“I grew up in a rural community. I grew up in Waiʻanae, my dad was a blue-collard worker, and guess what? We grew our own food,” shares Sydney Keliʻipuleʻole, who is the Director of Kamehameha Schools’ Land Asset Division. “So I understand how important growing food is and it’s a personal connection for me.”
Keawe Liu, who is the Executive Director of Pauahi Foundation, understands this connection from a different perspective. “I’ve never been a farmer, but I’ve known a lot of farmers, and the thing that moves me about knowing those types of people and the kind of lifestyle that they have is the passion that they put into the ground or into their livestock, they care about everything that they’re trying to do and it’s for the betterment of the people who live here in Hawaiʻi.”
This lifestyle of farming has deep roots here in Hawai’i and was the foundation for a thriving and sustainable agricultural system in ancient times until it’s decline in the mid 20th century, due to rapid changes to Hawaiʻi’s economy and landscape. But with a goal to return to a thriving and sustainable agriculture industry, the Mahi’ai Matchup Business Plan Competition was created by the Kamehameha Schools and the Pauahi Foundation.
“Farming is pretty important for us at Kamehameha Schools because we have so many agricultural acres. So much so that we actually have a statewide strategic agricultural plan,” says Keliʻipuleʻole. “The difference with this plan, compared to what we were doing decades ago in agriculture, it says that we at Kamehameha need to be more proactive in how we manage our farm lands. We cannot continue to be passive lessors, we need to be active managers, asset managers of our agricultural lands.”
“The reason we did it was to try and put some excitement around agriculture and inspire people who have great ideas to come forward and take the chance at being successful at farming,” Liu says, reminiscing on the inception of this fresh idea. “So the winners of the Mahiʻai Match-Up receive up to five years of waived rent and seed money from Pauahi Foundation.”
With such a successful first-year turnout, Liu smiles at an increasing number of supoort this time around. “Last year we gave out $50,000 in grants and $20,000 in scholarships. This year more than double that in scholarships.”
The number of community partnerships from last year has also grown, increasing support for Mahi’ai Match-Up. Funders, collaborators, and judges invested time, money, and unique skill sets into identifying and supporting the best entries in the competition.
“Ulupono Initiative is one of our lead sponsors this year and was a sponsor last year. They are really committed to what we are trying to do here,” says Liu. “American Savings Bank and the Kōhala Center on the Big Island were amazing in that they offered, for free to our semi-finalists, review of business plans, help in creating budgets and reports that helped the judges to see that their plan was viable.”
“Deciding the winners was really hard!” says Gary Maunakea-Forth, who is Founder of MAʻO Organic Farms in Waiʻanae and who helped as a judge in this year’s Mahiʻai Match-Up Business Plan Competition. “But I think that they really do represent something that is really remarkable that is going on with sort of an innovative agriculture right now.”
With much enthusiasm, Maunakea-Forth announced: “The group that we chose for the Haleiwa land… drum roll… is the Counter Culture folks who are producing kimchi!”
“Counter Culture Food and Ferments is a seasonal seed to counter top foods company. So that means that we manage the growing of virtually all of the ingredients that we eventually turn into fermented foods,” says Rob Barreca, who is the Onwer, Farm Manager, and Ferment Manager of the winning group, Counter Culture Food and Ferments. “So the Paʻalaʻa parcel is about 5 acres and we plan to grow various crops that we are going to ferment.”
“In this case, in small-scale niche agriculture, I think it’s a real advantage if someone is both the grower and the producer of the evaluated product because you know, adding the value is going to add the value for the producer!” says Maunakea-Forth.
“Going up there and seeing the parcel was awesome! Being in that situation before, coming into a kind of a raw piece of land and then thinking oh man, how am I going to deal with this and turn it into something? But you know, after seeing that time and time again, it’s kind of addictive, you know, being able to see the transformation and see that if you put some sweat into it, what you can make happen,” says Barreca eagerly. “So yeah, we’re excited to get the land cleared and get growing and fermenting!”
But Counter Culture Food and Ferments isn’t the only company that impressed the judges. “The winner fo the Hawaiʻi Island, Moku o Keawe Keʻei parcel was Māla Kaluʻulu. Growing ʻUlu, but more importantly I think, growing a Hawaiian agroforestry system,” says Maunakea-Forth.
“Māla Kaluʻulu is an integrated, commercial farm research and education venture. We are restoring the Kaluʻulu, which was part of the traditional Kona field system. It was an agroforestry zone, kind of mauka within the Kona field system.” Says Māla Kaluʻulu’s very own Dana Shaprio, who is Sales and Marketing Manager.
Taking us on a tour of their property, Shapiro paints us a picture of what the land will look like. “So our property is 3.7 acres and on the upper one acre, we’re going to restore the traditional Kaluʻulu, using the exact Hawaiian cultivars and no outside input of fertilizers, pesticides, or irrigation. And on the lower 2.7 acres, we’re going to create an adapted Kaluʻulu zone, basically mimicing the traditional system but adapting it to meet modern market demand.”
“I think it’s a real R and D kind of plan but the scalability, as a set of judges, we thought was a pretty incredible opportunity,” says Maunakea-Forth.
A statement that this year’s winners could also say about the Mahiʻai Match-Up Business Plan Competition.
“It’s you know, really hard for young people to get onto farms today. There’s a lot of barriers to farming: the high cost of land, the basic education that goes along with developing a business plan, and a program like Mahiʻai Match-Up, I think really encourages people to consider all of the different values involved with farming,” says Shapiro.
“I think the idea is to connect you to other resources in the community as well,” says Barreca. “You know, not just the land and an award, it’s connecting you to other Kamehameha Schools farmers. Kind of yeah, connecting all of the dots through the Kamehameha Schools community.”
“Mahiʻai Match-Up really reflects the values and the mission of Kamehameha Schools and it’s awesome to see it creating a program that pushes us forward as a society,” ends Shapiro so humbly. “So we’re really excited to be a part of that, and we hope that the success of this program will encourage more and more of it.”