Maui's Hana Ranch Takes the Long View
It’s shortly after sunrise on the ranch. Morgan Maki drives his small pickup truck through acres of rocky, overgrown cow pasture in the hills above Ka Iwi O Pele, the powerful landmark Hana location where Pele’s bones are said to have been buried. He stops the truck, gets out and opens a wire gate. The view is breathtaking.
“Our management team may have arrived here with a ‘plan’,” he says, “but the uniqueness of the Hana ecosystem required us to put our plans aside and listen closely to the land and the people of this place and take a careful approach. We’re constantly learning and growing, tacking and adjusting.” Spoken like a true farmer.
Hailing from urban San Francisco with a background in food service, Morgan now has Hana Ranch as the backdrop for his newest adventure, as retail operations manager for the ranch. The formerly wide-open cow pasture he’s standing in holds a rich Hana history, and is now, as of January 2014, managed by a stewardship development company from Colorado, Bio-Logical Capital, Morgan’s employer. It is clear, even from the untrained eye, that the land is being managed quite differently than it was before.
This is a good thing. For one, it’s the first time in recent history that the 3,600-acre ranch has been producing food – a lot of food – for the community. Locals and visitors driving the Hana Highway along the ranch’s borders now encounter the ranch’s farm stand with fresh organic produce, and they pass rows of ulu (breadfruit) trees and other canoe plants where acres of continuously grazing cows once dotted the open pasture. There are large plantings of fruits and vegetables growing. There are kids from the local preschool visiting the farm and tasting the food. It’s different now.
For a place as isolated as Hana, a sustainable food farm of this caliber is a game-changer for local residents who often take the 130-mile roundtrip to Kahului to stock their cupboards. While many in Hana practice a subsistence lifestyle, fishing and hunting and harvesting their own food and sharing with the community, this way of life is not always consistent. There are many trips to Costco to help pick up the slack. Having fresh, local food options close by just makes sense. As for the rest of Maui, well, we’re isolated too, and we import between 85 and 90 percent of our food from thousands of miles away, sending our money outside of the state. We need a growing local food supply to create true changes in our lack of food security, in our economy, and in our community. The new team at Hana Ranch is well aware of this. It drives what they do and why they do it.
Morgan continues up the mountain and finally arrives at a fenced- in paddock packed with cattle, standing on land that has been eaten bare. Cowboys Alvin and Kapena Kaiwi arrive on a quad and start to move the cattle up the hill, calling to them with megaphones. It’s time for the ranch’s 2,000 cows to move to the next paddock. Just over the fence is lush, fresh grass and a rich newness that the cows – in a haphazard single file – pass through the gates and quickly begin to devour. The whole ordeal takes an extraordinary amount of time and patience on the part of the cowboys, and it is a wonder to behold.
This is a new, cyclical practice for the ranch, now that it is under new stewardship and management. The Bio-Logical team believes in learning from nature, practicing regenerative agriculture, and leaving the conventional “extraction” style production model be- hind in the dust. Instead of asking what the land can do for us, they ask what the land can teach us, and how they can do right by the land. In the case of raising cattle, the lesson from nature is to organize them so they mimic the grazing patterns of their relatives, the bison of the Great Plains.
This “mob grazing” technique allows the cattle to naturally graze an area together, as the bison would, where they eat every plant in sight while turning the soil with their hooves. They are then rotated to the next paddock, which can happen quite quickly – sometimes just a day or two later depending on a few factors that are closely monitored. As the cattle move to the next area, the land in the formerly grazed paddocks then rests for 60 to 120 or more days. Even the grass is given the time to regenerate.
“The land is five times more productive after just a year of following these practices,” explains Bio-Logical Capital Founder and CEO Grant McCargo, who is in town from Colorado. “This means that the land is even better for the cows to return to next time.”
Mob grazing may take a lot of work, but it has many benefits, including better weed control, lower fertilizer cost, an extended grazing season, improved livestock health, more plant diversity, and better soil health through built-up organic matter and reduced erosion. Eventually, the weeds are gone and you’re left with nutritious grass and healthy, fertile land. By mimicking an event as it occurs in nature, it seems, everyone ends up healthier. That is exactly the point.
In addition to its nature-based livestock management practices, the ranch now operates an impressive organic farm, growing everything from taro to turmeric, lemongrass to lettuce, banana to butternut squash, sweet potato to cilantro. There are millions of earthworms creating nutritious compost tea. There are native plants and trees placed between the crops that serve as windbreak above ground and serve to store water in their roots below ground. The planting fields are bordered with flowering plants to attract pollinators. There is a lot of attention paid to their growing and harvesting methods, and the entire team works on fine-tuning them as they go. There are also chickens and goats on their way to the farm to join the system. It appears they’re considering everything, including the mana‘o of their local farm crew members, who are from Hana and know the place better than anyone.
On the food service side, the team is committed to taking care of Hana first. Hana Ranch products are now available at restaurants and markets in Hana. The team recently opened a farm stand (open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and a community supported agriculture program they call their “Farm Share,” where Hana residents can subscribe to fresh fruit and veggie boxes once a week. Through this developing connection to feeding their immediate community, their vision for a sustainable food system in Hana is already coming to life.
As for the rest of Maui, Hana Ranch produce is carried at Mana Foods in Pa‘ia, Down to Earth in Kahului, and Rodeo General Store in Makawao. They also supply produce to restaurants throughout Maui. There is talk of opening a Central Maui retail space for their upcoming value-added food products, as well as the opening of a restaurant in Pa‘ia. The farm itself holds a future as a Farming Institute, where the knowledge can be passed on and future farmer-entrepreneurs can learn the ropes.
Every bit of the business model McCargo and his team have designed is a meditation on taking the long view – from the way the human resources are approached, staff is developed and educated, and of course, how the fruits, vegetables, grass and cows are grown. It’s not about taking the easy way out and trying to cut corners, it’s about making it work, making it right and making sure it lasts for generations to come.
There’s a depth of knowledge among the farm’s senior management that is immediately noticeable. The team is made up of young, innovative professionals in the fields of ecological design, agronomy, marketing, retail and farm management (among other areas) who lead the company forward toward its goal. By “starting small to get big,” they are working in harmony with all of the elements at their disposal, and are passionate about making this ranch land and its people – much better off, in a way that grows to be self-sustainable in perpetuity.
Morgan Maki – a shining example of this passion – is now in another location on the ranch, looking down the hill toward an area containing several planted plots. Conversations with Morgan often drift into the realm of human resources, organizational behavior and employee empowerment. You can see the light in his eyes when he starts on these topics, and the passion he has for growing people, not just food, is quite evident.
“At the same time that we’re doing all of the data input and understanding how we’re going to change what we plant and how we grow, we’re doing the same thing with the team,” Morgan adds. “We’re like ‘who are the leaders going to be? Let’s start cultivating them now.’”
For the full-scale regenerative model to hold true, it must affect how they do agriculture, how they treat one another and how they treat their community, as well as how they make economic business decisions. This holistic approach has the Hana Ranch team firing on all cylinders, and working at all levels to get the greatest outcome – one that is good for the land and for the people.