Gary Maunakea-Forth

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Community Builders

LONG STORY SHORT: Community Builders

 

Kukui and Gary Maunakea-Forth of O‘ahu, Stacy Sproat-Beck of Kaua‘i and Richard Ha of Hawai‘i Island have built ‘āina-based enterprises focused on building better communities. Hear how these visionaries behind MA‘O Organic Farms, Waipā Foundation and the former Hamakua Springs Country Farms have put their values to work for the greater good.

 

Program

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Dec. 23, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Community Builders Audio

 

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Transcript

 

Richard Ha

We always plan five, ten years out.  We’re always looking for where we need to be in the future.  And we already know that this is happening, it’s gonna get worse, so we’re already moving in that direction.

 

Stacy Sproat-Beck

I remember asking that question when I was in college.  You know; what about a nonprofit?  Because I knew it was there, and it was really an amazing opportunity, you know, to be able to grow this entity that is really for the community, and to take care of the land, and to teach people.

 

Kukui Maunakea-Forth

That’s what I love most about what we do, is that we’re providing this way for young people at an early age to build equity. You know, and it’s not just financial equity, but it’s also equity in terms of the relationships that we’re creating with other people in our community, and with the land.

 

Every entrepreneur seeks professional success.  An uncommon few also aim to build a better community.  Coming up on Long Story Short, our conversations with four individuals who are among a rare breed of business and community leaders.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  On this edition of Long Story Short, community builders.  It takes a remarkable type of person to look beyond their own family, business, and circumstances, maybe beyond their own lifetime, and work to make life better for the broader community over the long haul. To illustrate the impact these individuals can have, we revisit four entrepreneurs running distinctive businesses and nonprofits on three different islands.  We think it’s worth another look at what these innovators have accomplished, putting their vision and values to work, and how they empower people in their communities.

 

First up, Gary and Kukui Maunakea-Forth.  Though they come from different places—New Zealand and Nānākuli, this married couple came together through shared concerns about social conditions on the Wai‘anae Coast of O‘ahu.  And when it came time to start their enterprise in 2001, making money was far from the top priority.  Now the largest organic farm on O‘ahu, the nonprofit MA‘O Organic Farms is providing much more than food.  It’s creating a future for young people in West O‘ahu, and educating leaders for the next generation.

 

Gary Maunakea-Forth

I think the first place it came down to was the fact that we weren’t growing our own food.  We definitely worried about the kids in our community.  But I think because we saw all this land that was being wrongly used, we just kept asking ourselves: Why aren’t we feeding ourselves? And then, we dug a little bit deeper, and one of our friends who’s a soil scientist said it turns out that the soil in Lualualei Valley is one of the most unique and nutrient rich soils in the world.  And we didn’t know that, and kids in our community weren’t taught that.  The connection to the land had been severed. And we still to this day, those kids that come up to the farm, they’ve never been up in the valleys.  And so, I think that’s where it started.  And then, you know, definitely as our kids started to get a little bit older and go through the same problems that other kids were going through, our connection to what kids in Waianae, what kids in rural Hawai‘i are going through started to just, you know, really sort of slap us in the face; you know, the idea that a good public education is very difficult to get in Hawai‘i.

 

We didn’t want to just grow food and eat it ourselves.  We wanted it to be highly marketable.  Because, you know, when we analyzed our community, the state of poverty was multigenerational.  And we thought that if we sell our own food for a premium price, that money wouldn’t go back to our community.  And so, we looked at the kind of social service kinds of things that we had been doing ourselves and that others were doing, and we wanted to add this what at the time was called community-based economic development.  But we wanted to add this economic development layer that now has become social enterprise.  And so, that’s where it started.

 

Kukui Maunakea-Forth

I wanted it to be this great education program, and I wanted, you know, this element of culture and, you know, this element of vocational skills being taught, and this element of community work being done.  And it just didn’t happen like that at all.  It was whatever, you know, resources and people that were sort of there at the time. And it started off as a ten-month-long experience; you know, farm work experience.

 

So, who were you first enrollees?

 

 

 

Kukui Maunakea-Forth

Multi people that we had talked to their parents at Tamura’s.  Or we saw down at the beach park and said: Hey, you know, we’re starting a program; would you guys like to, you know, send your daughter?  Oh, yeah; my daughter’s graduating, and she doesn’t really have plans; sure, we’ll sign her up.

 

Those people that were meant to be there, ended up there.  And, you know, all of us, you know, growing up on the Coast, the fact that there’s only eleven percent that will go to college; that’s a small number.  So, what about the other eighty-eight, ninety percent that aren’t going to college; where are those guys?  And, you know, we thought long and hard about who we wanted to have this opportunity, and to have this experience.  And it was really those that were going to become the leaders. So, this eighteen to twenty-four-year-old Wai‘anae or Nānākuli graduate that had a desire to do something different, and to connect with not only the culture, but with a future in the community.

 

Gary Maunakea-Forth

Almost every young person that has been in touch with MA‘O—and this is pretty much the condition of the Wai‘anae Coast, you know, the federal government calls them at-risk.  And if you look deep at the statistics, you’ll find that Waianae has twice the teen pregnancy rate, twice the substance abuse rate.  All of these indicators are terrible, twice as bad as anywhere else.  And so, most of the kids that come have issues at home, or in their own lives that they’ve got to deal with.  On top of that, you know, we’re told in this society that if you go and get a college education, you can get ahead in life, you know, you can get your American Dream. Most of the kids coming out of the public schools in the State of Hawai‘i and in Wai‘anae are what’s termed remedial. And so, they have to be highly motivated.

 

When we started MA‘O, we wanted to start it with an associate degree program.  That took us three or four years to gain momentum, because when we went to Leeward Community College initially, they were like: Well, let’s do a noncredit program. And so, we started with this ten-month-long program.  And now, the various programs we have through MA‘O are sort of designed to be like a movement, to have this environment of entrepreneurship, of I want to get ahead, I want to work hard, I want to give to my community.

 

Kukui Maunakea-Forth

Over time, you know, we nurture trust, and respect, and love.

 

Gary Maunakea-Forth

And when kids first come to the farm, they generally come because we’re gonna help them pay for college and give them a stipend. The farming, they could live without some of them.

 

So, in 2003, I think, was our first real official ten-person youth leadership training of these young people just straight out of college.  And one of them went through the whole ten-months, and during that ten months he turned eighteen, and he was all over the place.

 

He was just growing up.  And anyway, he stuck it out, and now, he’s still with us, and he’s twenty-five years old.  And he’s now the assistant farm manager.  His name is Manny.  He represents what we believe is the untapped potential of young men in Waianae.  He can run the farm himself.  I’ve seen him talk story with Alan Wong about food, talk story with Ed Kenney about food.  At one of the fundraisers, he was talking about the farm to Pierre Omidyar, who’s a billionaire.  He represents, I believe, what a young farmer in the State of Hawai‘i should be.  Not just a person who’s able to toil in the fields, but he can talk about the vegetables, he can cook the vegetables.

 

You know, we’ve tried to take the farming part of it, and make it sexy, and make it interesting.  And the best and easiest way to do that is to allow the young people to do, firstly, a bit of everything.

 

M-hm.

 

So, they get typecast weeding a lot.

 

But they also get to do all the other jobs. You know, packing vegetables to go to Town Restaurant, or to go to Whole Foods is one of those things where they start to see the pride in doing it.

 

And the connection.

 

And get connection; yeah.  And so, if they’re at KCC Farmers Market selling vegetables, that’s the ultimate job.  You know, we’re hoping now that the next step for us is that especially some of the young people who really all of a sudden like farming will be farmers, and will either farm larger spaces with us, or go off by themselves.

 

Kukui Maunakea-Forth

I think that’s what I love most about what we do, is that we’re providing this way for young people at an early age to build equity. You know, and it’s not just financial equity, but it’s also equity in terms of the relationships that we’re creating with other people in our community, and with the land that feeds them.

 

Since 2009 when this interview first aired, MAO Organic Farms has continued to do well.  In 2018, a record twenty-one students graduated from the program with high school and college degrees, including from a new four-year program in sustainable community food systems at UH West Oahu.  While we enjoy the vegetables, MAO is really growing the leaders of tomorrow.

 

Now, we head over to Kauai’s North Shore, where Stacy Sproat-Beck is pursuing some similar goals at the WaipāFoundation.  The Waipāeducational mission includes connecting people to the land, using natural resources responsibly, strengthening family, cultural, and community ties, and preserving a way of life.  In 2014, Stacy Sproat-Beck told us why she was a world away from the work her business school professors expected her to pursue.

 

You went to USC, a very fine business school.  What was the experience of going to college at USC like?  I mean, there are a lot of wealthy scions, you know, sons and daughters of magnates.

 

It was kind of a culture shock.  You know, not so much being in a city that size, or in a school that size, because you know, I’d lived here for six years in Honolulu, and gone to Kamehameha.  And this is a big city, too.  But definitely, USC was kind of a culture shock for me, and I didn’t fit in that well. And you know, I’d raise my hand and go: What about family business?  And they go: Oh, no, no, no; don’t talk about that.  You know, family business is really hard.  And I go: Oh, what about nonprofits? And they go: Nonprofits?  You know, maybe we’ll bring somebody in to talk about nonprofits, but nonprofits aren’t really where the money is.  And so, it was kind of a different thing for me. But I still feel like I gained a lot of knowledge and important skills from going there, definitely.  It was an amazing education.

 

When you came home, I think you were aware of what was going on, but weren’t there for a lot of the fireworks.  There was a lot of militance about the way land was going on the North Shore, the push for resort development, and the move away from a rural lifestyle.

 

On Kaua‘i?

 

M-hm.

 

Yeah.  It seems like that was happening.  Yeah; that was happening throughout our childhood and youth, and my parents were really active, and my family was really active and fighting development, and wanting to manage it, really, and not just let it get out of hand.

 

And in fact, they were fighting Kamehameha Schools, where you’d attended, owner of Waipa.

 

Yeah; in the early 80s then, yes, Kamehameha became one of the entities that wanted to develop their landholdings there on the North Shore.  They were in development mode, and so, their plans for Waipāand Lumahai were golf courses, resort communities. Back then, it was all about developing the land so they could make money to support the school at Kapālama and the Estate.  Eventually, after four years of activism and negotiation, and the default of the potential developer, they were able to obtain a lease from Kamehameha for the sixteen-hundred-acre ahupua‘a of Waipā, which is an intact watershed.  It’s amazing.

 

I moved home in ’92, and I really started helping at Waipāin ’94.  And it was really just difficult.  There were a lot of different challenges and issues.

 

And you were doing this as a volunteer?

 

Yeah.  Well, farming with my husband on the side, helping manage Waipāon a volunteer basis.  And then also, I think I was doing promotions for a boat company to actually make money to pay my bills.  When Kamehameha went through strategic planning in 2000-2001, they changed their whole viewpoint on land management and revenue-generating lands, versus lands for culture and education.  And also, kind of right around that same time, all of these other difficulties that we had just sort of went away.

 

What do you do on the sixteen-hundred-acre property?

 

My dad guys envisioned that the original founders, it was to be a land base for the practice and perpetuation of Hawaiian culture. And so, that was their vision. And so, we continue to perpetuate that today by doing programs for kids that connect them with the land, and also, you know, we do enrichment programs and leadership, and cultural programs. And they’re in the garden and harvesting, and also just swimming in the streams and maybe doing a lot of the things that I did as a kid, that we all did.  And I feel like what that does today is, it connects us back to the earth, when a lot of us are just busy living somewhat urban lives.  It’s helping them to make the connection.  So, we do programs for kids.  We do resource management.  You know, we manage learning sites, and sites that we’re restoring. We have a fishpond that we’re restoring along the coast, and then we’ve got lo‘i, taro fields, and gardens, and a native plants nursery.  And then, up in the valley, we’re doing reforestation.  And then, sort of teaching and learning through all of that. And even another thing that’s really amazing to us is that we’ve planted a lot of fruit trees lately, orchards of fruit trees, everything from longan and lychee, to mango, and oranges, and avocado, and ulu, star fruit.  And really to be able to create abundance, lots of food, because you know, we know the importance of having lots of food there, both to feed ourselves and you know, to share with community, and then to market too.  But also being able to take the kids out.  Oh, and mountain apples, too; that’s a big one.  Being able to take the kids out and let them pick their own snacks off the trees.  I mean, we grew up with that, but kids nowadays—

 

They look for a box.

 

It blows their mind when they go out and are able to pick mountain apples and eat them.  It’s just the most amazing experience for them.  And for us, I think, that should be so basic, you know.

 

What’s the goal for WaipāFoundation now in the ahupua‘a?

 

So, our vision is a thriving an abundant ahupua‘a, and a healthy community that’s connected to their resources.  And so, it’s both … yeah, exactly that.  Just thriving and abundant, with land and resources being healthy, and feeding us in many ways, both physically, spiritually, and then also community that is connected to the place that helps to take care of it, and is nourished by it, and also actively manages and takes care of the land.  And I think that’s our vision specifically for Waipā, but also, it’s a larger vision.  You know, Waipācould be just a microcosm of the State or the island, or the world, where everybody is directly connected to the resources that feed them and take care of them.

 

Our next guest may not have started out with quite the same intentions as Stacy Sproat-Beck or the Maunakea-Forths.  Richard Ha went into the family farming business, and the founded his own farm on the Hāmākua Coast of Hawai‘i Island.  Along the way, Ha found that his business expertise and entrepreneurial vision prepared him to make progress on challenging issues like sustainability, food security, and renewable energy.  Ha always tries to stay ahead of curve, anticipating the next big need. It all started with the can-do attitude he learned from his dad.

 

When you saw your dad farming, and you were playing with tomatoes, did you think: I want to grow up and be a farmer?

 

No.  Actually, what happened was, I ended up wanting to go into business or into having some kind of organization to be in charge of.  And the reason that happened was because Dad used tell stories when I was about ten years old.  We had this kitchen table that was like a picnic table, with a bench and everything. And he would tell stories about impossible situations.  You know, a business situation, or he had all kinds of different situations.  And it would come down to he came up against a stonewall, there was no way to figure it out, and he’d pound the table, and the dishes would all fly.  He would say—boom; Not no can; can!  I remember that pretty clearly.

 

Not no can; can.

 

Yeah.

 

It’s about problem-solving and the will to overcome the problem.

 

Yeah.  It was just a given that you just don’t come up to a problem and look at and say: Oh, that’s it.  You know, there was always a way around it.

 

What were you gonna do with your accounting degree?

 

You know, actually, I didn’t really know.  I just knew that I had an accounting degree, and if anything came up, I was gonna do it.  But it just so happened Pop asked me to come back and run his chicken farm. I said: Okay, well, I don’t have anything planned; I’ll do that.  So, I came back, helped him run the poultry farm, and in the course of that, met the supermarket people, learned how marketing and that kinda stuff worked.

 

And you learned from the ground, up on that end; right?

 

Yeah; yeah.  I mean, we raised chickens when we were little, but the business end of it was different, you know.  And with an accounting degree, it helped me to analyze stuff.  And so, what happened was, we had forty acres, and twenty-five of it was in the chicken farm, so we had some extra land.  And so, we needed to find out what could we do with no more money.  ‘Cause I only had a three hundred dollar credit card.  Back then it was hard to get a three hundred dollar credit card. So, we started doing some research, and found out that there was about six million pounds of Chiquita Bananas being imported into Hawai‘i.  So, I said: Oh, man, if we could get into that, we should be able to do okay.  So, we started trading chicken manure for banana keiki, and started two acres.

 

At what point did you have your own farm?

 

Well, yeah; that was my dad’s farm, and we made it into a four-way corporation with my brothers.  And then, from there, I went to Kapoho to lease some land over there. And that’s when it started, maybe two years after we started the first banana farm.  And then, when the sugar plantations started closing down, we were able to move closer in to Hilo, at Kea‘au.  So, we moved the farm there.  At Kea‘au, we expanded to three hundred acres, and by then, we became the largest banana farm in the State.

 

Are you confident that local people will buy local produce, even if it’s more expensive?

 

Well, you know, it’s really what we need to do to support our local farmers, because to be food-secure, farmers gotta make money. And come the time when we feel like this is really a serious situation, it’ll happen.  And everybody’s talking about food security.  Now, how do we do that?  And the answer is, if the farmer can make money, the farmer will farm. So, it doesn’t get much more complex than that.  So, in an effort to figure out ways to help farmers make money, you know, with the help of the Department of Ag and the legislators, and a bunch of people, we pushed through legislation so that farmers could get cheap loans, low interest, long-term loans for renewable energy projects.  And how we look at it is how it affects our workers, our community, and the environment.  Every Thursday, our workers can come and just pick up all the different things we grow—bananas and tomatoes, and whatever, you know, as much as they need for their family.  And we have profit sharing, although it’s been tough the last few years.  We have profit sharing, and we want to look, you know, toward whatever we can do to help them with the food side of it. Because it’s hard for us to raise our workers’ salaries, because we can’t raise the price.  Everybody’s having hard time.  So, we have to figure out other ways to help our workers.

 

Keaukaha Elementary School, a Hawaiian Homelands community, and a school that was in the academic basement for twenty years; you adopted a class there.

 

Yeah.  What happened was, I volunteered to be on this thirty meter telescope subcommittee on the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board.  And so, when you talk about telescopes, you automatically talk about the culture.  Maua Kea, you need to talk about the culture.  If you talk about the culture, you end up at Keaukaha.  It’s a seventy-five-year-old Hawaiian Homes community.  And so, that’s where I ended up.  Yeah; so I went over there, talked to Kumu Lehua about telescopes, and had to learn a lot the culture.  I didn’t know as much as I do now.  I was mostly worried about farming.  But you know, the more I got into it, the more I needed to learn.  And then, what was ironic was, here I am on the thirty meter telescope subcommittee, and you’re standing in Keaukaha, you look at the mountain; there’s hundreds of millions of dollars of investment up there.  You look back at the school and the community. So, you know, there’s nothing here of tangible relationship to that.  But whatever the case, we decided this no can; we had to do something.

 

What do you see yourself doing in ten years?

 

You know, it’s hard to say what it’ll be, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be something that I can’t imagine now.  Because we always end up doing something that’s new and different.  Yeah; so I expect that it’ll be something new and different, but it’ll be something, for sure.

 

And it’ll be in farming?

 

I can’t even say that.  I don’t want to just say one particular thing.  But it really has to do with where our society is going, what our circumstance will be.

 

Since this interview first aired in 2008, we can now tell you what Richard Ha is doing.  In 2016, he closed Hāmākua Springs Country Farms and was awarded one of the first Hawaii licenses to grow and sell medical marijuana with a company called Lau Ola.  In the fall of 2018, he left Lau Ola after steering the company through its startup phase.  He said he’ll continue in the agriculture and energy industries.

 

Richard Ha, Stacy Sproat-Beck, and Gary and Kukui Maunakea-Forth all continue to grow their own enterprises, while building better communities across our state. We thank them for their vision and can-do attitude, and for sharing their stories with us.  We hope they’ve inspired you.  Mahalo for watching.  For Long Story Short and PBS Hawai‘i, I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Aloha nui.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.  To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

Kukui Maunakea-Forth

There’s no one right way.  And we’ve all sort of figured out this thing that we bring everything to the table, you put it down, if your idea is better than ours, then hey, we’re gonna go with your idea.  And that’s how it even happened with that very first class.

 

Stacy Sproat-Beck

Things have really just grown like crazy since then, and gone in an amazing direction.  I feel like the lessons learned from those really hard times are kind of what maybe grounds me and the organization in sort of humility and remembering that things don’t always come easy.

 

Richard Ha

Pop taught us a lot of lessons, and it had to do with survival.  Just do what you gotta do, and plan for the future, and you know, make decisions. You gotta do it, do it now, kinda thing like that.

 

And not no can; can.

 

Yeah; absolutely.

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
The Maunakea-Forths

 

Original air date: Tues., Oct. 6, 2009

 

Farming for Self-Sufficiency

 

Kukui and Gary Maunakea-Forth created MA’O Organic Farms with the belief that developing self-sufficiency would not only stimulate economic development, but provide opportunities for Waianae youth through reinforcing the value of aloha ‘aina. They talk to Leslie about how it all began, their successes, and how farming can help heal a community by reconnecting it to its culture.

 

The Maunakea-Forths Audio

 

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Transcript

 

GARY: I think the first place it came down to was the fact that we weren’t growing our own food. We definitely worried about the kids in our community, but I think because we saw all this land that was being wrongly used. And so we just kept asking ourselves, Why aren’t we feeding ourselves?

 

Kukui and Gary Maunakea-Forth, a married couple of common purpose and ideals that led to the formation of the largest organic farm in Hawaii…next on LONG STORY SHORT.

 

Aloha and welcome to LONG STORY SHORT, I’m Leslie Wilcox. The Waianae Coast is home to Mala ‘Ai ‘Opio, or youth organic farm, MA‘O for short. It’s the creation of KUKUI and GARY MAUNKEA-FORTH. Today, nonprofit MA‘O Organic Farms grows more than 25 types of certified organic fruits and vegetables in Waianae’s Lualualei Valley and it supplies some of Hawaii’s most celebrated restaurants and natural food stores. MA‘O Farms’ innovative internship program also nurtures and \ supports the training and college education of young adults as future farmers and leaders in the community. A love of sport and travel set in motion the union of Kukui, a native Hawaiian raised in Nanakuli, and Gary, a former banking industry employee from New Zealand. He first came to Hawaii to play rugby in the late 1980s. The couple forged a partnership to help rejuvenate the Waianae Coast community. Each partner was moved by a longtime passion for social justice.

 

GARY: I guess growing up, New Zealanders are sort of an alternative lot. A little bit feisty, and a little bit like the underdog; and so as a kid growing up, New Zealand went nuclear free probably thirty years ago. So I grew up there as a kid. And then New Zealand plays a lot of rugby against South Africa, so during the end of the apartheid years, there was a lot of politics going on in New Zealand. So that stuff sort of sobered me to the realities of the world, they were used as teaching things when we were in secondary school, we were in high school. So coming to Hawaii, I thought I was coming to paradise. And I did. I mean, it is paradise. But there’s obviously a few social issues going on here that I didn’t know about, and I think the rest of the world doesn’t know about. And so when I got here, I started to get to twenty-three, twenty-four, and I thought I would go back to university. And so I had some friends on the rugby team here, and I ended up going back to the University of Hawaii for both undergraduate and grad school, and that was probably the best thing I ever did.

 

What did you major in?

 

Environmental studies and political science. And I think this was back in the early 90s; this was when people started to talk about sustainability and about the carrying capacity of Hawaii and whether very popular things like tourism, were really having a diver—having an adverse impact on Hawaii.

 

Was your interest in social justice, is that what took you out to Waianae? Is that how you find your way out there?

 

Yeah. I think I was in grad school, and I got a job working in Waianae, it was not a social activist type of job. It was like an ecotourism type of job. But I’d been going to Waianae before that, because I liked to surf, and I was surfing Makaha. I got to know Eric Enos fairly well, and I went to the taro farm quite a lot. And then a couple of guys on the rugby team used to box, and Waianae has got a great boxing club. So we used to go and watch them box in Waianae.

 

And where did yours and Kukui’s paths cross?

 

GARY: I was working for an organization that did community development projects. And I remember knowing her fairly well, but really getting to know her through some community visioning sessions where she kinda called me out of the meeting, and—

 

KUKUI: I did?

 

GARY: Uh, yeah.

 

KUKUI: No…

 

GARY: I remember sort of clearly that—

 

KUKUI: That wasn’t me.

 

GARY: —that I was part of a group that was advocating ecotourism on the Waianae coast.   I think she asked me a question like, What is this gonna do for our coral reefs?

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

Do you remember that?

 

KUKUI: Yeah. [CHUCKLE] I did.

 

You called him out.

 

KUKUI: I did; many, many times. May—

 

GARY: Yeah; and it was a good question.

 

KUKUI: But definitely, what we connected on were some of the things that was going on in the community at the time. And I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around some of the issues. We were going through this momentous growth as a community, we were struggling a lot with educational attainment for youth. We were going through a lot of things, around the aina, about the exploitation, and sort of coming from that history of sort of anti-development on the Waianae coast, it just seemed like we had a lot in common in terms of how we were speaking about how people and place needed to be reconnected. And, the experiences that he talked about early on, it sparked my imagination.

 

While Gary was growing up in New Zealand, what about your upbringing?

 

KUKUI: I grew up on Hawaiian homestead land. Our growing up was wonderful. We were one of the first homesteaders in Nanakuli. I think my grandmother moved there in 1931. And so many of the things that she had gone through, in growing her own family and her own household was within the context of growing a brand new community. And because of her manao and mana as a kupuna, she was a native speaker, she was well acquainted with laau lapaau, with Hawaiian medicine, all the practical things too of how to plant, how harvest and cook, how to really live off of the land, and live with very little. Growing up with her, I was able to capture some of that in my learnings and in the way that I developed. I think it’s a very different place. But I think some of the elements are definitely there, that it wouldn’t take that much to really reconnect the community. And I think it starts with the aina. I think that’s what sort of the forces that brought us together was that idea of appreciation. And I know Gary hasn’t sort of mentioned it yet, but he comes from a rural town where farming and growing food is a wonderful occupation. And I sort of had that similar experience of being very close to the food, and close to the land.

 

As the family started to be less close knit, the same thing happened to communities, and especially in our schools. And so our school was the same thing. I couldn’t believe that in my last year there, we didn’t have Hawaiian language, because they would not allocate budgetary funds. And here you were with a whole school full of native Hawaiian students, and—

 

A Hawaiian homestead community.

 

KUKUI: And a Hawaiian homestead community, and no Hawaiian language. And that was very hurtful. Having had that in my own family, and with my own grandma. And if she had been alive at the time, she would have been the first to be there, going, This is not pono, this is not … right. And so when the opportunity came to sort of question what had happened in the Hawaiian experience, we sort of came out and started to say, Hey, you know, we have to do something as community people. I had just started having my children then, and so that was definitely burning, and I had a lot of questions. And right around the same time, I discovered this wonderful link that I had with some wahine at UH. Mililani Trask, and Haunani Trask, and Lilikala Kame’eleihiwa; and I was lucky enough to pass right around the same time that they were organizing community around saving loi kalo making sure the olelo was taken care of. It was an exciting time. And I think people came into my life that helped me to mold … this person that’s sitting here with you today.

 

Kukui and Gary Maunakea Forth spent more than 3 years, in collaboration with friends and community members, formulating the essential touchstones that would become MA‘O Organic Farms. In the face of Waianae’s generational poverty, two main objectives emerged: growing food for self-sufficiency and empowering the area’s at-risk-youth. Both of these goals were to be achieved through the perpetuation of the Hawaiian culture.  

 

GARY: I think the first place it came down to was the fact that we weren’t growing our own food. We definitely worried about the kids in our community, but I think because we saw all this land that was being wrongly used—Lualualei Naval Base, seven and a half thousand acres are still used by the military, and the base is really closed. And so we just kept asking ourselves, Why, why aren’t we feeding ourselves? And then we dug a little bit deeper, and one of our friends who’s a soil scientist, and it turns out that the soil in Lualualei Valley is one of the most unique and nutrient rich soils in the world. And we didn’t know that, and kids in our community weren’t taught that. They’d been taught that, you know, Makaha is a great beach, and we have beautiful oceans, and we should be proud of our water, and we should be proud of our culture and heritage. But the connection to the land had been severed. And still to this day, there’s kids that come up to the farm who have never been up into the valleys. And that’s because some of the valleys are off limits. And so I think that’s where it started. And then definitely as our kids started to get a little bit older and go through the same problems that other kids were going through, our connection to what kids in Waianae, what kids in rural Hawaii are going through started to just really sort of slap us in the face. The idea that a good public education is very difficult to get in Hawaii.

 

Is that where you thought about fusing the two needs?

 

GARY: M-hm. Yeah. M-hm. We looked at the community, and Kukui at the time, in 1990, was working for the census, and then in 2000 she worked for the census after ten years. And you can tell that story a bit. But I remember her coming home and going like, Wow, things have got definitely worse in ten years.

 

And telling stories like a family in a cul de sac all sharing the same power with extension cords going from house to house.

 

That’s right; you go to door-to-door, and you really see people, and look at how they live.

 

KUKUI: M-hm.

 

Well, what were the differences?

 

And they were friends that I had grown up with, when we were children they were very poor, but you would never have known that. And because they were super smart. And I believe that one of them went on and got a masters degree, but they were very poor. And then to see the next generation so disconnected, and poorer than poor. The porch leading up to where the doorway was, when in the old home, had been demolished. And they were basically just using like a little stepstool to climb up into the house. And then no icebox. They had coolers all outside full of food, and the children were going in there to go get their food. And just dozens of electrical cords coming from another neighbor’s home, and I guess for emergency or whatever. And still ‘til today, we see people living in garages, multiple families, being told to leave, told to come. It’s just crazy.

 

Kukui and Gary Maunakea-Forth talked with young people about the ‘aina and its importance culturally, historically, spiritually. The couple drew upon the assistance of elders such as Uncle William Aila Senior and other community collaborators to help run the MA‘O Organic Farms.

 

GARY: We didn’t want to just grow food, and eat it ourselves. We wanted it to be highly marketable. Because when we analyzed our community, the state of poverty was multigenerational. And we thought that if we sell our own food for a premium price, that money wouldn’t go back into our community. And so we looked at the kind of social service kinds of things that we had been doing ourselves and that others were doing, and we wanted to add this … what at the time was called community based economic development. But we wanted to add this economic development layer that now has become social enterprise. And so that’s where it started. And we were fortunate to get a lease from the Community of Christ Church for five acres, kind of almost immediately as we started. And we wrote a business plan, and we got friends and family together, and we got a board of directors together, and we did all those things. I think the product of three years of talking and researching, and having meetings was the first two grants that we received were the first, we got a local grant from the Bank of Hawaii. And then the first two large grants were federal grants, and we got them very quickly.

 

KUKUI: There’s no one right way. And we’ve all sort of figured out this thing, that we bring everything to the table, you put it down. If your idea is better than ours, then hey, we’re gonna go with your idea. And that’s how it even happened with that very first class. And I wanted it to be this great education program, and I wanted this element of culture and this element of vocational skills being taught, and this element of community work being done. And it just didn’t happen like that at all. It was whatever, you know, resources and people that were sort of there at the time. And it started off as a ten-month-long experience, farmwork experience.

 

So who were you first enrollees?

 

KUKUI: Mostly people that we had talked to their parents at Tamura’s. Or we saw down at the beach park, and said, Hey, we’re starting a program, would you guys like to send your daughter? Oh, yeah, my daughter is graduating, and she doesn’t really have plans; sure, we’ll sign her up. Those people that were meant to be there, ended up there. And all of us growing up on the coast, the fact that there’s only eleven percent that will go on to college, that’s a small number. So what about the other eighty-eight, ninety percent that aren’t going to college? Where are those guys? We thought long and hard about who we wanted to have this opportunity and to have this experience. And it was really those that were going to become the leaders. So this eighteen to twenty-four-year-old, Waianae or Nanakuli graduate that had a desire to do something different, and to connect with not only the culture, but with a future in the community.

 

GARY: Almost every young person that has been in touch with MA‘O are—and this is pretty much the condition of the Waianae coast, the federal government calls them at risk. And if you look deep at the statistics, you’ll find that Waianae has twice the teen pregnancy rate, twice the substance abuse rate. All of these indicators are terrible, twice as bad as anywhere else. And so most of the kids that come have issues at home or in their own lives that they’ve got to deal with. On top of that, we’re told in this society that if you go and get a college education, you can get ahead in life, you can get your American dream. Most of the kids coming out of the school, public schools in the State of Hawaii, in Waianae are what’s termed remedial. So in the first year of college, they generally can’t take one hundred level classes. So what it does is add a whole year to their college experience and so they have to pay for their college, they have to somehow find the resources to get through college. And so they have to be highly motivated ‘cause when we started Ma‘o, we wanted to start it with a college program, an associate degree program. That took us three or four years to gain momentum, because when we went to Leeward Community College, initially, they were like, Well, you know, let’s do a non-credit program. And so we started with this ten-month-long program. And now the various programs we have through Ma‘o are sort of designed to be like a movement, to have this environment of entrepreneurship, of I want to get ahead, of I want to work hard, I want to give to my community.

 

KUKUI: Over time, we nurture, trust and respect, and love. And for Kainoa, who came into the program… he was a wonderful digital media specialist, and so straight out of high school from Sea Rider Productions, he was sent out into the world to unleash himself onto the college scene. And he didn’t do that well. Because William, worked at the farm, he said, Well, you know, Kainoa’s not doing anything. Why don’t you guys come and then be a part of this college program? You still want to go to college, right, Kainoa? And, Yeah, Papa, I do. And so he did. And over the time that he was at the farm, he learned along with his peers not only how to handle college, but also how to manage work and family life. Because he still lived at home. And then he went through this physical transformation. About a year ago he really started to appreciate the stuff that he was learning on the farm, and so he would take home food to cook at home. And then on Sundays, when everybody else is sleeping or having fun, he and another boy would come to the farm and help water the farm for Uncle William. And because we have wireless access, they would do their homework out on the picnic table outside of the offices. They would cook for themselves. They would go harvest some food, cook, and I think over the last year, he lost about a hundred and forty pounds. And he’ll be graduating next semester, and his plan is to go to UH and get his four-year degree. So very proud of him.

 

GARY: The cool thing is, we’ve got a ton of these stories. And we’ve got the stories of the kids that are still in the program, or have graduated, but also the kids who’ve left early. There’s a lot of kids who leave early, because mainly they find that farming is not part of what they want to do. Because the farm is set up, the work is three to four days a week, and it’s tough. And you go to college. And when kids first come to the farm, they generally come because we’re gonna help them pay for college and give them a stipend. And the farming … they could live without, some of them. And that’s part of the stereotype of working on a farm in Hawaii and the US that we had to deal with. So in 2003, I think, was our first real official ten-person youth leadership training of these young people straight out of college. And one of them went through the whole ten months, and during that ten months, he turned eighteen, and he was all over the place. He would argue with the young women. He was just growing up. And he graduated, and he did what a lot of young guys in Waianae, when they have family resources, he went to work for his uncle. And that’s what happens a lot, you know. I’m gonna work for my uncle—he’s a contractor, and he was gonna go get a plumbing apprenticeship. And anyway, it fell through, and so he came back, and he came back up to the farm and he said, Uncle Gary, I know the farm’s growing, can you give me a job? And I said, Okay, I’ll give you a job if you make your salary. We’ve gotta make more money, and that’s what you’re gonna get paid. And anyway, he stuck it out, and now he’s still with us, and he’s twenty-five years old, and he’s now the assistant farm manager … His name is Manny. He represents what we believe is the untapped potential of young men in Waianae. He could run the farm himself. I’ve seen him, talk story with Alan Wong about food, talk story with Ed Kenney about food. At one of the fundraisers, he was talking about the farm to Pierre Omidyar who’s a billionaire. He represents, I believe, what a young farmer in the State of Hawaii should be. Not just a person who’s able to toil in the fields, but he can talk about the vegetables, he can cook the vegetables, he can inspire other young people to want to do the job he’s doing.

 

Well, farming has become remarkably complex. You’ve got to be a weather person, and a scientist, and a marketer. It’s a very—

 

That—lots of fun too.

 

—tough way to make a living.

 

Gary: Well, I think, we’ve tried to take the farming and make it sexy, and make it interesting. And the best and easiest way to do that is to allow the young people do, firstly, a bit of everything. So that they a typecast, weeding a lot.

 

But they also get to do all the other jobs. And you know, packing vegetables to go to Town Restaurant or to Whole Foods is one of those things where they start to see the pride in doing it.

 

And the connections.

 

GARY: And the connection. The KCC Farmers’ Market selling vegetables, that’s the ultimate job. And we’re hoping now that the next step for us is that especially some of the young people who really have all of a sudden like farming will be farmers, and will either farm larger spaces with us, or go on by themselves. And Manny and his now wife, Summer are talking about buying a piece of property or they’ve saved a deposit to buy a house.

 

KUKUI: And I think that’s what I love most about what we do, that we’re providing this way for young people, at an early age, to build equity. It’s not just equity, financial equity, and also equity in terms of the relationships that we’re creating with other people in our community, and with the land that feeds them. So you know, it’s so nice.

 

Despite the ongoing success of MA‘O Organic Farms, there are still many challenges for the Waianae community—particularly for its young people. But for those who work the land, the farm gives them a chance to work through their frustrations.  

 

GARY: I get angry every single day at the farm when we’re sitting on … you know, we had five acres, now we have a eleven more, and I look south and I see Lualualei Naval Base with antennas everywhere. And it was tough to be angry at that, eight or nine years ago when the base was operating. But now, it’s closed. We drive past seven and a half thousand acres of land that and we have everyday normal people saying, Why aren’t we feeding ourselves. What makes it even more ridiculous is we drive past the beach parks, and we see family, friends—kids, you know, in the farm, their families and friends, our families and friends homeless.

 

KUKUI: Young people are coming from those places where there is a lot of injustice being felt. Dad losing a job because he’s too low, or he didn’t have the right educational attainment, or Sister is gonna be kicked off of welfare because she no longer qualifies; or I gotta continue to go work three jobs just to keep the lights on. We know too that some of them are the only wage earners in their homes right now. They’re going to school to make sure that they have some sort of future to get a better job, but at the same time, they’re at a very low wage sort of job. And sometimes those issues all sort of bubble up, and they come to the surface. And I think Ma‘o provides that wonderful opportunity to help them deal with it, so that it doesn’t become anger, so that there’s some constructive way to talk about how that happened to their family, to themselves. We give them an opportunity and a way to sort of come to terms with that anger. And we’ve been lucky enough to work through a lot of those issues and understand that it’s so complex that we really do need to build those times in our families, build that capacity in our youth and ourselves to take care of that.

 

In 2009, after almost a decade of hard work, MA‘O Organic Farms is expanding its acreage and its packing facilities. Kukui and Gary Maunakea–Forths’ social enterprise is not only enriching the lives of young people, it is setting a standard for sustainability in Hawaii’s future. Thank you for joining us. For LONG STORY SHORT and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Until next time Aloha A hui hou kakou.

 

 

GARY: I think that rootedness is the first step for the young adults to really understand where they situate themselves in the world. We call it the context that they come with yeah?

 

KUKUI: We’re still learning about what is the best way to convey that, and to teach that, and to make our youth and our community comfortable with the images that both they perceive of themselves as having or being, and what outside of Waianae is looking in and seeing, or acceptance of who you are, and being okay with that, its really critical for our youth to develop well. And, you know, sometimes it’s just a matter of creating time and space for them to be able to discuss that very question. And taking us out of the decision making, and putting them into the place where they decide, and empower them to have that conversation.