From Farm to Community By Lehua Kai
Nestled at the base of the Wai‘anae mountain range, in an area rich with historical lore, rests 24 acres of organic bliss: MA‘O Organic Farms, a flavor-packed wonderland filled with enough produce to sustain 40,000 people, or the entire population of West O‘ahu.
Just 19 miles north of this verdant retreat, resides the powerhouse, Searider Productions, a media education program at Wai‘anae High Schol. Yet a partnership between MA‘O, Makaha Studios and Searider has caught the interest of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation—a $4 million interest, to be precise—that allows the three entities formalize and expand upon the program.
The partnership, now called “Kauhale o Wai‘anae,” fills a cultural void that deals with the dysfunctions of modern society and our dependence on imported food, by creating businesses that are vibrant and yet still a part of our traditional practices. Like storytelling and farming.
“People always ask, ‘oh how do you merge digital media with organic farming?’” says Candy Suiso, program director for Searider Productions. “We have a lot in common. We are growing our youth to become leaders and we are growing our land to become abundant. It’s our job to share these stories with the world.”
“We are providing an opportunity for students who graduate high school to participate in an intern program that not only provides valuable on-the-job experience, but will help pay for their education,” says John Allen III, the founder and owner of Makaha Studios. The studio also provides brand consultation and media services for Kauhale o Wai‘anae.
Maisha Abbot, a college intern at MA‘O Organic Farms and a graduate of Wai‘anae High School, is benefiting from a program called Youth Leadership Training, or YLT (one of the programs the Kellogg grant will help continue to fund). YLT gives students a scholarship to attend college as well as a stipend for working on the farm; this has helped Abbot plant her path to her future.
“I want to return to Wai‘anae when I get my degrees. If I did not come back, it would mean that I was not true to my word of helping my community be better,” says the 20-year-old entrepreneur. “I see myself becoming a eco-fashion designer … I would want to show other future young designers on the Wai‘anae coast how to express their own styles through more eco-friendly material.”
While remaining eco chic, and enjoying all of her duties on the farm, Abbot says it’s her participation in the farmers market that she loves most.
“We get a chance to communicate one-on-one with our customers; this creates a food-growing niche between the people of Hawai‘i and farmer.”
The term kauhale is rooted in the ancient Hawaiian land division system known as the ahupua‘a (land division). It referred to the extended family units that kept each ahupua‘a self-sufficient. Each unit had its own responsibilities in its region. If you lived by the sea, you maintained near-shore fisheries; if you were upland, you managed the taro, and more importantly, you never traded outside of your ahupua‘a. It revolves around the concept of “it takes a village to build a village.” Most importantly, those who come back to lead the village are the ones who keep it alive.
Case in point: After Kamuela Enos, MA‘O’s community relations director, graduated with an M.A. in urban and regional planning from the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, he made it a point to give back to “the village.”
“Being born and raised here and being a part of the movement that is the continuation of ‘aina-based learning—having been raised in this environment that is built on this concept of having a venue to return to—and being able contribute to the community in a meaningful way by doing the things that we’ve always done, that is a really powerful transformative thing…”
“What we are trying to do at MA‘O is create economic development in a community that matches the fabric and nature of what it means to be from Hawai‘i, and to do our part to partake in Hawai‘i’s food security.”
By building the farms and restoring a culture to community-based food systems, Enos believes we can resurrect the role of the farmer and give them back the respect that they deserve.
“Look around you, these kids, these are your farmers. They are bringing you food to your table,” Enos says, calling it “sweat equity.”
“We recruit kids to work on the farming and academia as a personal development.”
Even if the students don’t go on to a future in farming, the program still provides many useful lessons.
“We’ve always pushed many life skills at Searider Productions and Makaha Studios,” says Allen. “Responsibility, timeliness, communication, working together … seeing the students realize that these skills can apply in the ‘real world’—that’s definitely been the most rewarding part (for me).”
Candy Suiso points to Kainoa Aila as an example. Searider Productions followed his story; how he lost 130 pounds in 10 months by working on the farm and reconnecting to the land. In his words, “when you grow the food you eat, it makes you feel a lot better.”