JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Ma'o Farms in Waianae has been selected by Whole Foods Market as a major supplier for its Kahala Mall store, adding to the farm's already impressive list of clients that includes Nobu, Town and Alan Wong's restaurants. Above, Ma'o Organic Farms' owner Gary Maunakea-Forth on Saturday sampled some arugula leaves from his crop. CLICK FOR LARGE
Whole Foods deal is growth opportunity
Three Hawaii farms are preparing to supply the retail chain with organic produce
The days start early at Ma'o Farms, nestled deep within the Lualualei Valley of Waianae -- a few hours before dawn breaks -- at 4:35 a.m. But already, a couple of workers at Ma'o are out in the field, tending to beds of basil, lettuce, eggplant and arugula.
Mala 'Ai Opio Farms, now six years old, has reached another historical marker since its founding -- it recently landed an account with Whole Foods Market, the largest natural foods grocery in the U.S.
Owner Gary Maunakea-Forth hailed the arrival of Whole Foods as "exactly the kind of opportunity" Ma'o has been waiting for to showcase locally grown produce.
The Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market has selected Ma'o Farms, along with Poamoho Organic Produce
on the North Shore and Hamakua Springs Country Farms
on the Big Island to supply its first Hawaii store, slated to open next spring at Kahala Mall.
Al Santoro, owner of Poamoho Organic, said the Whole Foods opportunity could encourage smaller farmers on neighbor isles to expand their market. Santoro, also president of the Hawaii Cooperative of Organic Farmers, hopes it will stimulate more organic farming, now just a very small percentage of all farms on Hawaii.
"It proves we're no longer a niche market," said Santoro. "There's too much demand for it (organic produce). We're on the verge of becoming a real, live industry that people can depend on for supply, quality and consistency."
Gary and Kukui Maunakea-Forth, owners of Ma'o, are now gearing up for higher production. They've come a long way since 2001, when they first started Ma'o, before organic produce had caught on in Hawaii.
But that began to change, with the launch of the Hawaii Farm Bureau's farmer's market in 2003 at Kapiolani Community College, for instance, which today accounts for about a third of Ma'o's produce sales.
Top chefs like Alan Wong, and Ed Kenney at Town and Downtown, also began insisting on buying local and organic.
The calls for orders from the chefs are a testament to Ma'o's product quality, said Gary Maunakea-Forth. The arrival of Whole Foods signals that the organic movement has caught on in Hawaii, enough for the chain to open several stores here.
Going organic, at the same time, is right -- or pono -- for the land and the community, according to Kukui Maunakea-Forth. It connects the people to the land, fostering teamwork and self-nurturing.
However, one of Ma'o's biggest challenges is finding more land to farm.
Currently, they have a 5-acre farm, with only three acres that are in production.
With Whole Foods on board, they hope to work out an arrangement with their neighbor to lease another 11 acres. They are also talking to the U.S. Navy and state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands about potential arrangements in which they could farm more acres of land.
The soil within the Lualualei valley is dark and fertile, full of nutrients and potential -- for both organic produce and the youth of Waianae.
As they cultivate fruits and vegetables, the mission of the nonprofit is also to cultivate the youth of the region into entrepreneurs and leaders, regardless of whether or not they go on to become farmers.
In partnership with Leeward Community College, students who work on the farm get a $500 to $600 monthly stipend plus bonuses, as well as an associate of arts degree with an emphasis on community food systems. About 18 college students are currently enrolled in the program.
The coursework includes organic agriculture, community food security, environmental science and food and nutrition. Hawaiian culture, political and social history are a part of it.
Sometimes the program does cultivate more farmers, as with Manny Miles, now youth mentor and assistant farm manager.
Miles, 23, was originally going to go to a college on the mainland, and was also planning a career as a plumber. Never did he plan on being a farmer -- until he met with Ma'o. Now farming is his path in life.
"I love it now," he said. "I love working outdoors and I realized that I like growing food and being at farmer's market, meeting customers."
The revenue of the farm is about $3,500 a week, according to Gary Maunakea-Forth. Ma'o is also funded by various grants, donations from a number of private companies, and fundraisers.
Among Ma'o's clients today are restaurants like Town, Alan Wong and their newest one, Nobu. Among grocery store clients are Down to Earth Natural Foods, Kokua Market and Umeke Natural Foods.
Kalei Ana and Maile Perreira, both 18 and graduates of Waianae High School, say they are glad to be part of Ma'o, which has taken them back to their roots of cultivating the land.
They put in 15 to 16 hours of work a week, and are saving up money for tuition, cars and books. American Savings Bank matches their savings. They also have the opportunity to travel, and go to conferences.
The most rewarding part, said Perreira, who wants to pursue agriculture as a career, is greeting and meeting the buyers at KCC's farmer's market on Saturday mornings.
William Aila Sr., one of the founders of Ma'o and at the age of 68, still an active volunteer, said he's seen enough success stories come out of the program that makes his time well worth it.
Aila, who himself ran a ranch and now raises goats, said the program has given the youth -- many whom are at risk of never graduating -- a direction and a purpose. Farming teaches them discipline and hard work.
"The three things you need are love, respect and a willingness to work," he said.
When they first started Ma'o -- he said he was wondering how they were going to beat the weeds and the bugs -- the two greatest challenges to organic farming. And yet, the farm has proved itself as a model.
"We started with zero and we've come a long way," he said. "I come back because of the kids."