The rum-soaked beverage and balmy breeze were starting to erode my leftist resistance to luxury. Let’s face it, sipping a Mai Tai from a beachfront terrace with a million-dollar view of Diamond Head will dull the edge of the most hardened class warrior. But just as I was slouching into vacation mode, I made the mistake of cracking open Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes. With my second cocktail in one hand and her book in the other, I soon discovered the whole sordid tale of how Christian zealotry, political chicanery, and ruthless exploitation dropped the Hawaiian Islands into the laps of America’s 19th century conquistadores.
Damn, just as I was starting to enjoy this place my social conscience kicks in!
Motivated—though somewhat reluctantly—to find Hawaii’s contemporary oppressors, I accepted an invitation from Derrick Kiyabu to visit MA’O Organic Farm on Oahu Island’s west side. The drive took me past Honolulu’s cheek-to-jowl ocean view condos and the Pearl Harbor Naval Base before the H1 Freeway deposited me onto Highway 93. This is the approximate place where the sign “Now Leaving Paradise, Welcome to Poverty” would be placed if tourist officials chose to acknowledge such things. But lacking most of what vacationers are looking for from a tropical getaway, the Wai’anae Coast, as it is commonly known, can only offer fast-food joints, scruffy commercial buildings, and residential housing that rival the worst of third-world Asia. I guess this is why the Lonely Planet guidebook refers to the region, almost quaintly, as “a little bit of Appalachia by the sea.”
My pre-farm tour reached a crescendo when I happened by a homeless encampment cobbled together along a one-mile stretch of state beach. Late model cars—many rusted and in various states of disassembly—jerry-rigged shelters, and a mishmash of makeshift camping and cooking gear presented such a scene of utter destitution that even knuckle-dragging conservatives would advocate for immediate relief.
As I moved inland a couple of miles, the landscape and impressions changed. Small sections of dry, flat farmland intermingled with vast tracks of military land—securely fenced and sporting giant arrays of submarine-tracking sonar towers capable of detecting a flushing toilet in a Russian sub north of Okinawa. It is here though, amid palm and banana trees, that you’ll find the peaceful acres of MA’O Organic Farms, armed with nothing more dangerous than wholesome organic produce and 40 or so farm interns between the ages of 17 and 24.
Like almost all the interns and staff, Derrick is wearing the farm’s “No Panic, Go OrganicÝ t-shirt. Noting some of the underlying principles of the program, he reminds me that “pre-contact” Hawaiians were 100 percent food self-reliant and that their traditional farming methods were totally organic. In a more pragmatic vein, he also explains the program’s business model: “Organic produce generates the most revenue from our customers such as Whole Foods, numerous natural food stores, CSA members, and Honolulu’s high-end restaurants.” As a self-described social enterprise, the non-profit farm generates 40 percent of its million-dollar-plus annual budget from produce sales. This is how they support the youth development and leadership program that is at the core of the farm’s mission. Promoting food security in the surrounding region is secondary to the need to generate funds for instructional costs, community college tuition, and stipends for the workers.
For other young people like Pua, the path out of poverty starts with a walk down the farm’s vegetable rows.
Without a doubt, the produce is top-notch. The packing sheds—two retrofitted chicken coops—are filled with interns washing and packing perfect heads of green and white bok choy, glowing red radishes, and gorgeous greens. A big whiteboard lists all the customers and the number of units each will purchase that day. As the young people pack each order in MA’O Farms custom boxes and load them on to the refrigerated delivery truck, the pride is evident in their smiles; after all, they grew it, picked it, and packed it. From the sales revenue, they’ll be paid a monthly stipend by it. Moreover, the produce will help send them to college.
But MA’O isn’t just another scheme to reconnect kids to land, food, and a little income. According to Kamu Enos, MA’O’s Social Entrepreneur Director, the farm is a training and leadership development program designed to overcome the poverty and social dysfunction that was so evident on my drive in. He tells me that “this region of Oahu has the highest concentration of native Hawaiians on all the Islands. We also have a 20 percent poverty rate, which is disproportionately higher for Hawaiians. Over 40 percent of our kids drop out of school and only 10 percent of our graduating high school class goes to college, and many of those leave during the first year.” Derrick puts the problem more succinctly, “Our public education system has ripped off our kids.”
When I noted the unusually high number of very heavy people I saw in Wai’anae, Kamu explained that, like other Native American communities, the ravages of Spam, loss of land, and the decline of traditional practices have taken their toll on peoples’ bodies as well as their souls. In what might be called the second wave of white man’s disease (the first, as Sarah Vowell makes clear, was the 19th century smallpox and measles epidemics brought by missionaries and seamen that reduced the native Hawaiian population from 300,000 to 40,000), the American fast-food diet and the paucity of fresh fruits and vegetables are degrading the community’s health. “The root problem,” said Kamu, “is the disconnect between our land, people, and economy. Instead [of controlling these things], we exist under the predatory practices of the military.” Not only does the Defense Department control most of the land in the region, military recruiters find local Hawaiians easy targets for enlistment because good civilian job opportunities are so few.
Getting control of land, especially for farming, is a daunting challenge for Hawaiians—there’s not much affordable, arable land that developers don’t already have their mitts on. But sugar daddies do show up, and they are not always the kind that operated sugar cane plantations. In MA’O Organic Farms’ case, the sweet guy is none other than Pierre Omidyar, founder of E-Bay. He generously dropped a cool million on the program, which, with assistance from the Trust for Public Land, bought the 11 acres that are now the heart of the farm.
Pua, 21, is a MA’O youth leader and the first member of her family to go to college. She recently received her associate degree from Leeward Community College and is scheduled to start at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in August. She tells me that high school didn’t prepare her for college, but with her mother’s encouragement and MA’O’s help—counseling, remedial instruction, and peer support—she’s climbed some pretty steep personal cliffs and is now ready for bigger challenges. While she’s not likely to pursue farming as a career she credits the farm program with giving her the emotional tools she needed to succeed. “The farm experience is an inspiration. Like college, it’s hard work. The farm grounds you because you have to manage your time, you have to work as a team with others to succeed, and you have to face the consequences of your actions.”
For other young people like Pua, the path out of poverty starts with a walk down the farm’s vegetable rows. Many start to eat better and lose weight. Kainoa is one youth worker who actually lost 130 pounds by exercising and changing his diet. But what the program cultivates even more than the farm’s well composted soil is the interns’ state of mind. Disempowered, brought up with low expectations, some homeless, they were staring at a future that promised little but a swift descent into diabetes and a life in the unemployment line. Now the steps out of poverty are more visible.
To grow and sell a half-million dollars of organic fruits and vegetables every year is no small feat. But to raise dozens of young leaders who can challenge the dominance of the condo kings and restore the economic and physical health of their people would no doubt bring a smile to the ancient kings and queens of Hawaii.
This post originally appeared at Beacon Broadside.
Photograph by Michael from Minnesota.