SOUTH KONA — Managing a sustainable organic farm requires dedication and hard work. Melanie and Colehour Bondera are committed to both, living as sustainably as is possible on their 5.4-acre Kanalani Ohana Farm in South Kona.
Sensing the potential for abundance when they arrived on their new land in South Kona at 1,600 feet in elevation, they chose the name Kanalani, which translates to abundance of food and spirit in Hawaiian. The Ohana in their name refers to their desire to identify the operation as a family farm, including their two children as well as the greater community.
They bought their coffee farm nearly 20 years ago and have maintained their interest in keeping a small planetary foot print. In the process they have developed some interesting systems to accomplish that.
Recently as I sat on their lanai with a beautiful view of the coast and Kealakekua Bay, they reviewed the personal histories that brought them here and kept them dedicated to their early ideals.
Melanie grew up in a Southern California family that loved the outdoors. Most of their vacations were spent hiking and camping.
“My childhood experiences in nature made me prefer working and living outside.” Melanie noted. “Our daughter refers to our living style here in Kona as ‘glamping’, for glamorous camping, and I love it.”
The simple house that was on the farm they bought in 2001 qualified as a coffee shack.
But after minor renovations and later additions, their home remains open and breezy in the middle of their bit of agro-jungle. The breezes as well as the shade from the overstory help keep the house cool. No need for air conditioning. Their shack and all of their electrical appliances are powered by the sun.
They have also devised ways to farm and process their produce completely off the electrical grid. Their coffee pulping is done with bicycle power, coffee and other crop drying is done on a hoshidana in the sun while their coffee roaster is a custom made propane forced air machine.
Though they find one of their largest expenses is still fossil fuel for their generators, weed whackers and vehicles, they do manage to utilize sustainable power sources where possible.
Colehour was one of 11 children who spent their days working on the family farm in western Oregon that had a vegetable garden as well as dairy cows, goats and horses and lots of cats, dogs and other pets. His early lesson in hard work meant getting up every day at dawn to milk the cows.
“I loved life on the farm, even the 24/7, 365 days of work, but they wore on me as I got into my teens, and I often needed a break,” he said.
Undaunted the work farming entails, he went on to get a master’s degrees in Farmer Education from U.C. Davis, California. He continued work in agriculture and served as an organic agricultural apprentice in the garden at U.C. Santa Cruz for six months.
In 1993, he and Melanie met at Davis as they were both working on advanced degrees in International Agricultural Development.
Melanie proceeded to join the Peace Corps and served for two years working as an agroforester while organizing women’s vegetable marketing cooperatives in Sierra Leone. Simultaneously, Colehour was working in Mexico with Los Ninos de Baja, a program dedicated to family health and food security. At that job, he helped local communities establish urban gardens and start growing edibles. After more than a year with Los Ninos, Colehour continued to work in agriculture.
Melanie and Colehour were married in 1997 under the giant trees in Sequoia National Park, having grown all the food for their wedding feast in a double spiral garden.
In less than five years they were ready to start their own farm and decided that Hawaii was the ideal spot to experience a year round growing season and experiment with their ideals about sustainable living.
In addition to being off the electrical grid, they also collect rain water for their home and agricultural use. Luckily Honaunau has enough rain to keep their tank full and to adequately water their primary crops of organic Kona coffee, avocados, cacao and citrus as well as their edible gardens.
The couple agree that the key to agricultural success is stability through diversity. This principle has guided them through all the crop choices on the farm. Interspersed throughout the farm are plantings of turmeric and lilikoi as well as other fruit and vegetables including taro, bananas, salad greens, tree tomatoes, eggplant, squash and peppers. They even find uses for weeds like plantain, sorrel, wandering Jew and avocado seedlings.
“Actually, most of what we eat comes directly from our garden,” Colehour pointed out.
That is another sustainable practice that the Bonderas embrace — growing their own food, organically. Over the years they have found what grows well on their farm and have developed numerous recipes to create delicious meals that are directly farm-to-table. They have managed to feed themselves as well as their two children mostly from the farm for the last 20 years.
Another sustainable practice that keeps their plants thriving and productive is soil building from recycled waste. As most farmers and gardeners know, healthy soil is key to maintaining plant health. The Bonderas compost all of their food and crop waste and recycle it as fertilizer for their farm. They have never used chemical fertilizers and by maintaining their plants’ health they have avoided the need for chemical pest control.
Weeds, one of the biggest challenges for Hawaiian farmers, are controlled at Kanalani Ohana Farm by frequent weed whacking, occasional burning and good-old-fashioned weed pulling. They also plan to switch to battery operated tools in the future to reduce their use of fossil fuels for farm equipment.
Though labor and fossil fuel pose expensive issues for their farm, they are looking for ways to reduce these costs and their impacts on the environment. With so much knowledge and experience, the couple have found young farmers-to-be are often willing to work on their farm in order to learn from the Bonderas.
GOOD ORDERLY DIRECTION
Another way that they have dealt with expenses is to have a clear division of labor and responsibility on the farm.
Melanie is designated as the grower while Colehour is responsible for processing and marketing the crops. He also occasionally assists with weed whacking and chain sawing when needed. As part of his usual responsibilities he creates value-added products and sells them at the Kona Farm Bureau’s Keauhou Market on Saturday mornings. During his childhood he learned to make breads and pastries as well as jams and jellies. These as well as some of their fruit and vegetables fill their market every Saturday. Colehour also is instrumental in finding online and local markets for their coffee and avocados.
“We sell tropical fruit, coffee and baked goods to the tourists so that we can afford to grow organic local produce for ourselves and our community,” he said.
Melanie is also employed in agriculture related enterprises in the community.
She was instrumental in helping Kohala Center establish the first agricultural co-op center in Hawaii and is currently working part time with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture to help coffee farmers with coffee berry borer subsidies. She is also a partner in the agricultural consulting group FarmWorks Hawaii.
Colehour has spent hours of volunteer time in the community as well nationally and internationally. He was a co-founder of the Kona Coffee Farmers’ Association and has served on the board of the American Origin Products Association. The AOPA has worked to elevate the reputation of Kona coffee internationally which has helped encourage local legislation designed to improve Kona coffee labeling to permit the name Kona to be used only on 100% Kona coffee.
Over the years the Bonderas’ time has been filled with farming and community work as well as a rich family life. They both participated in raising their two children through home schooling. Both kids went on to college on the mainland. Spruce is now employed in San Francisco while Kaia is finishing a degree in architecture.
You usually find Colehour selling their products at the Keauhou Farmers Market on Saturday mornings.
Looking back on their years in Kona, both Melanie and Colehour feel fulfilled in their lives and are looking forward to continuing to farm organically on Kanalani Ohana Farm for many years to come.
Diana Duff is a plant adviser, educator and consultant living part time in Kailua-Kona.