Rob Cruz doesn’t have all his plants all in a row.
In fact, they’re scattered; rooted in a few miniature food forests around the island, including a little slice of land bordering the parking lot next to Tiki Taco in Kapaa.
Sweet potato and squash plants now cover that area, which used to be vacant green space. A few tapioca trees are mixed within a grove of nitrogen-fixing trees and an avocado tree sits at the edge, trying to grow in ocean breezes that Cruz says are too salty.
The manager of Secret Beach Organics peppers experimental, regenerative farming methods throughout the traditional farm, where he’s growing turmeric for sale throughout the United States.
His goal is to promote permaculture practices everywhere he goes, and the Papaa Bay resident wants to connect the island’s movers and shakers through their love of plants.
He sat down with TGI after working in his Kapaa Town garden for a taco and a chat about how he got started in regenerative farming.
How did you become involved in regenerative farming and permaculture?
I was a wedding photographer for years. Me and my ex-partner were a wedding photographer team and we killed it. We did really well, and traveled and met great people.
That’s how I got here, I came here to do photography, in 2011.
But I also saw the other side of it, which was a big me-me-me game. It was ugly to see that over and over and over in different people, it was eating me up. We were good at it and it was paying our bills and then I started getting cancerous with it and that was part of me deciding to separate into permaculture and farming.
(Before I moved to Kauai), I met this guy Bill, and his wife, she offered me to come and take care of her land and then a lot of things happened. But, she was the one that introduced me to permaculture. I was in LA at the time and pretty much binge watched everything I could for almost a year.
From there, I decided I wasn’t going to be living in LA anymore, it was destroying my soul and I didn’t understand it so much until I was doing a little more traveling and that’s when I realized I wasn’t in my right space.
So, I went back to Florida to stay with my parents and regroup and I worked at a butterfly farm for about eight months.
The dude had a good operation and was running it for 20 years, but the place was super sick. He was spraying weekly chemicals inside his greenhouses.
So we pulled it all apart and mixed all these different kinds of plants that he was growing in these greenhouses together and that diversified it. Then we planted things in the ground that could totally grow outside these systems into the ground inside the greenhouses and slowly we brought them all back to life.
But it changed his whole program and as far as just putting a few permaculture principles in place.
What is it about permaculture that’s captured your attention?
I’m a plant geek. It’s always what’s gotten me excited and interested, and as I’ve been learning about ecosystems, I’m seeing they take care of themselves. A healthy ecosystem will take care of itself. What we do in (modern) farming is completely opposite. We destroy.
I’ve been in both systems. It’s like working with something that is alive and then something that you’re destroying and rebuilding it how you want.
You’ve been involved in the Kauai Food Forest for years. What are you learning from your work there?
It’s funny, that project, the food forest, was starting when I got here, so I was able to jump in feet first. I was searching in the internet and found out it was being planned and was watching and monitoring. I was a little bit late but I was in there the first week after their initial planting.
I’m not a food forest steward full time, I’m a farmer. I understand what happens when you’re farming and I understand why we’re facing things like weeds. At the food forest, we laid two acres of cardboard out (before planting). It was wild and looked like a gigantic dump, but it’s to hold the ground and gave us six months of 95 percent less weed pressure.
What I’ve learned from the food forest is that all the plants are powered by light, just take away their light and it’s like Superman, he runs on sun power, take away that light and that’s one of the only things you can to do to take the umph out of the weeds.
It took away all the light source and gave our soil a chance to awaken again because we tilled everything.
If you can’t keep the weeds out of it then you’re done. And here the weeds don’t stop man, they probably grow all night, I haven’t even thought of that. I probably won’t sleep as easy anymore.
Right now at the food forest, we’re refining our mulching techniques, making them more mowing friendly and more weed proof.
We’re taking best techniques that brilliant farmers and gardeners are doing here and we’re smashing them together to make one solid one.
The biggest thing about farming and gardening is holding down the space and I’m stoked to be able to experiment with the techniques that I’m learning from there in my farming techniques.
What do you think about the goal of doubling local food production by 2020, and how do you thing restorative farming can help?
First off, we shouldn’t be looking to expect farmers to be able to take care of us.
The reasons they’re saying that they need people to boost up this, is because we’re out here super vulnerable in the middle of the ocean. But if the ships stop coming, do you expect farmers to take care of you?
What happens when your mower breaks down and you can’t mow the guinea grass? Do you think their tractors are going to be working for making you lettuce?
If it’s not under your feet, you’re not going to be able to eat it and first, it’s stepping up and learning the environment around you, learning those plant allies and taking part in the cultivation of those.
Sustainability has to be about your sustainability. The system isn’t sustainable and we can’t expect the system to get sustainable for us. It has to be yours, and that’s not hard to do.
Sweet potato, papaya, squash, avocado, breadfruit — these foods just rip. You can make a gigantic amount of food if you went on a cruise and learned how to do it.
You have to step out of it and learn permaculture, because permaculture is the natural systems and observation of the natural world and those are the things you can count on.
What’s on the horizon for you and permaculture?
What I want to learn to do overall is be able to restore natural ecosystems in places where people can access so they can learn and be able to take that seed and move it around.
Hopefully, eventually it’ll be kids because they have enough interest but right now it needs to be the adults learning the techniques, because they’re the ones that need the information. They’re the ones that have to do it. It’s not for the future generation; it’s for now. It has to happen yesterday.
We also need to re-wild our cities and our spaces. The worst thing we could have done is pave over watersheds with concrete that takes water and makes it either evaporate or flood.
We need to re-wild ourselves and I hope to make examples of how to do that, examples of regenerative ecosystems and be able to share them.