A Dream Takes root

At Ma’O Farms, Leeward Students Learn To Grow Organic Vegetables, Manage Money And Work With Others, All While Earning A Degree

Carol Chang
Friday - September 19, 2008
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Youth Leadership Program
Youth Leadership Program interns and staff gather at the dedication of MA’O Organic Farms’ new 11-acre parcel in Lualualei Valley

A robust kale plant spreads its thick, curly leaves

in the Lualualei Valley sunshine, bracing for another noisy day on the farm. To be a vegetable at MA’O Organic Farms is to be king of the crops for sure, but those human caretakers have so many plans, and they never stop talking about them.

Sprouting from an idea, the farm has grown from a small plot of rocky ground to a 16-acre nonprofit farm project with customers and clients islandwide. The Mala ‘Ai ‘Opio (“youth food garden”) Community Food Security Initiative is now a model for Hawaii’s sustainability movement, and its time has come.

It starts every morning down in the dirt. At dawn they come, these young farm workers, fresh out of high school; marching in rubber boots or trundling along on a John Deere gator - the rural man’s golf cart. Together teens and adults break the peace as they weed, water, laugh and talk about market deliveries, homework, whatevers.

(The kale sighs. Surely the ruckus inspires it to grow faster, just to get past harvest time and out the gate to someone’s dinner plate.)

Welcome to the dream of Gary and Kukui Maunakea-Forth, seven years in the making. University of Hawaii graduates who met as community advocates on the Waianae Coast, they married and have been working hard ever since to see their dream take root and flower. They harvest 25 different crops a year, along with dozens of potential future farmers.

“Kukui would do this for free,” says Gary, a former rugby player, in his thick New Zealand drawl. “For her, it’s about Hawaiians, justice and indigenous rights. We’ve done wonderful things and met some wonderful people. But for me, I gotta pay the mortgage.”

With that, he hops back in his truck and is off with the boys to shore up the foundation of an old house that will soon be farm headquarters.

Nohea Incion
Nohea Incion (in yellow shirt) and other students pull weeds

The couple spends all week engaged in farm business, only taking off Sunday to refresh themselves at their nearby home with three of their four children - one has moved to Maui and sprouted their first grandkids.

“Our calling as a people is to help support the local food systems,” explains Kukui, who grew up in Nanakuli and is working to empower native Hawaiians on the Waianae Coast to be self-reliant and productive. “We’re trying to redefine ourselves as an enterprise with a social mission.”

And here they are in action. “From 7 to 9 a.m. today they had to weed,” she says of MA’O's carefully selected crop of 2008 college interns, now busy in the fields.“It’s a big leap up on the competition when the weeds are out. All of it is hard work, but we try all kinds of stuff to give them incentives.” She calls them the highlight of her day and the crowning achievement of the farm project.

It must be working, since the farm has nudged a steady flow of area youths toward adulthood with purpose and an affinity for the land and culture. When you toss that together with MA’O's prized produce, substantial grant support and dedicated staff, you have a killer recipe for success.

Selected interns age 17 to 24 sign on for a two-year Youth Leadership Training program of college credit classes (with free tuition on customized ag subjects) at Leeward Community College, plus heavy doses of money management, leadership and study support. In exchange, they put in a three-day work week on the farm and earn a monthly stipend.

With guidance from education director Summer Shimabukuro and education resource specialist Kamuela Enos and others, this year’s 27 college interns are full-time LCC students working toward their associate of arts degrees.

Shimabukuro is paid by LCC but based at the farm to recruit, support and raise funds for the college program. “They must have a huge desire to go to col-

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