Make your own fertilizer

MOLOAA — This experiment was about more than going organic. It was about changing the dynamics of farming on Kauai.

Testing the Korean Natural Farming method was a yearlong project supported by Permaculture Kauai and the Hawaii Farmers Union United-Kauai Chapter, and funded by a grant from Kauai County.

“Basically the focus is to create, organically, most of the inputs that a farmer would need, using either materials from the farm or locally sourced,” said Ray Maki, owner of Permaculture Kauai and vice president of the Hawaii Farmers Union United-Kauai Chapter.

The Korean Natural Farming method uses indigenous microorganisms to improve soil health and increase production on farms. These IMO inputs are developed using ingredients mainly found on the farm, such as produce scraps and soil. That provides the opportunity to reduce farming costs.

The project began in July 2015 and ran though July of this year, involving several components — training for people on how to make soil inputs, a training video, and a test to see what would happen to the soil after a year.

Maki said the year-long test came back inconclusive because the pesticide that was targeted for breakdown was DDT, a chemical with a half-life of 20-40 years.

“Maybe we could have picked a different class of chemicals to work with, but with a one-year study we didn’t have enough time or conclusive results to say we had meaningful results from the test,” Maki said.

Though the soil remediation testing didn’t yield measurable results on the breakdown of the pesticide residue in the soil, those involved are still optimistic about the role Koran Natural Farming could play in Kauai’s agriculture.

“It’s another approach to farming that is part of the overall effort to move Kauai toward becoming more sustainable,” said George Costa, director of the County Economic Development Office.

The Korean Natural Farming method “has a lot to offer our farmers,” according to Councilmember Mason Chock, who studied the method with his family through the Master Gardner program.

“It will bring costs down for farmers by utilizing local sourced and produced methods for fertilization, pesticides and bio-remediation,” Chock said. “I am supportive of these methods and would like to see them used more prevalently on Kauai.”

About five commercial organic farms actively and successfully use the method. One is Moloaa Organica, which farms 5.5 acres of vegetables and is working with onsite developed fertilizers and mostly homemade pest prevention products.

“It gives a lot of relief to the modern farmer, who is consistently having to buy so many things to farm,” said Adam Harris, field manager of Moloaa Organica. “It does set the farmer free financially, and it’s the same kind of thing when you’re able to save your own seeds.”

The switch in paradigm, from imported food and farm inputs to a system that’s based on sustainable farms providing local products for their own communities, is what Harris hopes to see come out of the test.

“Korean Natural Farming is just one method of natural farming and the indigenous Hawaiians were using natural farming techniques all over the island,” Harris said. “It was very successful for them. I think the main message is about healing the degraded land and then using that land for healthy, sustainable food production.”

Permaculture is also at work in the Kilauea yard of Felica Cowden, who helped develop the training video for the Korean Natural Farming method test.

She conducted a two-year experiment on her property to remediate the soil that had been deemed toxic.

“I paid for an expensive professional test and we cleaned up most all of it,” Cowden said. “It’s not like I was serious or scientific about it; it’s fairly easy and it just works so well.”

It was conversations with Maki, Costa and other county staff members and farmers after the success of her own experiment that brought Cowden on board with the Korean Natural Farming test.

The training video, entitled “Healing the Soil,” teaches how to make IMO farming inputs, mainly using fermentation, in a way that’s cheaper than purchasing conventional inputs.

“The essence of it is that you can make farming inputs from things like guinea grass,” Cowden said. “You can make a fertilizer out of it and you can make nutrients from the plants themselves.”

In addition to the hour-long training video, Cowden said she plans to release expanded segments on the Regenerations Botanical Garden website, rigb.org.

Eventually, Cowden hopes to bring the larger-scale Kauai farms on board with the project.

“These bigger companies have the capacity to look at whatever we’re doing in our own homespun way and do it more effectively than we can because they have the resources,” Cowden said. “That capacity of those companies is profound if they wanted to do something like this.”

In the meantime, Maki said he’s been offering workshops and training classes and has educated about 140 people on Kauai in Korean Natural Farming methods. He is gearing up for another one in February.

“The intent is to do what farmers have been doing since the very beginning of agriculture,” Maki said. “It’s about decreasing the cost of farming and growing organically.”

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