COURTESY O'O FARMS
The 10-acre Upcountry Maui parcel that is now home to O'o Farms produces 300 to 400 pounds of produce weekly, which helps to feed guests of Pacific'O and I'o restaurants.
Visitors share in Maui farm’s bounty
When Louis Coulombe and Stephan Bel-Robert, owners of award-winning Pacific'O and I'o restaurants in Lahaina, purchased their 10-acre Upcountry Maui parcel in 2000, it was so densely forested with wattle "that sunlight didn't shine through," said Coulombe. "It was the perfect setting for 'Hansel and Gretel.'"
O'o Farm Tour
Place: Meet at the farm in Kula, Maui. Directions will be given at time of booking.
Time: 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursdays except Thanksgiving.
Cost: $50 per person ($40 kamaaina), including lunch, and $25 for ages 5 through 12.
Call: (808) 667-4341 or (808) 661-8422. Make reservations up to noon the day prior; 20 people maximum per tour.
Web site: www.oofarm.com
Notes: Dress casually in clothes that you don't mind getting dirty. Wear comfortable walking shoes and bring a jacket. Private, customized group tours for up to 15 people are available on other days by special arrangement; prices are the same. Wedding parties of up to 50 people can also be arranged, with food catered by Pacific'O or I'o.
They immediately hired a logging company to clear the land, and began laying plans for a garden they envisioned would supply as much quality produce as possible for their two restaurants. Within two weeks of buying the property, they started planting and haven't stopped.
Today, O'o Farm provides all the fresh produce for Pacific'O and I'o, which amounts to 300 to 400 pounds a week. Fittingly, the translation of its Hawaiian name is "to mature or ripen."
Over the years, the farm has also become a welcome retreat for the two entrepreneurs, their families and friends.
"It's quiet and beautiful," said Coulombe. "We have picnics and birthday parties there. Our guests are always so interested in walking around the farm and seeing what we are doing, we thought it would be a great idea to open the experience to visitors."
Regular tours of O'o Farm began in March. Farm manager Richard Clark greets participants with fresh pastries and hot apple cider, then leads them on a walking tour of the property, where four full-time workers tend 100 varieties of fruits and vegetables.
There are leeks; beans; beets; peas; carrots; tomatoes; peppers; artichokes; cucumbers; asparagus; Maui onions; four kinds of avocados; and 25 varieties of lettuce, spinach and other greens.
O'o's orchard yields citrus fruit, peaches, plums, nectarines, apples, figs, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, mulberries, poha berries, plums, apricots and exotic hybrids like pluot, a cross between plum and apricot.
Fennel, lemongrass, basil, rosemary, lavender, sage, cinnamon and allspice are among the dozens of herbs and spices flourishing at the farm.
"What surprised me most is the wide variety of products we're able to grow at the 4,000-foot elevation," said Coulombe. "Temperatures range from the low 40s at night in the winter to 75 degrees during the day in the summer. Apples, peaches, plums and nectarines are cold-climate fruit. Next to them we're growing oranges, grapefruit, tangerines and other tropical species. I don't know of any other place where you can grow apples and oranges side by side."
COURTESY O'O FARMS
Crops are constantly rotated at O'o Farms to ensure health of the soil. Flowering plants and herbs are interspersed throughout the crop plantings to ward off pests and attract pollinating bees.
TOUR GOERS pick what they'd like to eat from the bountiful array, and come lunchtime, they assemble in the open-air dining pavilion. There, seated at a 20-foot table handcrafted from a pine tree that had fallen on the property, they share a memorable meal prepared by I'o's executive sous-chef Sean Christensen.
The menu is different every week, based on what's in season from the farm, meat purveyors and local fishermen. A recent one featured a hearty soup made with vegetables from O'o; whole roasted papio (young crevalle) seasoned with lemongrass and other farm herbs; kiawe-grilled beef tenderloin stir-fried with vegetables harvested minutes before cooking; and a lovely salad of greens also gathered by the group. Dessert was a rich chocolate pate paired with freshly picked loquats.
Coulombe recalled a young woman who booked the tour as a surprise for her boyfriend. When her beau found out they would be spending half the day at the farm, he was less than enthusiastic.
"But at the end of the tour, they didn't want to leave," said Coulombe. "The young man was so impressed and interested in what he saw. It's rewarding for us to help people understand all the effort that goes into growing quality produce. Many people don't know how some fruits and vegetables grow because the only time they see them is when they're displayed at the supermarkets."
A COMMITMENT to organic farming practices lies at the heart of this farm-to-table culinary ethos. The arrangement between O'o, Pacific'O and I'o is the only one of its kind in Hawaii. Clark and his crew don't use any pesticides, insecticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers. They also make their own rich compost from green wastes collected at the farm, wood chips, and fish carcasses from Pacific'O and I'o.
Thick borders of lemongrass surround most of the farm.
"They serve as buffers against encroaching kukui grass and insects from the adjacent forest," said Clark. "Also, the chemical makeup of lemongrass is similar to citronella; it repels bugs."
Marigolds, dahlias, roses, sunflowers, nasturtiums and other flowering plants are interspersed among crops to lure "good guys" such as bees, wasps and hornets, which sting the larvae of aphids, moths, white butterflies and other "bad guys."
Around the fruit trees, ground covers of buckwheat, peanut grass and creeping wildflowers keep weeds in check, enrich the soil with nitrogen and help it to retain moisture so the plants don't need to be watered as often.
"We also maintain a diverse mix of crops," said Clark. "Continually planting the same thing in the same area draws the same nutrients from the soil and attracts the same pests and pathogens. Rotating crops prevents pests and pathogens from establishing a foothold.
"We grow certain items all the time because our chefs like to use them, but we also like to experiment at the farm," he said. "It's an exciting work in progress!"
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.