They Don’t Call it Rancho Relaxzo for Nothin’

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Photography by Nick Vassallo.

Follow the winding highway up onto the shoulder of Maui; facing west on Haleakala’s rolling hills, gazing into the sunset and the sea, tucked into the district of Kula like a ripple in a comforter. Sooner than you think, you’ll arrive at Rancho Relaxzo–a 30 year young permaculture farm, our blissful destination.

No, you can’t take a shortcut from Wailea, though it seems practical enough. The drive, though, takes you through little towns and lazily passes thickets of species you may be surprised to see on Maui. That is, until you remember it never freezes here, and the growing season is year round. From the point of view of a cactus or a fruit tree, well, that’s paradise.

We started at the back of Maui’s ear, moving down through the nape of the neck, and before we knew it were up that shoulder. Our ride, a local who’s totally familiar with the area, pointed out landmarks. Here’s the mall in Pukelani, the swimming pool, and on down the road to the last little grocery store, a cafe, and the location of the last bus stop.

With our minimal packs, tent and food for the week (which we didn’t need as much of as we thought we would–just enough to accommodate allergies and dietary preferences), the two of us trekked in the hefty ⅛ of a mile from the long and winding side road up the grassy driveway.

Alongside us were species that were clearly edible or somehow functional, or at least were pernicious enough to stake a claim in such a purposeful place. I had no names for some of them yet, while others I was familiar with. Papaya. Mango. Avacado. Banana. Coffee. Liliquoi. Eggfruit. Glycine wightii. Jackfruit. Tamarillo. Atemoya. Tangor. Squash. Kale. Collard greens. Cilantro. Parsley. Chives. Nasturtium flowers.

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Photography by Nick Vassallo.

Harvesting the Abundance of These Past Three Decades

Later that day I met John in person, or JP for short, the founder of the farm. The next day he put us to work, and afterwards, we milled around in the sun talking. 30 years ago, he told me, this land was mostly rolling grassy hills and cows. Since then JP’s turned it into a permaculture farm based on Bill Mollison’s principles. Mollison’s first class on Maui in 1982 had 16 or so students–and JP was one of them. That day imbued him with a newfound feeling of purpose.

JP stressed to me that though he’s met some folks that have the impression that permaculture is something you can’t make a living from, it’s entirely possible. He aims to create as many income streams as he can.

When the chickens are molting and lagging behind on egg production, he has coffee, lemon, frozen lemonade, atemoya, tamarillo, tangor, avocado, banana, papaya, and honey and more to take to market. If he loses a crop due to this year’s heavy rains, the tilapia in the ponds are promising; and what is waste to a tilapia is food for a tree. While taking exotic fruits, along with familiar and beloved staples, to market twice a week, the farm still offers enough of both for him and the WWOOFS to forage from the garden.

Coming to terms with the glycine wightii was a must for JP, as it’s a mighty feat alone to keep it off the trees. It can’t be fully removed from the property, and when it rains the glycine grows like it’s on steroids. It’s rained significantly more lately–JP seemed blase when he reckoned that a simple change of perspective was in order. Why? Glycine, a leafy vine in the soybean family, conditions the soil, dying back over time with new generations covering the layer of rich humus that’s formed. The chickens will eat it, too, and it gives the WWOOFS something to rescue the trees from.

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Photography by Nick Vassallo.

Is This a High Maintenance Farm?

Nope, it’s pretty low key. Indeed, a pleasant surprise to us was the 4 hour workday. Our workdays comprised of harvesting something or other, hacking and untangling glycine vines from trees and tackling various other insidious invasives, laying down mulch and catching fish to transfer them from one pond to another.

Why the 4 hour workday? In JP’s words, more or less paraphrased, the goal of permaculture is to minimize work, not amplify it; to see how much the chickens, bees, soil organisms and symbiotic relationships between all components will do for us. In a natural forest, all this food grows abundantly without our influence anyways. So here, we’re harvesting, stewarding, and fending off plants whose strategy is to monopolize the environment so that other plants don’t have a chance to even share the space.

20 hours a week of enjoyable labor in return for modern amenities and healthy, fresh food picked straight from the garden doesn’t sound too bad. As JP says, “We don’t call it Rancho Relaxzo for nothin’.”

Getting in Touch

I would have lingered and tackled that glycine full on, but alas, the road beckons me onward as always. I will say, if this sounds like your gig, contact JP far ahead of time. As mentioned before the farm is low key and he’s not interested in attracting a crowd. He prefers a smaller group of WWOOFs at any given time; there were two when we arrived, and as we leave, another will show up. If you can make it out to work trade at this lovely gem, plan to stay for a while, because you might just want to.

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