Originally Appearing in "Co-Op" (Abstract 3)
Words by Donald Carreira Ching
“The idea of cheap food is a dangerous thought,” says Kamuela Enos, director of social enterprise at Maʻo Organic Farms, as he, my wife and I sit at a table under a corrugated roof in the storied Lualualei valley on the Waiʻanae coast. Enos, an alumnus of the farm and graduate of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa--he has a bachelor of arts in Hawaiian Studies and a master of arts in Urban and Regional planning--speaks with articulation and ease, stressing the difference between the “conventional” Western practices of farming—the production of a commodity—and that of indigenous and sustainable, organic farming.
“The emphasis is on the soil…we start to see the soil, to use economic terms, as an endowment where the soil is the principal and you only harvest the interest.” Enos stresses the importance of bequeathing the endowment to future generations, many of whom are eavesdropping at the table or passing by in rubber boots and tank tops: “You have the right to live off of it [the land], but not to squander it.” It is in this way that Maʻo Organic Farms strives to represent a modern iteration of traditional Hawaiian practice while providing a context for education through its Youth Leadership Training Program.
The foundation for Maʻo Organic Farms was laid in 2001 with the formation of the Waiʻanae Community Re-Development Corporation (WCRC), a collaboration between residents, business experts and traditional practitioners. Among those are Kukui Maunakea-Forth, a longtime community activist, and her husband, Gary Maunakea-Forth, a former resident of Aotearoa with a background in business development. Both are alumni of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa with a shared interest in social justice and co-founders of the Maʻo Community Food Security Initiative. The WCRC’s mission addresses five critical areas of need in the Waiʻanae community: out-of-school youth, sustainable economic development, agriculture, health, and Hawaiian culture. Through this mission, they work to transform the narrative imposed upon the coast: According to the 2010 census, Native Hawaiians made up only 22 percent of the community, thanks to colonization and militarization.
"You have the right to live off of it [the land], but not to squander it."
Now, 12 years after its inception, Maʻo Organic Farms is the largest organic farm on Oʻahu, with its produce finding its way to tables at Nobu and Town among other restaurants, onto the shelves of grocery stores such as Down to Earth, Whole Foods, Tamura’s, Sack-N-Save, and even directly to customers through its largest revenue generator, its CSA (community-supported agriculture) program, in which community members across the island purchase “farm shares,” in exchange for fresh, local, organic produce on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
Enos describes this social enterprise as a “non-profit for profit.” Maʻo generates revenue that is invested back into the community through its Kauhale Youth Leadership Training Program: the daily operations of the 24-acre fully certified organic farm are run entirely by interns between 17 and 24 years old who are recruited from the community through partnerships with the various high schools. In the first year of the minimum 2.5-year commitment, interns run every facet of the farm while also preparing to attend college. Two staff members oversee their transition to higher education. In their second year, interns manage and mentor a team of five newcomers. Each intern is accountable for their own commitment to their work and education, with failure in either resulting in rejection from the program. (An intern’s peers can reverse this decision if the intern demonstrates a clear understanding of their choices and a desire to change).
An intern’s commitment is rewarded by Maʻo’s commitment to seeing them succeed. Each intern receives a full-tuition waiver to Leeward Community College, where they can earn a certificate in food systems (a program Maʻo funds), a monthly stipend, and experience in organic farming and business management. Maʻo also invests in interns’ financial literacy by helping them to open a bank account and matching their contributions with the caveat that the money be used to further the intern’s education. Ma’o recently graduated its first baccalaureate (and the farm’s manager) Cheryse Sana.
The farm also provides a context for ʻike ʻāina, a culturally rooted approach to place-based learning, with each intern gaining a sense of value of and kuleana toward themselves, their community and the land; an education through stewardship founded on the Hawaiian concepts of mālama ʻāina and aloha ʻāina.
“In the Western context,” Enos explains, “education is a pathway out of poverty, but, for our ancestral responsibilities, education is a pathway to responsibility. You are being armed with the ability to truly defend Hawaiʻi, and not with an AK-47.”
Thus, through the program, these interns come to understand not just how to function as a responsible participant in the success of their community but the importance of food sovereignty and sustainability at a time when one of the most precarious decisions we make is what we decide to put on our plates.
It’s in this way that Maʻo aspires to not only create educated leaders who will actively engage on a local and global scale by addressing issues of economic development by creating jobs in the community, but also for the food security needs of Hawaiʻi, where 85 percent of our food supply is imported and dependent on fossil-fuels.
“When you have that type of reality,” Enos remarks, “it’s not how much it costs to fill up your car that you should be worried about, it’s how much it costs to eat.” That cost is not just economic but nutritional as well; there is a large gap between the food we need and the food we can afford. Consider this: Hawaiʻi has one of the highest rates of diabetes in the country, and Native Hawaiians are diagnosed at twice the rate as Caucasians and are 5.7 times as likely to die from the disease, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health.
After a brief tour of the farm, we return to the table as the afternoon slowly sets in for those making their way back from the fields. Most of the work is done for today. “What we’re trying to do is return to the original context of symbiosis, health and well-being in the 21st century,” Enos says, glancing at those who pass, each of them bearing streaks of sweat and earth on their bare arms and foreheads. “We can talk about what unites different political ideologies rather than what continues to divide them nationally and locally, but having people return to what allowed humans to be successful in the first place: working together around feeding yourself, removing the hubris and all these false layers of separation and bringing back an immediate connection to each other and the land.”
Consider this: Hawai'i has one of the highest rates of diabetes in the country, and Native Hawaiians are diagnosed at twice the rate as Caucasians and are 5.7 times as likely to die from the disease, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health.
That sense of community and of collaboration is most clearly demonstrated in the last half-hour of our visit, when the various crews gather in a circle, sitting cross-legged on the floor, to share with each other what they did and what they learned. One member of the harvest crew, Lei, learned three types of weeds, while another, Kai, about how the soil used on the farm helps to preserve nutrients and holds in moisture to help the plants grow. Thomas, light hair and all smiles, explains how burning the weeds eliminates seedlings as well as the weeds that have already germinated, while Adrian adds happily that he learned how to use the flamethrower. The inside crew--those who clean and pack the produce--share the importance of presentation and efficiency and the differences between Pak Choi and Bok Choy.
Gary Maunakea-Forth concluded the check-out by reminding the group of the importance of their work to their community and to themselves, and by asking them what must be done to change the narratives about their community.
“Action,” one intern responded, others nodding in agreement. Maunakea-Forth, without missing a beat, stressed the importance of information to the equation. “Information is critical,” he said, urging them to listen and digest if they want to be able to share and articulate their thoughts not just as interns but as leaders, “to know that between every crack in this farm, between every conversation, every little thing that goes on here there is going to be information and you need to be a sponge.”
When we had first arrived at Maʻo, Maishia Abbott, a program director, and Julie Ioana, a co-manager, had greeted us at the same table we would soon share with Enos. Both Abbot and Ioana had fulfilled their commitment to Maʻo as interns with four years invested in the farm. Eager for some insight I asked them why they chose to stay involved long after their obligation was satisfied. Both responded without hesitation: to serve their community, to focus on the importance of food sovereignty and to change the image of Waiʻanae. As the young interns slowly disseminate from beneath the shade of that corrugated roof after check out, one thing was clear: At Maʻo Organic Farms what comes out of the soil is just as important as what goes in.