Growing Wai‘anae’s Future

Ma‘o Farms raises more than organic produce—it raises expectations.


The distinct aroma of cilantro fills the outdoor work area bustling with students-turned-employees clad in rubber boots, Army pants and T-shirts. Hunched over spraying faucets, they focus intently on washing, bagging, weighing and pricing organic greens on Ma'o Organic Farm in Wai'anae. Taro leaves and apple-bananas wait their turn nearby. Coolers stand ready to transport the fresh produce to three different Farmers' Markets.

Work started at 6 a.m. Five hours later, the day is just gaining momentum. The idle do not survive here.

"Not all the kids can be farmers," says William Aila, the 65-year-old farm manager everyone calls uncle. "It's a dirty job." But, he adds with a smile, "Once they get through this, they can handle anything."

Getting through this means graduating from Ma'o's 10-month leadership program under the guidance of the Wai'anae Community Redevelopment Corp., the nonprofit organization that operates the organic farm and several other projects. Most students are Wai'anae or Nänäkuli High School graduates who did not feel ready to continue their education. Now that they're completing the leadership program on the farm, the hiss of water splattering over vegetables is peppered with talk of accomplishments and plans: travel to cities such as Washington, D.C.; speeches delivered at agricultural conferences elsewhere on the Mainland; starting a co-op business with new acres added to the current farm. And college. Once a distant dream for these 19- and 20-year olds, college now seems the obvious next step.

Ma‘o Farm has bananna trees and organic produce. But those are not its most important crop. It’s trying to grow the future of Wai‘anae. Photo: Katherine Nichols

"The reason we're doing this is not only because we're food producers, but because we're Hawaiians," says Kukui Maunakea-Forth, executive director of the Wai'anae Community Redevelop-ment Corp. "Our hidden agenda is to get the land back." The more obvious plan? "Now, you cannot stop these guys from getting educated." Kukui smiles. "It all starts with the connection to the land."

To participate in the farm program, students who have dropped out of high school are required to earn their GEDs or re-enroll in classes. Eight to 12 youths earn part-time salaries while they work the land and take classes related to farming, community relations, risk assessment, management, marketing and sales.

Their education extends to food safety and handling, as well as cooking classes. Students get first-hand experience in the restaurant business by operating the Aloha Aina Café, where smoothies and taro burgers-featuring ingredients from Ma'o Organic Farm a few blocks away-inspire alternatives to the fast food sold across the street.

But the charming, bungalow-style restaurant serves other purposes as well. "We try to teach them how to use the food," says Gary Maunakea-Forth, Kukui's husband and a New Zealand native who mentors the students in the field and classroom. "The more things they do that are fun and interesting, the better farmers they'll be."

Indeed, working the land is only one aspect of the program. Farming is about politics, argues Gary. The youngsters must delve into issues beyond the appropriate time of the month to harvest their "sassy" mix of organic greens. They find out what it takes to sustain a business. Attend conferences. Take field trips. And they enhance their appreciation of their own culture through chanting, hula, history lessons and traditional Hawaiian agriculture.

One especially valuable experience occurs on Saturday mornings at the Farmers' Market at Kapi'olani Community College. In that gourmet-food atmosphere, filled with successful Hawai'i farmers, students learn about appropriate pricing (different from the prices they set for the Farmers' Market at Wai'anae Comprehensive Health Center). And they begin to understand the nuances of doing business.

"We definitely learned about marketing, sales and a lot of customer service," says 20-year-old Kanoe Burgess. Between instructions about packaging and the price list on the towering chalkboard, Gary jokes about Burgess's entrepreneurial acumen: "Yeah, she adds a dollar to everything!"

It hasn't been an easy path for these young adults, some of whom were raised in atmospheres of alcoholism, poverty or neglect. "The kids here have a hard time," says Aila, a father of 10. "We can't help all of them."

But Aila isn't about to give up. In addition to showing love and respect, students must be willing to work, he says. "If they can't follow the rules, then they're out. If we let one student slide, the rest will lose respect. It's important for the kids to learn to be accountable."

The nonprofit's latest endeavor involves a $575,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to buy some of the farm's leased land and build a permanent educational center on the property-a joint venture with Leeward Community College and the University of Hawai'i.

Even the erection of a concrete facility is an educational opportunity: the students learn construction.

"We're looking to be creative in terms of generating employment and education," says Kukui. She constantly reminds students that their ancestors farmed this ahupua'a, but says that anyone with the right attitude and work ethic is invited to participate in the program, regardless of heritage.

Progress is evident daily. The goals of the program are to make organic agriculture in Wai'anae an economic force on O'ahu and also to reinforce the project's educational component. Or, as Gary puts it, "Get kids to school."

They have done that and more. Students have become leaders. "They're working more as a team," says Kukui. "They take care of … everything." From the confident grins on all of their faces, despite the heat and physical labor, the evolution is only beginning.

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Honolulu Magazine June 2018
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