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Cultivating Ulu: The steadfast journey to healthier soils in coffee farming

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

Salt of the Earth

Two years ago, almost to the day, Ulu Coffee co-founder Jordan Warners started a descent down Hualalai volcano with a 5-gallon utility bucket and a very clear mission--to put back into the earth what’s been taken from it. Nutrients. Nourishment. Life. His excursion for saltwater that afternoon marked only the beginning of Ulu's search for sustainability in coffee farming--a quest that will surely never end. The Hawaiian native value, Malama 'aina, is a principle practiced by the hearts and hands of the coffee farm without impunity. Keeping the livelihood and ancestral identity of future generations at the forefront.

Jordan’s forage for salt of the earth came just moments after a humbling experience with the richest soils he’d ever laid his hands on. That day, Jordan and Ulu co-founder Phil Hodson witnessed the remarkable nuances of volcanic soil that hadn’t seen the light of day in likely hundreds or even thousands of years. It was that day--the official planting of the farm’s second orchard--that spurred a new journey into the formidable methods of Korean natural farming—taking advantage of indigenous microorganisms to feed and enhance the fertile soil that produces the quality cup of Kona coffee they cultivate and process today.

The search for preservation and a sustainable future is constant and necessary. Luckily, there's no need to go far to find it. The quest for sustainability is a heavy door on a pivot hinge. It's big opportunity swiveling with support on the novelty of cerebration, thinking outside of the box for sustainable solutions. And most importantly, it is not lost on Jordan or Phil that to be without this supportive hinge would mean to be without the support of a local farming community.

Even under pristine conditions, the volcanic and tropical microclimate of Kona coffee isn't enough to protect the heirloom crop from threats. To combat this, the farming methods practiced at Ulu require an installation not applicable to irrigation or harmful chemical sprays. Today, Ulu looks to fellow small, local farmers for help with regenerative and natural farming solutions when the slopes of Hualalai need a boost at providing nutrients to the trees. It is within the boundary of the Big Island--a journey among mountains--that the guys of Ulu Coffee learn more about the land and, better yet, more about their neighbor.

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Holoholo for healthy soil

Over a couple years and a lot of trial and error with their own microbial adventures, Jordan and Phil found a local resource to help with their demand for organic treatment. But like many things in life, fertilizer is a necessary medicine that’s good to change every so often. With Jordan in Chicago working production, it would be Phil this time that would find his descent down the volcano. Only, by a certain force of energy, though, would he realize that he too was on a ‘holoholo’ for healthier soil.

The first time Brooks' name came up in conversation, Phil had just left Old A's. Driving back in twilight from another winning sunset, he stopped for coffee before taking the spiraling incline of Mamalahoa back to the coffee farm. Outside the cafe, the streets of Kailua-Kona were quiet. Reflecting blue against the starry, moonlit sky. No hint of nightlife except for the warm glow of a torch and low tempo that whirred from the cafe at the end of the cul de sac.

It was here that Phil ran into his buddy Chris, "The hot sauce guy." He told him of a high-end fertilizer operation just north in Hawi, using local and repurposed materials. With the imminent planting of two new orchards at Ulu, it dawned on Phil to consider an audible in this department. Phil thought it could be time to change up the carbon-rich biochar currently used to supplement the coffee trees. Intrigued by the intel, Phil knew he had to contact Brooks--the mastermind behind this rare soil revival.

Phil's drive to Dragon Heart Farms was two hours north of Kona on a particularly hot day. Snow-capped Mauna Kea was the least disorienting part of the drive. With Maui in clear view ahead, it was almost impossible to distinguish what was sky, land, or sea over the horizon. And the closer he came to the destination, the more the landscape resembled anything but a tropical paradise. New Mexico or Texas, maybe. Vast and dry vegetation beneath a cerulean sky eventually brought Phil onto a dirt road and up a hill where he assumed he'd find Brooks.

Out of the truck, Phil took a moment to survey his surroundings. The birdsong sounded like a convention of street musicians, playing a tune dominant over the beat of the pacific drum. And tree groves hung heavy with abundant fruits, strange-looking peppers, and vibrant tropical flowers. For those first few minutes, there wasn't a soul to be seen on the stretch of this breathtaking estate. Phil had no idea if he was in the right place. That is until he heard a woman's voice say, "Aloha!"

Removing his sunglasses, Phil turned around to find a woman walking toward him.

"Is Brooks around?" He asked.

Like the sun, she was radiant with a smile, short curly hair, and an arm tattooed in ink.

"Yeah," she said, shielding her eyes from the sun.

"You just kinda go in between here and keep going up that way," She said, guiding from behind.

"You should be able to find him up there somewhere." She gestured.

With her guidance, Phil found the surroundings that resembled more of what he'd expected to see--a shipyard of various dirt rather than an exotic tree farm. Not that he didn't enjoy the leisure of unexpected beauty. The man of the hour appeared amid mounds of cinder and charcoal blanketed under black tarps, kept in place by tree logs and wooden pallets. Small talk between the guys moved quickly into an anticipated tour of alchemized soil—an odyssey through barrels of fermenting fish, Bokashi biochar, coconut coir, and worm castings.

"Basically, everything we do here is just fostering probiotics and getting life back into the soil with microbes. Giving it something to eat. It's their metabolic activity that the plant feeds on." Brooks explained.

Brooks, a surfer from the ’60s and a once aspiring microbiologist, preferred to live a life of adventure rather "under a microscope." But his environmental awareness became heightened in the 1980s where he lived in Del Mar, California. Fed up with "the outward appearances of "cleanliness" and manicured lawns vs. the reality of suburban wastefulness,” he sought to minimize the rural contributions to the landfills. Backyard compost experiments followed him to Hawaii just shy of 1990. Eventually, studying under "Korean natural farming founder and expert Master Cho" deepening his understanding of pathogen-free output and learning how to "unlock the properties of amino-acids."

The 'holoholo' went on for an hour with the guys oohing and aahing over vermi, sticking their noses in soils and spirulina tonics to better waft the richness that surrounded them. It was like the agricultural version of ‘kids in a candy store.’ By the end, the guys were salvaging a container so Phil could head back to the farm with a liquid plant food he'd decided sounded the most beneficial for his trees. Made from fish scraps, spirulina, molasses, and effective microorganisms, the product was sure to help by introducing "millions of beneficial microbes that work to break down organic matter into nutrients."

The boutique operation at Dragon Heart was not yet equipped for an on-the-spot bulk purchase. Nevertheless, a week shy of memorial day, you'll find these two together again. This time with Jordan, and likely a few more buckets, supplying Ulu Coffee with indigenous nutrients for the upcoming planting of 300 Gesha saplings.

The single transaction made that afternoon accompanied old stories of surfing, skiing, and two past lives from the peaks of Idaho to the shores of Hawaii that seemed to exist parallel. As if Brooks and Phil had actually known each other all along.

In the end, it's the small local farms such as Dragon Heart and even Ulu that are vital in protecting and preserving the earth, community, culture, and economy. A more sustainable future starts with local farms because they help maintain the genetic diversity of food, protect biodiversity, and strengthen resilience in the local economy. All while providing a service that is integral, accountable, familiar, and even ancestral. It's community that lies at the heart of sustainability. Community is the hinge that holds the heavy door of securing a better future for generations to come.

Mahalo for visiting!

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