MA’O Organic Farms: Fertile ground for organic produce and young leaders of Hawaii

Hawaiian social enterprise MA’O Organic Farms is fertile ground for organic food produce and young leaders working for a sustainable Hawaii.

MA’O Organic Farms – a 23-acre certified organic farm located in Lualualei valley in Waiʻanae, Oahu’s west side – operates a young leadership program that hires young people from Waianae, pays for school and gives workers a stipend.

Created by husband and wife team, Gary and Kukui Maunakea-Forth in 2001, MA’O Organic Farms has helped hundreds of students get college educations under their youth leadership training program.

Along with building and raising a community through agriculture activity, the couple has brought awareness to Hawaii’s food and economic security through a farm-to-table experience.

At the farm, new farmers and community leaders learn hands-on by co-managing the social enterprise’s operations. Trainees produce, process, market and distribute more than 50 types of fruit and vegetables that MA’O Organic Farms produces.

Wai‘anae was once a self-sufficient region that was able to produce adequate amounts of food while managing its land and water resources in a highly sustainable manner.

Over the years, Wai‘anae residents have witnessed the gradual over-development of scarce resources such as land and water, the negatives of urbanisation, and the resulting disconnection of native Hawaiian ‘opio (youth) and their families from the ‘aina (land) that had once nurtured a strong and cohesive culture.

Today, Waiʻanae is the most food insecure community statewide on the island of Oʻahu at a rate of 33%.

Food insecurity in Hawaii is associated with poorer physical and mental health, higher levels of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Many of these conditions are due to the lack of locally available healthy foods, as well as the consumption of less nutritious food choices.

MA’O Organic Farms aims to return the land back to its former glory and “restore ancestral abundance” by tackling these issues head on.

According to MA’O Organic Farms’ website, the purpose of the farm “is to empower our community, especially our youth, with catalytic educational and entrepreneurial opportunities that is rooted in our ancestral knowledge and that will nurture a sustainable, resilient and just 21st century Hawai‘i.”

“MA’O is the acronym for mala ‘ai ‘opio which translates as the youth food garden. MA’O connects two of our most precious assets, our ʻāina- that which feeds and our ʻopio, our youth to create a movement that will build a comprehensive and living local food system—educate and empower youth, fight hunger and injustice, improve our health and nutrition, and grow a local, organic and fair agriculture industry—all connected to empower our community to move towards self-sufficiency.”

Around 85% of food in Hawaii is imported. Gary Maunakea-Forth, MA’O Organic Farms’ managing director, who himself grew up on a farm in his native New Zealand, explains that this dependency on imported produce came about due to a lack of farmers in Hawaii.

“[It] arose not just because we don’t have any land in production or water dedicated to production, it’s because we don’t have any farmers,” he says. “Like farms that specialise only in corn, soy, or seed production, Hawaii’s large sugar and pineapple plantations left locals with an inability to grow their own food.”

Gary Maunakea-Forth believes farms all over the world face similar issues as they continue to focus on industrial agriculture. “This means producing one thing, exporting it, importing all the imports, and making sure the labor force is specialized so the guy working on the tractor in the field doesn’t know how to plant lettuce,” he explains. “If you lose that cultural and intellectual part of the system, we could fall off the edge.”

Fortunately MA’O Organic Farms efforts in working towards a sustainable Hawaii continues to go from strength-to-strength, 16 years on from when it first came into being.

Today the farm produces on average, nearly two tons of fruit and vegetables per week. And more than 50 have completed the intensive Youth Leadership Training, a two-year internship that pays a participant’s college tuition toward an associate’s degree from Leeward Community College, and provides a monthly $500 stipend while they are working on the farm.

MA’O Organic Farm’s produce is sold in farmers markets and supermarkets throughout Oahu. They also supply fruit and vegetables to local restaurants.

You can support the ongoing social entrepreneurial programming at MA’O Organic Farms by making a donation.

All images: © MA’O Organic Farms

MA’O Organic Farms

Rosalind Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. She is a writer who specialises in sustainable lifestyle and living, music, entertainments and wellbeing. Rosalind also works as a spiritual life coach and intuitive advisor helping people to become who they truly are and manifest their heart & soul’s desires into their lives:

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