Ma'o: Turning Adversity into Advantage in Wai'anae

Photo: Staff at Ma’o Organic Farms

The heavy, clay-filled soil is so rich I almost want to taste it. It’s called Lualualei vertisol, named after the Lualualei valley on the leeward side of Oahu where Gerry and Kukui Maunakea-Forth first founded Ma’o Organic Farms.

The soil is packed with nutrients deposited from a river that once flowed through the valley. The density of the soil allows it to retain what little rain falls here. Then, as the sharp-toothed sun of Wai’anae bakes the earth, the soil cracks and the circulating air allows the nutrients to recycle and renew.

I’m spreading this dark black soil in the newly created chef’s garden during a volunteer day that takes place on the last Saturday of every month. We’re helping to build garden beds that will be planted with herbs and fresh greens for visiting chefs, who Uncle Gerry hopes will highlight the importance (and deliciousness) of locally grown produce.  

Ma’o Organic Farms is known for fresh greens and salad mixes, which are sought out by top chefs across the island. If you spend a day at Ma’o, however, you quickly learn that fresh vegetables are only a side benefit of what they are really working to produce: youth with the leadership abilities, skills and self-confidence necessary to make much-needed change in their community.

Ma’o runs a two-year internship program that allows local students fresh out of high school to complete an associate’s degree at Leeward College while working on the farm three days a week. Ma’o provides the tuition and a monthly stipend, and the interns provide the bulk of the labor, and enthusiasm, needed to keeping the farm running. 

It has been wryly remarked that if you know anything about Wai’anae, you probably read it in the police report section of the paper. However, if Ma’o was all you knew of Wai’anae, your impression would be irrepressibly positive. The students are engaged, excited, and possessed of a practical intelligence born from busy, soil-covered hands. They learn every aspect of the operation, from constructing beds, to planting, harvesting, packing, selling and managing. There are only a handful of adults on staff. “If all of us called in sick one day,” one boasts, “the interns could run this place by themselves.”

Kamu acts as our guide on a tour around the farm. His younger brother was one of the first interns at Ma’o, and he now works for the farm as an education resource specialist, which seems to be a fancy phrase for “farmer-educator-marketer-strategist-mentor.” His goal for the students in his care: “Hands turned to the soil. That’s what keeps them out of trouble.”

He surveys Ma’o’s sixteen abundant and profitable acres and grins. “When we wanted to start Ma’o, everyone laughed. They said it couldn’t be done – the earth wasn’t viable for farming, no one would want to work it, you couldn’t make money. But none of those people lived in this community. All they could see were problems. When you live in a community, you might see the problems, but you know the assets, too. If you have vision and creativity, you can make change.”

Ma’o’s success can be attributed in large part to the local resources and traditions that run deep in Wai’anae. Farming is sacred work in Hawaiian culture, and the people of Lualualei valley have worked the land as long as anyone can remember. All the component parts are there – the rich, volcanic soil, the knowledge of the land, the respect for sustainable techniques, the work ethic – all it takes is a little imagination to assemble them all together.

The staff and students at Ma’o demonstrate the same unique qualities as the earth they work. In this harsh environment, other soils would dry up and blow away, and other people give up and fade away. But not these soils, and not these people. As the soil cracks, it tills itself. In the same way, as social and economic pressures build in Wai’anae, youth reevaluate their future. Dead ends stare them in the face at every turn, except one. Turning hands to soil, nourished by the renewal of the earth, they create advantage from adversity.

The reality is that people all around the world share this same heritage, and this same opportunity. If we can put the pieces of the puzzle back together, we can create a sustainable future for ourselves. Now, the same forces of urbanization, militarization and environmental exploitation that have had such negative consequences in Wai’anae are hard at work turning the rest of the world into a Super Fund cleanup site.

Learning from one’s own experience is intelligence. Learning from the experience of others is wisdom. We shouldn’t have to wait until BP's oil reaches our own backyard to break our dependence on fossil fuel. We shouldn’t have to wait until the food we buy poisons our children to start growing our own. Take a page from Ma’o. Malama ‘aina, malama ola kino – take care of the land, take care of your health. Earth to everybody - wise up!