Rob Parsons

Fruits of his labor

Ono Organic's Chuck Boerner feeds Maui

by Rob Parsons

September 25, 2008

Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar employees listen to testimony at a meeting of the Commission for Water Resource Management.

Boerner inherited a green thumb from
his grandfather, "Johnny Fruits."

Perched on the lush hillside of Kipahulu, the acres of orchards at Ono Organic Farms possess a Garden of Eden-like quality. Just beyond the tourist destination at the Oheo Gulch portion of Haleakala National Park, and hidden from the view of passers-by, tropical sunshine, rich volcanic soil and decades of dedication by the Boerner family have conspired to produce a huge bounty of tropical exotic fruits.

For years, I've peeled the small, oval "Ono Organic" sticker off store-bought papayas, avocados and bananas before enjoying them but had never traveled to their place of origin in East Maui. On a brilliant Sunday morning, Heather and I climbed up the steep driveway, past a packing shed with dozens of bunched bananas hanging to ripen. Two farm workers pointed us to the family home, around a bend bordered by coffee and papaya trees.

On an open lanai overlooking orchard treetops down to the ocean, Chuck and Lily Boerner sat with guests from Washington state, sipping homegrown coffee and sampling fruits from a huge cornucopia spread across a long wooden table. Amidst the abundant array, my gaze fell upon the crimson center of a just-sliced dragon fruit, one of many exotic specialties they grow.

Chuck, born and raised on Oahu, returned to Maui 33 years ago and has been farming ever since. It appears the Ono Farms story is one of hard work, an interest in healthful growing passed down from Boerner's grandfather and a love for the land and people of East Maui.

Boerner's father was an engineer for the underground storage tanks at Red Hill, which fueled the fleets at Pearl Harbor. A few days after Chuck was born in 1945, his grandfather, who had recently adopted a "health kick" of fasting and healthy eating, set out to look for land where he could grow his own food.

Standing in line at the Honolulu airport for a flight to the "Garden Island" of Kauai, he was told that he was actually in line for a plane heading to Maui. What the heck, he thought, let's give Maui a try. Days later, he purchased some land in the Makalae area of Hana, near Waioka (commonly referred to as Venus Pools).

During his childhood, Boerner often traveled to Maui to spend time with his grandfather. "I grew up hanging out at Hamoa Beach, and surfing with Eddie Pu," Boerner said with a smile.

Lily walked into their home and returned with a sepia-toned photograph of 5-year old Chuck tugging a toy wheelbarrow behind him as he followed his grandfather through their banana patch. In those days, his granddad sold fruits, veggies and eggs, "For a dollar a dozen-but you'd always get a couple avocadoes or a bunch of bananas with it, too," said Boerner.

Lily said she undertook a project where she asked many of the East Maui elders to share memories of life growing up in Hana. "They called his granddad, `Johnny Fruits,'" said Lily. "And they called his wife, `Nina the Kind One,' and said she'd make delicious baked goods to share when they invited friends for tea or just to visit."

After high school, Boerner headed off to Union College in Schenectady, New York, where he emerged with a degree in civil engineering and a minor in economics. He then set out on what turned out to be a five-year trip around the world. He visited Madagascar and India and surfed in Mauritius and Sri Lanka. He also journeyed to Nepal and Afganistan.

Boerner spent a full year in Africa, where he helped lead a project of engineering a new harbor in Mombasa. When he returned to Hawaii, in 1975, he purchased nine acres in the Kipahulu area where he now resides. He vowed he'd try his hand at farming before he had to go back to Oahu and land an engineering job.

Boerner has been farming ever since.

Chuck and Lily have raised two sons, Pueo and Kali, and a daughter, Lilia. All take an active role in the family farm. Two workers from the Philippines, part of a World Wide Farmer's Exchange program they've used for over the past fifteen years, round out the farm crew.

Some time ago, by cashing out a family parcel on north shore, Oahu, they were able to acquire an adjacent parcel stretching farther up the green Kipahulu hills. They now actively manage some fifty acres of orchards and lease out pasture land, but with covenants against using chemicals.

Boerner said they grow, "mostly fruits, not much veggies, so we don't bend over so much." Indeed, their packing shed was filled with flats of bananas, avocados, papayas and more, awaiting their trip to market. They've had a prominent spot at the Maui Swap Meet in Kahului for the past 15 years and claim to be the only organic growers there. They also do four to five markets a week at the old Hasegawa Store location in Hana, where they also sell some specialty items.

Boerner opened a wooden cupboard on the lanai, stocked with rows of jellies, jams, honey and seasoning packages. The Ono Farms labeled products include: Surinam cherry jelly; pineapple guava jelly; apple banana butter; starfruit orange marmalade; honey and spice roasting glaze; and the Hawaiian Kitchen Goddess Dry Rub seasoning. Special roasts and blends of their coffee were also bagged, labeled and ready for sale.

In addition to their open air markets, Ono Farms fruits and products have numerous other outlets: Star Market; Down to Earth; Hawaiian Moons; Mana Foods; restaurants such as Hula Grill, Kula Lodge, Mama's Fish House and Pacifico's; and Ono Gelato in Paia.

Increasingly, their experimental plantings of exotic tropical fruits are allowing them to bring a wide variety to market, including the new fruit on the block, dragon fruit. While many Hawaii residents are aware of the night blooming cereus cactus, not many were aware that it would set fruit. The secret lies in hand pollination of different varieties of the cactus, as one variety will not pollinate itself. They now offer softball-sized dragon fruits that are yellow, pink, red and white on the outside and bright red sweet and juicy on the inside. Boerner also sells the starts so people can grow and cross-pollinate their own.

The farm also raises among other things: cherimoyas, sweetsops, chocolate sapote, momi apple, cacao, cinnamon, lychee, longans, breadfruit and rambutan.

"The reason for our prosperity has been diversity," said Boerner. "What we have here is fruit forest biodiversity rather than mono-cropping. The sub-soil root bacteria of the various species nourishes and feeds each other, and that's been proven."

In his four-wheel drive truck, Boerner drove me up to an area where they grow trees for hearts of palm. When the trunk reaches a height of about a meter below the first leaf frond it's cut at ground level, producing the tender delicacy at its core. New shoots sprout in the area where one has been cut.

Nearby, we arrived at a stand of durian trees laden with fruit a dozen years after they were planted. "We should have 300 fruits this year," he said with a smile.

Earlier on his porch, he had sliced open a ripe durian, football-sized and armored with dozens of thorns. Yet it is usually the pungent aroma as much as the odd appearance that grabs one's attention. While some would say durian is an acquired taste, it may be more accurate to say it's either loved or loathed, revered or reviled.

Boerner carved out a few gooey sections of the fruit for his guests. The flavor is reminiscent of carmelized onions and garlic. Nonetheless, his durian is quite popular, especially with Asians who visit his market stands.

In a relatively flat six acres above most of his other orchards, Boerner has opened a stand of banana trees. Using his engineering background, he laid out the area to spell O-N-O in huge letters, with papaya trees planted inside the Os. He told me it can be viewed by satellite on Google Earth or FlashEarth.com. Obviously he is a man having fun with his work.

Boerner is a past president of both the Hawaii Organic Farmers Association and the Maui County Farm Bureau, though he's relieved that his five-year stint on the board of the latter just ended.

With the closure of the road through the Kaupo side of the island after damage from the October 2006 earthquake, his commutes to town have been much longer. Nevertheless, they still do deliveries two days a week or more and will accept orders for home fruit deliveries as well. He's awaiting the re-opening of the "backside" road after the repairs are completed, announced for next month.

Ono Farms conducts tours at 2:30pm on Monday and Thursday, which generally are harvest days. Visitors can taste 12 to 20 types of exotic fruits, see their packing shed and tour the farm.

Lily told me they sometimes talk about scaling down their activities and doing less, not working so hard. "But then we ask ourselves," she added, "if we do that, who's going to feed Maui?"