery project was supported by the University of Hawaii, Farm Pilot Project Coordination, Hawaii County and Agribusiness Development Corp., among others.
"Pig farmers are very, very interested in the system," DuPonte said. "I’ve had 50 people come in and ask me if I would build these piggeries in their place. It’s going to take off, mainly because of lack of odor. Pig farmers have been kicked out of Kam IV Road and then Hawaii Kai, and now they’re getting challenges in Waianae and they don’t know where they are going to go next."
Versions of natural farming have been practiced for generations in Asia. But scientific proof of its efficacy is hard to come by because it is a complex system that adapts to local conditions, said Ted Radovich, assistant specialist in the Sustainable and Organic Farming Systems Laboratory at the UH College of Tropical Agriculture.
"It looks like there is value there," Radovich said. "There is increasing interest in doing research. While I think there is potential, we’re quite a way from understanding how it works."
He said the appeal of Cho’s approach in Hawaii lies in its "localness." "Any system that makes some inroads into decreasing our reliance on external inputs and improving the profitability of our local farms is important to consider," he said. "We’re not at the point where we can make recommendations yet."
DuPonte estimates that 150 people are practicing "natural farming" techniques in the Hilo area, mainly backyard farmers and gardeners.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service is offering small grants to a few farmers in each Hawaii county who want to try converting part of their fields to natural farming, though not livestock. DuPonte said the ideal candidate is a farmer with about two acres, who would use the money to cover the cost of switching to "natural farming" on a quarter of an acre and keep track of costs and yields.
Cho will return for another workshop in July in Kohala, and he urged folks to give "natural farming" a whirl. "Don’t doubt," he said through an interpreter. "Just jump in and try and practice and see how it works out."