Gary Maunakea-Forth: The co-founder of MAO Organic Farms wants sustainable food-based agriculture to grow in Hawaii – Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Posted: November 27, 2020 at 9:48 am

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How does MAO Organic Farms and its nonprofit social enterprise model fit into Hawaiis agricultural sector?

During the past 150-plus years, Hawaiis agriculture has been dominated by industrial sugar, pineapple and GMO seed production. These agribusinesses have controlled local land and water systems to the detriment of growing/eating our own food. We feel organic, regenerative agriculture represents a more sustainable, ecological and just future for local agriculture we can supply local demand, and at the same time malama and aloha aina.

So yes, absolutely, nonprofit social enterprise holds great promise in scaling local organic agriculture. It can be mobilized to, for example, raise investment capital and conservation funds to acquire large tracts of prime land, and grow an agriculture sector that is environment- and people-friendly. It gives us time to regenerate soil, plant agroforestry systems (trees!), and, most importantly, to inspire and train a new generation of agroecological-minded young farmers. MAO is among a cadre of local organizations that have chosen to use this model (see for many others).

What will your new processing facility be used for?

From the get-go we have tried to manage the entire farming process, from land regeneration and planting, to harvest, wash, packing, sales and distribution. Over the past 20 years, our wash/pack/refrigeration space has been a factor limiting our growth. The new processing facility will be much larger than our current facility, will have eight times more refrigeration space, and were introducing a fairly awesome conveyor wash system. All this will increase our food production and handling capacity tenfold, and enable us to radically increase our production of prepackaged items like our sassy and powerhouse salad mixes. We also intend to introduce a range of value-added products using fruit and vegetables weve grown.

How has the coronavirus pandemic changed the local market for fresh produce?

Its very sad how the coronavirus pandemic has hit the restaurant community. Small independent restaurants are super important. More than just providing great food, theyre our gathering/communing places and they deserved more government support to get them through this.

Our points-of-sale are diverse and include natural-foods stores, traditional groceries, farmers markets, CSA (community supported agriculture) and restaurants. When the pandemic hit in March we were able to pivot. Our direct-to-consumer CSA program tripled in size (mahalo, ohana), and we started to sell to institutions like the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center through the CARES Act.

One major takeaway from the past eight months is that local consumers seem even more committed to supporting local farms. For example, even in difficult times, our Kakaako farmers market sales have increased 40% since this time last year. If Hawaii can fully shift our farming mentally from a silver bullet, one product fits all approach to one that grows a biodiversity of organic food crops, I believe the local food movement will be more resilient in a crisis and present a real opportunity to diversify the economy.

What will it take for local farmers to compete successfully against mainland imports regarding price and product availability?

While farming is very risky, and there is a very thin margin, I think there are many local producers already successfully competing against imported foods whether its due to price or availability. Our experience working with Foodland and Whole Foods is that price is not the issue; more important is consistency, quality, an abundant supply, freshness, food safety, and then telling the story of who, why and how we grow food.

MAOs organic farm production and youth development mission are integrated: Theyre inseparable, and (thankfully) that seems important in this day and age, so we try to tell our story. The trend is really encouraging.Over the past 20 years, weve witnessed a massive switch toward supporting local organic, largely driven by the commitment of end consumers.

How do you persuade people to eat their vegetables?

Young people on the farm are generally curious and experimental, and we tend to always put food in front of them. They can take home our veggies, we cook on the farm together, they get to eat at local restaurants (when theyre open), and were always talking food. Last Friday during early harvest, we were discussing the best MAO veggies for tacos (the winners were cilantro and arugula). So its a process of engagement, empowerment and immersion.

Once our interns are in college classes like Hawaiian studies, they get to unravel the injustices in the industrial food system and theyre fully committed to eating a diversity of local organic food.

Personally, at home with our kids and grandkids, its all of these things, and we set a big table and cook/eat together.


Of everything that MAO Farms produces, what is your favorite to grow? To eat?

(LOL) Cilantro and arugula. But thats this week; it changes often. Im still amazed that I put a seed in the ground and come back a few days later and its germinated into something that will feed people. The whole biological event still blows my mind.


>> Job title: Managing director and co-founder of MAO Organic Farms

>> Professional experience: Organic fruit and vegetable farmer the past 20 years; previously worked in micro-finance, small business development, job training, community development

>> Personal background: Born and raised in Aotearoa, New Zealand; came to Hawaii in late 1980s; age 54; married to Kukui (our executive director and a co-founder of MAO); four children, three grandchildren.

>> Personal interests: Rugby (played from age 5-30, attended last two Rugby World Cups); cooking/eating with ohana, beach with the kids, gardening with Kukui

>> Other things I like: Dark satirical comedies like Monty Pythons Life of Brian; old Hawaiian music and Tom Waits

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Gary Maunakea-Forth: The co-founder of MAO Organic Farms wants sustainable food-based agriculture to grow in Hawaii - Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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November 27th, 2020 at 9:48 am

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