Fostering ‘Āina

MA‘O Farms, the largest organic farm on O‘ahu, is grounded in the mission of returning the Hawaiian community to its land.

TEXT BY
Peter A.K. Thoene
IMAGES BY
Josiah Patterson

‘Āina, in the most general sense, means land. However, ‘ina contains complexities deep and vibrant, rich and unseen. Aloha ‘āina, literally “love of the land,” is a cornerstone of Hawaiian thought and culture. After the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown, many Hawaiians were disenfranchised and disconnected from their land. The loss of land meant a loss of identity. As often happens when we lose sight of who we are, larger problems manifest. As modern-day issues related to economic, social, and educational poverty blighted the Hawaiian community, four Wai‘anae residents stepped in to reverse this trend and turn ‘āina into opportunity.

In 2001, Gary Maunakea-Forth, Kukui Maunakea-Forth, Vince Dodge, and William Aila Sr. created the Wai‘anae Community Redevelopment Corporation to serve Wai‘anae, the moku (district) on O‘ahu with the highest percentage of Native Hawaiians. The primary initiative of this nonprofit was to establish an organic farm. The founders believed that if severance from ‘āina was at the root of community problems, then getting back on ‘ina was part of the solution. So with just five acres of leased land, MA‘O Organic Farms was born. MA‘O is an acronym for mala (garden), ‘ai (food), and ‘ōpio (youth). Here, youth ages 16 to 24 with roots in Wai‘anae are hired, taught how to farm, paid a monthly stipend, and provided tuition assistance at local colleges. Like dominoes falling, the simple act of putting hands back in soil started a chain reaction.

Approximately 350 interns have gone through the two-year Youth Leadership Training program at MA‘O Farms, as of 2019. Graduates have earned 111 associate degrees, 33 bachelor’s degrees, and two master’s degrees. Part of the program’s success is its passionate and educated youth who go back into the community to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Alongside its farm education curriculum, MA‘O provides an emotional learning curriculum that focuses on the mental health of the whole being, empowering youth, and fostering growth.

Lynn Batten, a 25-year-old college student and a graduate of the leadership program, is also a full-time employee of the farm. “When I first started here, I really had no idea what I wanted to do,” she said. “I kind of was a lost soul just wandering. Knowing I wanted to make social change, knowing I wanted to do something that would make an impact in the world, I really didn’t know where or what that looked like at the time.”

Moving through the program at MA‘O helped focus Batten’s ambitions. In fall 2017, Batten started at University of Hawai‘i at West O‘ahu, where she is a double major in sustainable food systems and political science.

“I think being able to connect with the land, you’re building a connection with the plants, you’re building a connection with the food that you’re eating, you’re building a connection with the people that you’re growing the food with,” Batten said. “But I feel like more than anything, you’re building a connection deep within yourself.”

The land does not need us. But we need the land. Occupying the most remote island chain on Earth, early Hawaiians knew their islands had very clear limits. Mismanagement of these 6,000 square miles meant extinction. What developed in Hawai‘i around the 15th century was an agricultural system of unparalleled productivity. Fertile valley after fertile valley was farmed. The food grown nourished a population of upwards of half a million people. Through the strict observance of laws governing what and when to harvest, harmony between humans and nature was established. Aloha ‘āina flourished. Tragically, what took a few hundred years to develop eroded in just a few generations.

After Captain Cook put Hawai‘i on the Western map in 1778, things went south for the native population. Native Hawaiians’ immune systems had little to no resistance to Old World diseases—in just 40 years, roughly 70 percent of the Hawaiian population died. As the native population diminished, the foreign population flourished, and along with it came a thirst for land. Eventually, the traditional land system was replaced by a Western model in which land could be bought and sold. By the early 1900s, almost half of the total land area in Hawai‘i was controlled by fewer than 80 private landowners. While you still could find Native Hawaiians working individual plots of land, gone was the prosperous agricultural cooperative that fed the masses.

Driving down the coastal highway through Wai‘anae today, it is difficult to imagine what those ancient farms looked like. The land has been developed, and more than a few fast-food restaurants have sprouted. One of the consequences of Wai‘anae’s food desert is health problems in the community, especially among Native Hawaiians. Alika Maunakea, a Wai‘anae native and assistant professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, co-led a 2017 study with Ruben Juarez that aimed to show how these health issues were linked to environmental factors. Maunakea teamed up with MA‘O Organic Farms interns, measuring their health statistics before and after a summer internship. Preliminary results show a dramatic 60 percent decline in risk for Type 2 diabetes after working at MA‘O for a summer. Among family and friends there was about a 15 percent reduction in diabetes risk, and among friends of friends, about a 5 percent reduction. Intuitively, the results make sense. You eat the food you grow and share it with your friends and family. ‘āina and health are directly connected.

MA‘O onboarded its 15th cohort of interns in June 2020. The farm has expanded to 281 acres and grows more than 40 certified organic crops ranging from leafy greens to mangoes. The 3,000 pounds of produce harvested each week are sent to farmers’ markets, supermarkets, and eateries, including Halekulani Bakery and Restaurant. As MA‘O begins its third decade of operation, it continues to stand as a paragon for building a brighter future for food security and social well-being in Hawai‘i. The program shows how an organic farm can do more than grow food, but also how a farm rooted in Hawaiian culture can cultivate tomorrow’s leaders and heal the community.

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Part of the program’s success is its passionate and educated youth who go back into the community to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

MA‘O onboarded its 15th cohort of interns in June 2020.

The farm believes that ‘āina and health are directly connected.

Aloha ‘āina is a cornerstone of Hawaiian thought and culture.

Four Wai‘anae residents founded MA‘O Farms in response to economic and social issues within the community.

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