Rob Bence

Blog | June 25, 2024

“Farming is everything.” Rob Bence on Farming with Sustainability in Mind

by Farm Aid Guest Blogger

This guest post was written by Riley Smith, who works for Farm Aid’s longtime communications partner Vanguard Communications in Washington, D.C., and sits on the Steering Committee of the Progressive Communicators of the District of Columbia. Coming from a long line of farmers, she is an avid plant mom and foodie with a passion for creating a more sustainable future for the ones she loves.

An eighth-generation farmer, Robert Bence of Hawai’i Sustainable Farms has had a lifelong love of agriculture. Weekends growing up were spent at his uncle’s lo’i kalo field — a type of wetland farm that uses rivers or streams to cultivate the Hawaiian staple crop, taro. This fostered a love for the land that called him back almost immediately after going to college to study business. Bence bought a small plot of his own in Hilo, Hawai’i, before returning to work on his parents’ farm in Kula. “I’ve always loved farming. Some of my first memories are of the land.”

landscape in hawaii with sun coming through clouds

Now, along with his mom and intern Crystal, Bence runs the farm with sustainability in mind; the USDA certified organic farm has been off the grid and solar-powered for more than 11 years. To keep his farm diversified with native species, Bence has planted 17 varieties of native Hawaiian trees like koa, a’ali’i and sandalwood, along with hemp and a variety of other crops. In just the first year, the trees thrived and grew to 18 feet tall! “They were big enough for me to wrap my arms around and not be able to touch the other side,” Bence said. The trees serve as the perfect overstory for his shade-loving crops.

“Farming is everything. You can do everything with a farm.”

Always trying something new, Bence is excited to venture into micro-dairy, a small-scale dairy operation usually consisting of smaller cattle breeds, such as Highlands, Dexters and Jersey cows. Bence notes, “My mom has been wanting to get into micro-dairy for a while now — I think because they’re cute — but these breeds tend to produce a more digestible kind of milk and are better at navigating and grazing places with interwoven trees like our farm.” This milk is known as A2/A2 which contains the A2 variant of the beta-casein protein. Larger breeds like Holsteins tend to produce the A1 beta-casein protein, which some say is more difficult to digest. (Check out our recent story on a micro-dairy here.)

man with a small cow

On Maui, the same island as Lahaina, where fires devastated much of the community and took more than 100 lives last year, Bence is keenly aware of what he needs to do to prevent fire on his farm. The cattle are rotationally grazed, meaning they are moved through multiple small pastures to give each time to rest and regrow between rotations, while the cattle clear the brush between the native trees. The native trees attract more water than they consume and help to recharge the watershed. By incorporating animals and planting more trees, Bence hopes to build his farm’s fire resilience so it can be around for generations to come.

tree in field

Bence’s favorite days have always been those with his hands in the soil and he believes this connection is paramount to the health of the mind and body. “We’re so disconnected from our food. It’s hard [for me] to see artificial ingredients at the store, but I love that the next generation is so into farming. I would hope everyone gets to grow at least a little bit of their own food. Farming is everything. You can do everything with a farm.”

man with a dog in a field with a cloudy sky

animal looking at mountains in the distance

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