More Than Just Farming

MA‘O Organic Farms combines ag with Hawaiian culture and youth education

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Farming Future

MA‘O may not provide the full blueprint for the future of local agriculture, but its supporters say it is part of the solution.

“The traditional subsistence or mom-and-pop farm, I think there’s still a place for it, but it didn’t lead us to feeding ourselves or growth. I think that’s why we always fell back on the industrialized farming model,” says Kenney. “Whereas, if someone can be creative in how they operate, we can think of new ways to feed ourselves, and that’s exactly what I think MA‘O has done.”

“I think we’ve developed a model that’s got pieces other people can replicate, and I think is really important in Hawaii ag in general,” says Maunakea-Forth. “People can argue that Hawaii ag’s going to go industrial and GMO and whatever, but I think this model – maybe not the entire model, maybe not setting up a nonprofit completely – but (other farmers can) use some of the pieces.”

Hannahs certainly hopes Kamehameha Schools can learn from MA‘O. The trust’s strategic agricultural plan identified 88,000 of its acres as prime agricultural land, and its goal is to create a sustainable food system in a post-plantation era. Doing so requires land planning and people planning, Hannahs says.

“That’s where I thought MA‘O was way ahead of the pack, in terms of engaging people in the business of farming,” he says. “Most of the farmers that we see out on our land today are elderly, in the advanced part of their lives and careers. When we’ve looked to who their successors will be, it’s really uncertain, and I think a lot of labor is imported in this state. That’s a very complex issue, but what we are particularly looking for is not necessarily field laborers so much as agri-business entrepreneurs, and how do you find those opportunities in organizations like MA‘O or in individual local people, especially our Hawaiian stakeholders.”

In the future, MA‘O hopes to build new relationships, such as with the University of Hawaii-West Oahu, which has shown an interest in building a community agriculture program at its new Kapolei campus. Another new relationship is with Waianae High School’s Searider Productions, called Kauhale, which was recently awarded a $4 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

On a larger scale, MA‘O hopes to raise awareness of Hawaii’s food and economic security. “The best thing we have going on for us is that we don’t necessarily have to produce more than what we can eat,” says Maunakea-Forth. “We’ve got a million people locally who want to eat and we’re only feeding them 10, 15, 20 percent of what they want to eat. So if we fill that gap in first, we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of market potential right there. Then we’re talking about 7 million people coming here a year as well. We have a captive market, that if we structure agriculture right and get people psyched about it, they might want to work in the sector.”

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His biggest concerns are stories of human trafficking to supply labor to local farms. “It’s not making farming more attractive for people to want to work in it.”

The ultimate goal of the nonprofit is to redevelop Waianae, and it will look closely at the 2010 and 2020 Census data to see if it has made progress. “Ten years down, we’re hoping the poverty rate will be different, people will be making more money, the number of people in the community with a college education will have changed quite radically, and some of those socio-economic deficits, we’ll be looking at them having been improved,” Maunakea-Forth says.

He knows at least two people who will make a positive difference. Farm co-manager Cheryse Sana would like to eventually earn a master’s degree and become a teacher. She also has influenced her family to eat healthier (with produce from the farm, of course).

Miles is looking forward to a lot of things. He’s working on his associate’s degree, he owns a home in the valley where he grew up, and he and his wife, Summer, MA‘O’s director of education, are expecting their first child. Eventually, he’d like to buy an acre of land in the valley and run his own farm. He remembers helping his family raise chickens for eggs, which they sold to neighbors, and says, “What we did back then is what we need to do now.”

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