Pride and Produce—Land&People

The road to MA‘O Organic Farms leaves the coastal highway near Wai‘anae Mall, where the scent of french fries wafts from a Burger King. Fast food is big business on O‘ahu’s leeward coast, home to one of the largest Native Hawaiian populations in the islands—and, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, some of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the nation. It’s a problem related less to money than to the limited accessibility of fresh, nutritious food.

But MA‘O Farms, in the Lualualei Valley northwest of Honolulu, is steadily working to change that. MA‘O is an acronym for the farm’s full name, Mala Ai Opio—”youth food garden.” Every year MA‘O enrolls motivated high school graduates—most from at-risk and underprivileged backgrounds—in a two-year Youth Leadership Training internship. Students work 18 hours a week, learning every stage of the organic farming industry: from planting and harvesting to packaging and sales.

In exchange for their labor the interns receive full tuition at local Leeward Community College, along with a $500–$600 monthly stipend. They attend workshops in personal finance, Hawaiian culture, and communication and complete the program with an Associate of Arts degree. The farm also offers workshops for intermediate school and high school students. As a nonprofit, the farm is supported by donations, and income from the sale of its produce cycles directly back into supporting its educational endeavors.

Back to Hawaiian Roots

The idea for the farm program originated in 2001 with Native Hawaiian community activist Kukui Maunakea- Forth, who had volunteered as a youth development leader in a gardening program at a local high school. “Integrating their academics with a leadership program created a space within that community where these kids felt like they had a place to grow,” Kukui recalls. She wondered, why can’t we do this for the bigger kids? Together with her New Zealand–born husband, Gary, she set out to create a farm rooted in the traditional Hawaiian value of aloha aina—roughly translated as “love of the land.”

“For the ancient Hawaiian people, forced to survive on the most remote island chain in the world, ‘aina meant more than just ‘land’. . . it meant ‘that which feeds,’” says Kamuela Enos, MA‘O’s director of social enterprise. “The concept entails people being connected to the land, in intimate relationship to it.”

“We are going back to our roots—literally,” said third year intern Michelle Arasato one bright fall morning, smiling as she plucked weeds from the MA‘O herb garden. “For the Hawaiians, everything was put into the aina. You have to take care of it so that it will produce for you. And it’s the same with our community,” she added, pointing to the fields, where a dozen students bend among rows of salad greens. “We are a family. And you want to be there to pick each other up, knowing they will be there to pick you up when you need it.”

This aina-based system, in which you cultivate the farm and the farmer at the same time, lies at the heart of MA‘O’s mission statement: “Growing organic food and young leaders for a sustainable Hawai‘i.”

The farm was slow getting started. “I visited when they first opened, and there were only five or six interns,” recalls Lea Hong, Hawai‘i state director for The Trust for Public Land. It was just this little thing, and I remember thinking, man, this is gonna be tough!”

But with irrigation and organic techniques, the garden began to thrive and the gardeners began to sell produce. With advice from The Trust for Public Land, the farm grew from less than five acres to 23 acres by acquiring adjoining lands. “It’s amazing to see the correlation between the expansion of the farm and the growing success of the educational program,” Hong remarks. As the farm gets bigger, larger harvests yield more profits to support more interns. Today 32 interns work what has become one of the largest organic farms in Hawai‘i.

Four hours of sales at a farmers’ market can bring in anywhere from $1,800 to $2,500. MA‘O greens are now featured at many of Honolulu’s top restaurants, and the farm also has a growing community-supported agriculture (CSA) program that delivers to more than 120 subscribers. Total receipts for the farm can reach $50,000 per month.

“We wouldn’t be able to do what we are doing if it wasn’t for TPL,” says Kamuela Enos. “TPL has provided us the space to focus on innovation, which for us means returning to the traditional practices that are inherently so simple. The direct impact we have on the students is because of the land TPL helped provide.”

A Saturday at MA`O Farm

While most teenagers sleep late on Saturday morning, MA‘O’s interns are up and working before dawn, their headlamps flashing like fireflies in the dark fields. Singing, laughing, and joking, the students dip among the rows to harvest mizuna, bok choy, arugula, and kale. In an open-air shed the size of a football field, interns wash lettuce or pack MA‘O’s signature Sassy Mix of organic greens into yellow boxes bearing the farm’s “No panic, Go organic” label. They load three trucks, drive into town, and set up stalls at three weekend farmers’ markets, where they also handle all sales. “It can be terrifying!” Michelle Arasato says. “But being trusted with that responsibility—it’s so empowering.”

“Working on the farm is a real-world entrepreneurial experience,” observes The Trust for Public Land’s Lea Hong. “Every day the students practice collaboration and team leadership in making decisions. It’s not just a farm, it’s much more than that.” This extra dimension is obvious to outside visitors like Nancy Nelson, a recent participant on a TPL trip to the islands. “I’m a former teacher and youth development professional, and this project really reached both my head and my heart,” Nelson wrote to Lea Hong after the trip. “This model should be replicated throughout the United States. It seems to exemplify the concept of ahupua’a, the system of resource management that traditional Hawaiians practiced for centuries, by empowering the indigenous community to care for the land.”

Caring for the Land, and Each Other

“The demand for organic food will only go up,” says William Aila Sr., MA‘O Farms’ chief agricultural consultant. Aila has spent most of his life farming in the Lualualei Valley and has leathery palms and etched crow’s feet beneath his eyes to prove it. “In the last five years, people everywhere started thinking, we got to eat healthy,” he says. This is especially true in Hawai‘i, where, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture, more than 85 percent of food arrives by cargo ship. Without imports, officials estimate, the islands’ food supply would run out in as little as ten days.

One goal of MA‘O Farms is to replace this dependence with self-sufficiency and the close relationship to the land that characterized traditional Hawaiian culture. “Our ancestors lived here for two thousand years, supporting a population of over six hundred thousand people, with zero imports,” Kamuela Enos asserts. “They were one hundred percent self-sufficient.” What MA‘O students gain, in addition to their experience, college degrees, and practical learning, is a bond with this heritage.

“You have to give everything you have to make sure the land is okay, so that it will produce for you,” reflects intern Michelle Arasato. “And then it will make sure you are okay. It’s an endless cycle.”

The way we care for our food should model how we treat ourselves and others, William Aila says. “Each of these kids, every day I hug them and tell them I love them. You have to look at them and listen. It makes an important difference.”

Nowhere is this difference more evident than in the students’ rising success rate. Many MA‘O Farms interns are the first members of their family to attend college, and several have graduated and become esteemed community leaders. Some have won national fellowships, or traveled as far as Washington, D.C., Alaska, and Italy to speak on youth leadership and conservation. “MA‘O has opened my eyes and exposed me to the things happening in the world and not just in Wai‘anae,” says former intern and farm comanager Cheryse Sano, who recently represented Hawai‘i at the Terra Madre slow food conference in Turin, Italy. “I want to be a farmer. I’m proud to be doing what I’m doing.” MA‘O’s ultimate ambition is to raise a new generation of youth leaders serving as positive models for their community. “They should be practicing ho‘iho‘i, which means ‘to give,’” says William Aila’s son, William Jr., who is director of Hawai‘i’s Department of Land and Natural Resources.

“If you have something that someone else needs, you should by all means share it,” adds the younger Aila. “It is your responsibility to act in that manner.” MA‘O was born out of a desire to strengthen a struggling community, restore a proud heritage of sustainable Hawaiian agriculture, and support young people seeking higher education. The project has achieved all this while also becoming a symbol of hope and a model of agricultural abundance. The Mala Ai Opio—youth food garden—has excelled at growing both healthy food and healthy youth. Watching the interns bent in the fields, laughing, their fingers buried in the soil, it’s clear that there is much growth yet to come.

Born and raised on O`ahu, Aaron Kandell splits his time between Hawai`i and Hollywood, where he is a freelance journalist and a professional screenwriter.