Tucked into the lush Lualualei Valley of Waiʻanae, Hawaiʻi, MAʻO Organic Farms is making a difference for the health of its community and the futures of its youth. MAʻO stands for Mala ‘Ai ‘Opio, which translates to “youth food garden.” Through farming, MA’O helps its young workers achieve higher education after high school.
Wai’anae historically was a major food-producing area of Hawaiʻi, and is home to the largest population of Native Hawaiians anywhere. Sixty percent of the population here is Native Hawaiian (Hawaiʻi’s average Native Hawaiian is 20 percent). In 2000 community members created the Waiʻanae Community Redevelopment Corporation (WCRC) to counter decades of underinvestment and lack of opportunities for the area’s youth. The WCRC began MAʻO Organic Farms as a way to reconnect the community with its agricultural culture while creating jobs and opportunities for Waiʻanae’s youth. It began with five leased acres in 2001, and has grown today into a 281-acre farm, producing more than 125 tons of food in 2020 and making it the largest organic farm in the entire state.
MO’A Organic Farms provides several opportunities for the youth of Waiʻanae, the general public and those who are pursuing farming as a livelihood. Its Youth Leadership Training Program (YLT) is open to Waiʻanae residents who are between 17 and 24, have earned a high school diploma or G.E.D. and are enrolled at Leeward Community College or the University of Hawaiʻi West Oʻahu. During their two-year internship they receive a starting stipend of $525 monthly, help with schoolwork and work experience. YLT participants work fewer than 20 hours a week. Upon graduation MOʻA pays the student’s full tuition at Leeward Community College or partial tuition at the University of Hawai’i West Oʻahu.
Students can continue their journey with MA'O through the Hoʻowaiwai Youth Leadership Training internship program (HYLT). This Internship program is available to YLT workers who have successfully completed that program. HYLT interns continue to pursue academic degrees while working with staff mentors on focused projects at the farm through which they learn more about the business-side of operations as well as leadership and management skills. After completion of the HYLT program, students may apply for a position with one of several community organizations including the Kamehameha Schools Community Learning Centers in Nānākuli and Māʻili, the University of Hawaiʻi at West Oʻahu, Mākaha Studios, and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
The Farm Expansion Experience (FEʻE) is an 11-week summer program in which participants learn about organic farm management and food production. Students learn eight areas of organic farming: field preparation and planting, harvesting, processing and packaging, distribution and customer service, farmer’s market and CSA programs, equipment maintenance, planning, financial review, and mentorship of interns. Students must be enrolled in an agricultural degree program and have at least a year’s experience working on a farm. They earn a monthly stipend of $14.50 an hour.
High School students can participate during their fall and spring breaks with week-long internship programs, and the Farm Management Apprenticeship (FMA) program is open to those pursuing a career in agriculture who have completed an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. FMA participants are considered full-time staff and receive pay and benefits.
The general public is welcome to visit the farm during Farm to Fork tours that invite school groups, families and youth groups to come work at MAʻO Organic Farms from 9 a.m to noon and experience what it takes to operate a farm. Visitors enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor at the end of the day with a communal lunch.
MAʻO Organic Farms grows more than 40 crops including various salad greens, root crops, cooking greens, herbs and tropical fruit. It sells its produce through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes and at the Kakaʻako Farmers Market. A 2019 study shows that since 2000 MAʻO Organic Farms has grown 1,400,000 pounds of produce and made $6,680,497 in sales. MAʻO has worked with 859 interns who have earned 108 associate’s degrees, 31 four-year degrees, and three master’s degrees. In 2011 former First Lady Michelle Obama visited MAʻO Organic Farms as part of the Let's Move! program, touting the farm as an example of a successful model for increasing healthy eating and community improvement.