On Papa’s Farm

by aaron on July 27, 2011

On Papa’s Farm
Story by Aaron Kandell
(This article appeared in the April-May 2011, Hana Hou Magazine)

(Photo by Dana Edmunds)

William Aila Sr. crouches among rows of red oak lettuce and baby kale, pointing out the plants mature enough to harvest. Attentive students huddle around him to hear his soft baritone. At 72, William serves as chief agricultural consultant on O‘ahu’s largest certified organic farm. Set on a sixteen-acre stretch of volcanic soil in the sun-parched heart of Lualualei Valley on the leeward coast, MA‘O Organic Farms doesn’t fit the typical pastoral image. Nor is William, or “Papa Aila” as everyone calls him, your typical farmer.

With his weathered physique, Aila resembles a Hawaiian Clint Eastwood. He’s always in motion, his hands often dipping into the garden with the precision and speed of a hummingbird. He’s quadruple the age of everyone around him, but he moves twice as fast. He speaks eloquently but directly and simply. Nothing, neither action nor word, is wasted—just as in the agriculture he teaches.

“Organic farming isn’t new,” Papa Aila explains to the assembled youths. “Our ancestors practiced it for hundreds of years. It was how they survived, it was their way of life.” William moves on to the herb garden, pausing along the way to fix things. Near the kale fields he adjusts a leaking irrigation hose. Among the kalo he bends to correct a small plant growing crooked. “This is love and respect,” William tells the kids as he crosses through rows of mustard greens and chard. “If we neglect the Earth, we hurt ourselves. But if you love the land, the land will love you.” He pauses, his crow’s feet deepening as he smiles. “And if you have that here, you’ll carry it with you always.”

But transforming the harsh landscape of Lualualei Valley into a verdant organic farm was a long and rough road. Papa Aila was born poor in a house with no address. His grandfather was a Hawaiian paniolo, a cattleman, who in 1939 bought ten acres in Wai‘anae for just under $400. William grew up close to the land, raising his first horse when he was just a boy. When he got out of the Navy in 1960, he leased his own four hundred acres in the back of Lualualei Valley, which “was a military buffer zone filled with live ammunition,” he says. The Navy had used over nine thousand acres of Lualualei to store live ordnance. “No one could live there, but they let me ranch.”

Ranch he did. For almost forty years William worked as a cowboy—all day, seven days a week. “I was kinda young and stupid,” he chuckles. “I rode bulls, I raised cattle, I raised kids … four sons and six daughters.”

It wasn’t only children and livestock that flourished under William’s care; the land did, too. In the red dirt of his backyard, William taught himself sustainable farming in a time before “organic” was a buzzword. For many years he operated one of the largest compost businesses on the island. He used his own compost to raise a nursery of thousands of palm trees, which he sold. William’s reputation as a green-thumbed Midas spread—anywhere he touched, it seemed, plants would grow. Which is why in 2001, when Kukui Maunakea-Forth and her husband, Gary, decided to establish MA‘O Organic Farms, the first person they called was William. He’d long been retired, but once William heard about their community-driven vision, he pulled himself out of retirement to become MA‘O’s first official employee and the lifeblood of the organization.

MA‘O, which stands for Mala ‘Ai ‘Opio, or “youth garden,” was born with the mission of growing not just organic produce but educated leaders. Every year MA‘O enrolls up to thirty-two high school graduates, most from marginalized backgrounds, in a two-year college internship program. Students work eighteen hours a week, learning every stage of the organic farm industry from seed to sales. In exchange they receive free tuition to a local community college plus a monthly stipend. Profits raised from the farm flow directly back into its education program, rounding a sustainable circle.

So ingenious is this system that the Yale School of Management awarded MA‘O a $25,000 national prize for Best Nonprofit Business Plan in 2005. In July 2010 the WK Kellogg Foundation gave MA‘O a $4 million grant to expand. But the program, which is creating ripples of positive change within the community, would never have succeeded if not for Papa Aila. “He is the foundation,” says Kamuela Enos, director of community resource development for MA‘O, who also serves as committee adviser to President Obama’s Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. “We wouldn’t have been able to get started without his incredible mana‘o [knowledge].”

For his part, William humbly deflects such praise. “I just teach the kids what my grandfather taught me, the three most important things in life: love, respect and a willingness to work.”

These are more than words for William. “The way Papa talks is the way he lives,” says his youngest daughter, Charlie, the farm’s executive administrator. Aila’s oldest son and board president at MA‘O, William Jr., agrees. “My dad always taught us, ‘Don’t be afraid of hard work.’ He’s up at sunrise and out the door, and he doesn’t come back or stop until sunset. That’s the way he’s always been.”

“And he hasn’t changed,” says Charlie. “The kids constantly complain, ‘We can’t keep up with him!’ To this day he still carries big rocks.”

For Papa Aila, cultivating the farmers is the real aim. He can’t talk long before somehow circling back to the kids—and not just his own: William regards every student on the farm as one of his children and tries to instill in them the same simple but sustaining ethic. “I tell the kids that they aren’t just workers, they are part of a family. It takes each and every one of us to make this farm work. If nobody works we’ll have nothing, but if everybody works we’ll have a lot.”

“When our kids work with him side by side, they see his commitment and belief in them and the farm,” Charlie says.

“Then they believe. His presence alone, the positive pillar of reinforcement he provides, is often enough to break the cycle of rejection and failure many of these kids face.” Cheryse Sana, a student co-manager who represented Hawai‘i at the 2010 World Slow Food Conference in Italy, can’t say enough about the kupuna (elder) of MA‘O: “Papa Aila is a great man. I see him as my own grandfather.”

Just as a seed grows to flower only to produce new seed, wisdom has a way of circling back. William Jr., who was recently appointed director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) by Gov. Neil Abercrombie, believes it’s his duty to share his father’s teaching. “I think about my dad every day as I drive to work. This guy from Wai‘anae who came from humble origins has allowed me to take on this huge kuleana [responsibility] as head of the DLNR. I do it because of the values my dad instilled. We all share this responsibility to the land and our future generations.”

Locally and internationally MA‘O has become synonymous with quality. Walk into any major health food store on O‘ahu, and you’ll find the “No Panic, Go Organic!” MA‘O label. Hawai‘i’s premier restaurants like Alan Wong’s, Nobu, Roy’s and Town all feature MA‘O greens exclusively on their menus, and MA‘O students continue to win national fellowships and awards. October 2010 marked the farm’s tenth anniversary, and things are only growing. MA‘O is working on securing eleven more acres of land, planting more fruit trees and finishing a new visitor center, complete with gift shop, restaurant and wood-fired pizza oven. In five years they hope to be 100 percent self-sustaining and grant-free while doubling the number of kids who can enroll in the program.

“Every day I can come here is a good day,” William says. “I wake up in the morning with a smile on my face, I tell my wife I love her, kiss her goodbye and then come and work here. I go home with the same smile on my face. You can build the life you want with your own hands,” Papa says, running his red-dirt-stained fingers across the bark of a kiawe tree, “and that’s what we’ve done here.”

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