By CAROLYN LUCAS-ZENK
Stephens Media Hawaii
Chris Robb is among the eight Pacific Islands-area farm operators featured on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” online resource with information about local food infrastructure, healthy food access and funding sources.
His spotlight is part of a national conversation to build stronger local and regional food systems across the country.
Robb has been in agriculture for 30 years and has experience growing various crops, including vegetables, coffee and flowers.
At one time, he was a horticulturist with MacFarms of Hawaii. He now operates Robb Farms, a 20-acre certified organic farm in Waimea.
There, on 14 acres, Robb grows a bounty of vegetables, such as lettuce, onions, broccoli, beets, leeks and fennel. He sells produce to Whole Foods and Foodland. His workforce includes two of his sons and three other full-time workers.
His farm has a history of implementing conservation practices and innovative farming techniques. Robb has installed drip irrigation and windbreaks to conserve water, improve irrigation efficiency, reduce damage to plants and stop soil loss. He’s tried different crops to learn what grows best during various times of the year and to see if the market accepts his new products, said Matthew Wung, district conservationist for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Particularly noteworthy are Robb’s use of cover crops to protect soil and how he makes his own compost. The disappearance of local poultry farms and the limited amount of cow manure further boosted his desire to produce his own organic matter. Robb said he makes about 25 tons of compost each year.
Wung spoke about the importance of building healthy soils, deemed essential for the sustainability and productivity of farms like Robb Farms. Both he and Robb explained how cover crops provide numerous benefits, such as improving soil by reducing erosion, increasing soil organic matter content and improving air and water movement through soil. Through his own research and prowess, he was able to find species that work best in the environment, which is more temperate than tropical. His cover crops are Big Kahuna sorghum-sudangrass hybrid and buckwheat.
Wung chose Robb, a Mauna Kea Soil and Water Conservation District board member, to be recognized because he admires his innovation, persistence and willingness to try new things. He hopes the short spotlight, available at pia.nrcs.usda.gov/features/knowyourfarmer/index.asp, inspires others in the agriculture industry.
“Being an innovative farmer, he has caught the attention of other farmers in the area and they are now interested in farming organically and using cover crops to improve soil health,” Wung said.
According to Robb, true organic farming requires a broad understanding of entomology, pathology and soils. Knowing good basic horticulture practices is also key. For Robb, going organic was not about generating a profit from a growing industry; it’s something he strong believes in. He also enjoys the lifestyle and eating good food, as well as joked that he has chemophobia – the fear, distrust or dislike of chemicals.
When it comes to pests, Robb relies on biocontrol, the use of a natural predator, to manage them. Luckily in his case, Robb said he has few insects and about 95 of the pests have an existing parasite or predator. With pure biocontrol, though, he expects to have to tolerate a 10- to 15-percent loss.
Overall, Robb has found that well-grown organic produce tastes better and has a longer shelf life than conventionally grown produce.
While Robb appreciates the recent attention, he’s also quick to point out the good work being done by several other local farmers. Asked about the reasoning behind his way, Robb explained he’s always asking himself if there’s a better way of doing something, as well as enjoys learning new things and experimenting. When people say he can’t do something, proving them wrong is always a big incentive, he added.
Email Carolyn Lucas-Zenk at email@example.com.