For the last eight years Patrick Moser has managed a three-acre farm near the rural confluence known as Five Corners in the Peahi region of Haiku. Each Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, his loyal customers convene to buy his vegetables, herbs and free-range chicken eggs.
While recent discussions over transient vacation rentals have underscored the economic difficulties of making ends meet for local agricultural operations, Moser’s Biodynamic Farm is a shining example of a small, successful working farm. A network of similar farm operations dotting the island would surely go a long way towards our sustainability and food security.
In my early years on Maui, I traveled back to southwestern Wisconsin each year to work on my brother’s certified organic vegetable farm. He was the best grower I’d ever seen, and transformed the rich bottomland soil in a valley that also featured a trout stream and spring-fed pond into a productive truck garden farm.
We sold truckloads of vegetables to local grocers, but mainly at the farmers market in downtown Madison, where 5,000 to 10,000 people would shop each Saturday morning. One year I earned enough to purchase a 10-horsepower roto-tiller and ship it back to Maui.
For several years I offered custom roto-tilling, helping people to break ground and start their own gardens. Though I knew about organic farming, and the rigors involved, I knew little about biodynamic methods.
Rudolf Steiner, best known as founder of the Waldorf schooling methods, originated Biodynamic Farming in 1924. One of the basic principles of the non-chemical farming method is viewing the Earth as a self-sustaining organism, where growth, digestion, decomposition and the cosmic rhythms of the seasons all play their part. The vitality of plants is intrinsically related to the health of the soil, and composting is one of the fundamental efforts.
Human health depends on the health of the food we consume, and thus biodynamic farming strives for quality over quantity. This is a key precept that agri-business conglomerates have overlooked in the current global efforts to feed the planet’s six billion-plus inhabitants.
“Naturally occurring plant and animal materials are combined in specific recipes in certain seasons of the year and then placed in compost piles,” states the biodynamics.com website. “These preparations bear concentrated forces within them and are used to organize the chaotic elements within the compost piles. When the process is complete, the resulting preparations are medicines for the Earth which draw new life forces from the cosmos.”
Today, biodynamics is a worldwide agricultural movement, with training, networking and certification opportunities.
Patrick Moser grew up in Malibu, California, the son of a successful television writer/producer. In his teens, he spent a year working at a plant nursery before taking a job at the Ranch House restaurant in Ojai. His cooking job led to an offer to grow vegetables for the restaurant.
After mentoring with Southern California compost guru Jack McAndrew, Moser traveled to Emerson College in England to start training in Biodynamics. There, he met his wife-to-be, Elizabeth Elliot, who was training to become a Waldorf teacher. They moved to Keanae in 1990, and were married soon thereafter. Moser set up a farming operation and supplied the Hana community with his produce for nine years, often from the Hana General Store’s parking lot.
In 1999, “before the real estate prices went out of reach,” the Mosers found a small parcel on Peahi Road, built a house and began farming. The three-acre parcel was mostly flat—a great advantage. But like many Maui soils, his land was extremely acidic, with a 4.5 ph (6.6-7.3 is considered neutral). But Moser plowed, limed, disked, roto-tilled and added compost. Within six months of buying the land he was harvesting crops.
Today, his operation includes one cow in the back pasture, 15 ducks and 70 chickens. The animals consume and create materials for compost. The cow eats grass, “which grows really well in Hawai”˜i.” Moser periodically drains the duck pond and cleans it out, fertilizing his banana trees.
Scraps of all sorts go into the chicken yard. Gesturing towards several large feed bags, Moser claims that his farm “subsidizes the chickens,” which he considers a bit of a luxury. Apparently the term, “chicken feed,” often used to describe a paltry sum, has become a victim of inflation.
Moser’s farm has a tool shed, walk-in cooler, worker’s quarters and two greenhouses, one currently filled with tomatoes. Fruit flies are cyclical, he says, proliferating when there is a profusion of wild guavas, mangoes and other fruits. So he generally doesn’t plant tomatoes, cucumbers or summer squash outdoors, except between March and June.
On this particular pick-up day, his chalkboard lists what customers will receive: salad mix, kale, tatsoi (similar to spinach and baby bak choi), romaine, leeks or green onions, soybeans, cilantro, kohlrabi and eggs.
The board also indicates that he stocks Molokai certified organic, grass-fed beef. It originates from Jack Spruance’s Pu’u O Hoku Ranch on Molokai’s east end, where Jack’s wife Ellen Sugiwara also grows biodynamic edible ginger.
Produce pick-up day is a wonderful social event. Moser stands by at a wooden picnic table in front of his walk-in cooler as customers arrive, baskets and tote bags in hand. One person brings a handful of recycled egg cartons. Another brings fresh figs from her tree, with news that she keeps the birds from eating them by hanging old shiny compact discs from the branches.
Another customer brings two small plastic containers of homemade goodies. One contains kim chee, made from a monstrous type of leafy Chinese cabbage. The other holds pickled kohlrabi, sliced thin like daikon radish and seasoned with umeboshi and sesame. Some of Moser’s customers have been loyally buying his vegetables for the entire nine years he’s been farming in Peahi.
With a full farm schedule of planting, weeding, composting and maintenance, it’s important to Moser that he limit his customer service to keep work interruptions down. And Eileen is the full-time elementary school librarian at Kamehameha Schools, in Pukalani.
Moser posts employment opportunities through a large network of “WWOOFers” via the organization World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. He says the live-in workers generally stay for two to six months and make his operation possible. He says he might have given up, were it not for their help.
Besides hand tools, Moser uses a 22-horsepower Kubota tractor. The bucket is handy for mixing compost and the tiller attachment complements a smaller Troy-bilt tiller, which he also uses inside his greenhouses. “It’s very important to keep the soil loose,” he says.
The specific Biodynamic preparations he uses include six different formulas in making compost, and two more are used as soil amendments and to nourish the growing plants. Because he continually feeds the soil to keep it healthy, his plants grow strong and he has fewer bug problems.
Understanding where our food comes from and achieving greater island food self-reliance should become increasingly important. Yet community needs for infrastructure, affordable housing and economic well being seem to outpace the basic need to establish a local strategy to insure food security. Proposals to produce biofuels for transportation and electrical generation seem to ignore the greater need to utilize fallow agriculture lands for food sustenance.
In his book The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Wendell Berry writes that today’s agri-business enterprises have taken the farming culture out of agriculture. He mourns the great loss of American potential when we lost the commitment to live well on the land and with the spiritual discipline necessary to do so.
Our generation lives in an age of conveniences, unaware of the fragility of the threads that may hold together the tapestry of our lives. Isolated as we are in Hawai”˜i, and with great dependence upon imported food, energy and goods, we are particularly ripe for change. As we strive to replace current paradigms with systems that actually work, examples like Moser’s Haiku Biodynamic Farm offer a potent reminder that many of the goals we seek may be right around the corner.
For more information, visit www.patsbdfarm.com or www.biodynamics.com. MTW