“Nice weather for ducks, as they say,” Lee Roversi remarks, apropos of this rainy Hawaiian morning, and apropos of the actual ducks we’re about to meet. Unlike the chickens that would wreak havoc in the garden, she says, “We can keep them free range — these guys just wander around, doing their thing.”
The muscovy ducks (and two-week-old ducklings) of North Country Farms.
Lee owns and runs North Country Farms, a beautiful, fully organic four-acre property in Kilauea, Kauai. In addition to growing produce (the farm has had its own CSA program for over two decades), the farm houses two bed-and-breakfast cottages; the bathrooms are stocked with Dr. Bronner’s, and guests can pick their own fruit for breakfast.
Crops include white pineapples, macadamia nuts, avocados, pomelos, ruby red grapefruit, papayas, breadfruit, several varieties of lettuce, kale (including an Ethiopian one that’s well-suited for the climate), radishes, beets, bok choy and tatsoi. There’s also a grove of apple banana trees that we could wander through for hours.
A view of the entrance. The organic farm is also a bed and breakfast with two houses for guests: the Garden Cottage and the Orchard Cottage.
Chatting with North Country Farms owner Lee Roversi, on the right. These vegetable beds include radishes, beets, eight to nine different varieties of lettuce, cilantro, kale, tatsoi, bok choy, Swiss chard, arugula and basil. There’s also a buckwheat cover crop/green manure that gets dug up and tilled back in to enrich the soil between plantings.
This is an Artocarpus altilis, also known as a breadfruit or ulu tree. Breadfruit has been a staple in Pacific food systems for over 3,000 years; its leaves are a popular pattern in Hawaiian quilts.
“You can eat them hard and they’re more like a potato,” Lee says about breadfruit, which can be baked or boiled. “[Or] they soften up and get more like a yam — they get sweeter.”
Twenty-six years ago, Lee moved here from Manhattan with two children and her then-husband in tow.
“I felt strongly about my kids growing up outside,” says Lee, a warm, frank and welcoming force of nature herself, who also writes the farm’s Food for Thought blog. “So we took a leap of faith, packed everything in a van and drove cross-country for six months with our kids, which was very venturesome and fun. Five days after landing on [Kauai] we bought our property. It’s the softest island. When we landed on Kauai it felt like this embrace — we felt immediately welcomed.”
At the time, they had no neighbors within a three-mile radius, and there was only one stoplight on the entire island. The site that would become their home and business was originally “wide open pasture land,” Lee says. “We literally planted everything from cuttings or seeds.”
Lee says, “Lettuce is probably our number-one seller; that’s why we do so many: red, butter, oak leaf, romaine…”
This banana grove includes exclusively apple banana trees, a firmer, sweeter, smaller alternative to those mealy Cavendish ‘Williams’ bananas many of us are used to.
Curly, the 20-year-old farm cat, takes a moment inside the shed, where the family lived for three years while they were building their home.
They also built everything: The family lived in the shed for the first three years while they built their home. Today that family includes Lee’s youngest son Bay, 23; daughter Nell, 27; and oldest son Sky, 30. After stints on organic farms in Austria and Vermont, Sky has returned to Kauai and is diversifying the crops at North Country, which now grows staple foods like taro, sweet potato and cassava under his influence.
Volunteers from the WWOOF program also help to keep the farm cranking. In addition to the delicious organic edibles (lovely Lee sent us on our way with avocados, a “hand” of apple bananas and an enormous pomelo), the garden is gorgeously landscaped with orchids, a must-see variegated hibiscus, ornamental ginger, a showstopping song of India, a snow bush that blushes in the rain, water lilies, Norfolk pines, and blessings-bestowing ti plants.
Here Lee picks a pomelo, a gigantic citrus closely associated with the grapefruit. “I love them,” she says. “No one in my CSA will buy it — everyone wants ruby red grapefruits.”
Red ginger blazes against the rainy day. The rain is, of course, why Hawaii is so green!
When the orchids in the guest houses are done flowering, Lee replants them on trees outside. The dendrobium is doing brisk business on a tree branch.
Outside the Roversi home, a pond of water lilies flourishes. Those red-centered plants behind them are tank bromeliads.
North Country farms also grows avocados.
Macadamia integrifolia (macadamia nut). The nuts come into season in fall, and go until January. Once they’re peeled, they must be dried to ease removal of the outer husk, yielding the nut we know, love and link closely with Hawaii.
“I love sharing what we have to offer on the island,” says Lee, who was raised in Stamford, Connecticut. “We get really great intrepid travelers. We’re booked 85 percent of the time. I’m so grateful. I think it’s important that visitors who come to the island see what’s really happening here. It’s kind of like Disneyland when you go just to the resorts, and you don’t get out among the people who live and work here.”
One thing that’s brought much of the “real Kauai” together is Bill 2491, passed in November. The new ordinance requires disclosure of pesticide use from the five heaviest users of restricted use pesticides on the island. These ag corporations include Syngenta, BASF, DuPont and Dow AgroSciences, which have planted thousands of acres of GMO corn and soy on the west side of Kauai, blitzing the crops with highly concentrated pesticides and herbicides in heavily populated areas. The ordinance, which is now being challenged by those heavy pesticide users, also requires a buffer zone between sprayed areas and schools, hospitals, residential areas and waterways.
It’s a cause that has galvanized Lee and her fellow organic farmers, she tells us when we take a break under a shelter at the farm. Curly, the 20-year-old cat, paces between our laps.
“I wear my politics on my sleeves and on my shelves,” Lee quips.
Breeds of chicken include Rhode Island Red (like the rooster on the right) and Buff Orpington. “A fresh egg is my idea of heaven,” Lee says.
Raised in Stamford, Connecticut, Lee Roversi worked in Manhattan as a caterer before relocating to Kauai in the mid-1980s.
We ask, What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“To let go of control,” Lee says as the windchimes ring. “I can only work with the elements; I can’t fight them. That’s the biggest lesson. It’s also a life lesson.”
Below, Lee leads us through the farm and garden, bestowing tips on growing greens, blooming orchids and landscaping in paradise…
The banana plant is monocarpic, meaning its stalks die after flowering and fruiting once. “When those bananas are ready to harvest, that entire stalk has to come down,” Lee says. “They get out there with a machete, my sons will, and they’re chopping at the bottom and then catching that whole thing as it comes down.”
Plants add privacy to the Garden Cottage.
The bunnies like to eat basil, the buckwheat cover crop, kale and alfalfa pellets. (All organic.) Like the ducks and chickens, the rabbits are raised for food; Lee’s son Sky does the culling. “We’re very committed to the notion that if we’re going to eat meat, which we all love, we needed to be in touch with it,” Lee says.
Papaya trees canopy a crop of another iconic Hawaiian food, taro.
It’s become increasingly challenging to grow papaya organically due to fungal infections and pollen drift from genetically modified fields.
White pineapple, a low-acid variety of the fruit.
Dendrobium orchids clamor up a dead key lime tree.
“People say, ‘How do you take care of your orchids?’ I ignore them. Benign neglect.”
A touch-me-not plant (Mimosa pudica, left) wrestles with a shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet, right) and its orchid-like flowers.
In the orchard you’ll also see the fiery berries against the striking foliage of the Schefflera arboricola ‘Variegata,’ also known as a Hawaiian schefflera.
A fruit from the macadamia tree.
The macadamia nuts form a ground cover amid the aloe.
Norfolk pines were originally planted under the direction of Captain Cook, who intended to use them for masts due to the trees’ straight and tall habit. (They were later found not to be seaworthy.) Acid lovers known to suck nutrients from the soil, these trees grow a fair distance away from the crops.
Ferns, poinsettias and an enormous song of India tree greet guests of the Orchard Cottage.
Here we encounter a kabocha squash. (In the kitchen, Lee likes to use it in gratins.) The thicker skin of this squash has made it impervious to the fruit fly that has made growing organic tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini a Herculean task.
A few pups from a friend have resulted in this bonkers, beautiful staghorn fern. Its spores have given rise to offspring all over the farm.
The croton is a mainstay of Kauai landscaping. Here’s a lovely pink specimen.
This variegated hibiscus, dangling from an eight-foot-tall shrub, stopped us in our tracks.
Outside the Roversi family home.
Curly “used to be a really good mouser,” Lee says, “but he’s given that up in his old age. He’s retired.”
Ryan, Chantal and Lee.