Waianae farm steps up growth of produce and college grads

By Andrew Gomes
In 2011 Tropic Land failed to win state Land Use Commission approval to urbanize the agricultural land for its project. MA‘O bought the site from Tropic Land for $3.2 million.
Waianae farm steps up growth of produce and college grads

Leeward Community College student Emilin David carried a tray of Swiss chard she had just washed at MA‘O Organic Farms. / DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM

Deep in the back of Waianae’s arid Lualualei Valley, a nonprofit organic farm has helped produce leafy greens and college graduates for nearly two decades. Now, it plans to vastly expand its edible and educational crops.

MA‘O Organic Farms, which started in 2001 with 5 acres and today covers 45 acres, recently bought 236 acres in the valley that could make the unique enterprise Hawaii’s largest organic farm.

“It’s not a niche anymore,” said Gary Maunakea-Forth, who founded MA‘O with his wife, Kukui. “We knew we wanted to get big. We know the scale of the problem.”

That problem is multifaceted. One part is using farmland to minimize the urbanization of Waianae. Another facet is supporting healthy eating. But MA‘O’s primary mission is to end a cycle of poverty in which kids face extra challenges growing up in an economically disadvantaged community.

The effort to do this involves MA‘O paying the college tuition for young adults who work part time on the farm.

These interns put in 15 hours a week and also earn a stipend under what MA‘O calls its youth leadership training program. Many interns work two years while earning an associate’s degree, and an extended version is available for students pursuing a bachelor’s. MA‘O also hosts interns from high school for one week during summer and winter breaks.

To be eligible for the core internship, applicants must be 17 to 24 years old and have a high school diploma or equivalent. They also must carry a full college course load and maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA. The stipend is $525 a month, which can increase with performance on the farm and in school.

In MA‘O’s early years, internships were available only to youth from Waianae, and today most interns are from the area even though the restriction was removed.

About 120 interns a year have worked at MA‘O in recent years. With the expansion, annual internships are projected to reach about 300 in five years and 500 after almost 10 years when MA‘O expects to make the new acreage fully productive.

Additionally, MA‘O expects to grow its traditional paid staff by 75, from 15 employees to 90. Food production is projected to rise from 80 tons to 1,400 tons annually. And annual sales revenue is projected to soar from about $600,000 to $12 million.

Self-sufficiency goals

Another dramatic change expected is the farm shifting from its heavy reliance on charitable subsidies to near self-sufficiency.

Currently, MA‘O relies on $1 million a year in supplemental funding — mainly from government grants, private foundations and an annual fundraiser — that covers 64% of expenses. Raising $1 million a year is still part of MA‘O’s 10-year forecast, but with $12 million in sales, the farm would be 92% self-sufficient.

Claire Sullivan, MA‘O’s director of development and impact, explained that the farm relies on charitable support because interns are far less efficient than experienced employees, especially because part of the program is letting students figure out many things on their own. Also, part of the workday is spent helping students grow personally.

“A huge part of what we’re trying to focus on is the health and wellness of you,” Kukui Maunakea-Forth told farmhands at the end of a day’s work last week in a sharing session where everyone sits in a circle and collectively punctuates each person’s contribution with two hand claps and the mantra: “No panic. Organic.”

Kamuela Enos, the nonprofit’s director of social enterprise, said the farm MA‘O describes as “edu-preneurial” sometimes gets criticized as unfairly competing with for-profit farms. He rejects this.

“We’re not subsidized,” Enos said. “We’re compensated for the work we do. All the money is going back to the mission.”

Helping young adults earn college degrees generally helps them earn more money.

Waianae’s per capita income, or the average income per person divided by the population, was $18,944 a year from 2012 to 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For Oahu, the figure was $33,776. Part of the discrepancy is due to fewer young adults attaining higher education that typically results in higher-paying jobs.

Only 10% of young adults in Waianae have bachelor’s degrees compared with 34% for Oahu, the Census shows. One reason is the cost of college.

Annual tuition for residents with a full course load is about $3,300 at Leeward Community College and $7,300 at the University of Hawaii-West Oahu.

Tiare Toetu’u-Aipa, a 19-year-old Waianae High School graduate who started interning with MA‘O last summer, said she wasn’t in a good position financially to go to college.

“I didn’t want to burden my family, so I did MA‘O,” she said.

Toetu’u-Aipa is studying for an associate’s degree at LCC and plans to transfer to Kapiolani Community College to earn a bachelor’s in radiology.

Student’s focus

The nonprofit also offers an apprentice program for young adults wanting to become farmers, but higher education is the focus.

“Maybe you’ll never work outside again,” Gary Maunakea-Forth told the group of farmhands. “Maybe you’ll be a web designer stuck in an air-conditioned, 8-by-10 cubicle the rest of your life. But you’ve worked outside and you understand your connection to these mountains and the soil.”

Workers do everything on the farm from weeding and harvesting to washing and packing produce.

MA‘O supplies customers that include Down to Earth, Kokua Market, Foodland, Whole Foods Market, Monkeypod Kitchen, MW Restaurant, town restaurant and Roy’s.

Crops include “sassy salad” greens, eggplant, kohlrabi, kale, leeks, celery, fennel, carrots, beets, radishes, dandelion, parsley, daikon, green onions and cilantro.

Maunakea-Forth said demand exceeds supply, so the farm expansion will provide more produce for existing customers and maybe some new ones. MA‘O also envisions building farm worker housing on part of the site, which is on the other side of the valley from most of the existing farm.

The expansion area was once planted in sugarcane and later truck crops, but had been fallow since the 1980s after a Japan-based developer unsuccessfully tried to build an 18-hole golf course. In 2005, local developers operating as Tropic Land LLC bought the site for $3 million and pursued plans for an industrial park that generated both community support and opposition.

In 2011 Tropic Land failed to win state Land Use Commission approval to urbanize the agricultural land for its project. MA‘O bought the site from Tropic Land for $3.2 million, which was made possible because Kamehameha Schools guaranteed its loan from Central Pacific Bank.

Kamehameha Schools said it backed MA’O because of the work the farm does to uplift Waianae and Native Hawaiians.

“This collaboration with MA‘O is part of KS’ strategic approach to improve Hawaii’s educational ecosystem by looking at innovative ways to empower community champions who are doing game-changing work deep in our communities,” Kamuela Cobb-Adams, senior director of community engagement and resources for the trust on Oahu, said in a statement.MA‘O said 38% of its interns have earned an associate’s degree while 10% earned a bachelor’s.

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