Lehia Apana of Polipoli Farms in Conversation with CCOF CEO Kelly Damewood

Lehia

If you’ve been following the CCOF blog, you’re likely aware of Lehia Apana, co-founder of Polipoli Farms in Waiehu, Maui. Polipoli Farms describes itself as “tucked away in the Waiehu foothills,” and is located “on the same ʻāina mōmona [fertile land] that fed generations of Native Hawaiians.” Says Apana, “As a Hawaiian-run farm, we blend indigenous and modern growing practices.”

Lehia Apana is a multiyear recipient of the CCOF Foundation’s Future Organic Farmer grant. Receiving financial support from CCOF was but one piece of the puzzle in launching Polipoli Farms. Apana describes how affirming it felt to be chosen by CCOF to receive a grant. It gave her and her partner, Brad Bayless, the confidence they needed to move forward and commit to farming organically on Maui.

This past Earth Day 2021, CCOF CEO Kelly Damewood was joined by nearly 40 attendees for a virtual meeting with Apana, who called in from one of her mamaki groves on the farm. In case you missed the live interview, here is an abbreviated transcript of Damewood’s conversation with Apana.

Kelly:

Lehia, what called you to farming?

Lehia:

It started with a garden bed. I wish I had some grand answer, but it started really simply. About 10 years ago, my then-boyfriend, now-husband Brad and I started a garden bed in our backyard. We started that garden bed because we were concerned about what was in and on our food. Like a lot of people right now, especially during the pandemic, we just started a little garden bed.

About four years ago, we purchased this land, and we had this idea to start a farm. When we arrived on this land, it did not look like how it does today. It was covered in invasive grass that was so thick you couldn’t walk through it. It was covered in invasive trees. It was a jungle, literally. For the past four years, we’ve been carving our way through it. We didn’t even have a weed whipper when we started! We’ve slowly been replacing invasives with an agroforest to mimic nature, trying to get all these multilevel crops growing in one space. We're continuing to clear land and are continuing to replant in the farm.

But it all started with that one garden bed, and we didn’t stop from there. It shows you the power of exposing people to growing their own food. It's simple, but it’s beautiful in that simplicity. It doesn’t take much.

Kelly:

Does your family have a farming background? What did they think about you taking up farming?

Lehia:

I think if we all go back far enough, we will find that there is agriculture in our heritage, which is true for me. Growing up in Hawaii, I had no immediate farming background. I was never in 4-H; I never took farming classes; I had no exposure to farming, really. I grew up wanting to be a writer/journalist, so I went to undergrad for journalism and then got my master’s degree in media studies. I was fully committed to a career in media. Then, the garden bed happened.

My family is fully supportive, not just emotionally, but they are here working the land with us. It’s been a really cool process because through my husband and I getting into farming and growing our own food it’s slowly getting out and trickling out to the people around us. I think it was a little bit of a shock at first to the people around us, but there was no denying how much we loved it and still love it.

Kelly:

How did you build your education and knowledge around the practices you use today?

Lehia:

CCOF helped a lot. Thank you for that question. CCOF was so impactful to our farm and our development as a farm. You were with us from the very beginning. If you watch our video, you’ll see me crying, so I’ll try not to cry when I think about this. It shocks me how emotional I get about this stuff. We were high on passion, really low on education. We knew how to grow food, but we didn’t know how to be farmers. As many of you know, those are two very different things. Through CCOF, we were able to build our skills as farmers, and that helped us to lay the foundation of our farm. We started with a beginning farmers program. We've done all kinds of workshops—everything from agroforestry to organic practices to soil-building. It's like starting school all over again.

We took a course in developing value-added products recently. CCOF helped us enroll in that class, and through what we learned in the class we developed our herbal tea that we make from this leaf, mamaki, and ulu (breadfruit).

Throughout this whole process, every next step that we needed to take as a farm we were able to take classes or seek out mentorship and really take us through that process of trying to learn the mistakes before we make them. We still make many mistakes, but for us it's really important to have that foundation of education, and CCOF made all of that possible. They were with us since our bushwhacking with machete days, and they are with us now. We’re selling our tea products; we have an e-commerce site. It blows my mind. It didn’t even feel like that long ago that we couldn’t even see the farm.

Thank you to CCOF. Thank you to so many of you on the call today who are very supportive of what CCOF is doing to support farmers like me and my husband.

Kelly:

“High on passion, low on education” probably resonated with more than one farmer on the call today. What size is your farm now? Tell us more about the land you’re cultivating.

Lehia:

Our farm is 3 acres. We are very lucky and very happy to be living on our farm. That’s a major plus. We are growing native crops in an agroforestry system, primarily. This is an agroforest; we have mamaki, which our tea is made of. We have a coconut tree; we have sugar cane. I'm looking at breadfruit trees and banana trees in front of me. It's a diversified farm built around some of the crops that are native to this place. So, right now as our agroforest matures, we’re focusing on our highest-value crop, which is mamaki, and we continue to plant out agroforest. We’re still very much a young farm, but we’re excited that we are actually a farm business now that we’re selling some of our products.

Kelly:

We’d all be curious to know more about the history of the food system in Maui and Hawaii and how that translates into challenges of farming in Hawaii today.

Lehia:

This is a really big question. If anybody knows the history, I’m going to be skipping really big parts of it, but I'll try to give you an overview so you can understand where we got to today. When the first Polynesian voyagers arrived on these islands, they arrived on their sailing canoes, and they brought with them in those canoes everything they would need to survive. They brought plants for food, for medicine, for utility, for fabric and things like that. We call these crops “canoe crops” because they came in the Polynesian canoes. For hundreds and hundreds of years, Hawaiians were able to survive using their island resources. That always blows my mind. Even now, as farmers, we still need to go to the store. We are still reliant on things from outside of Hawaii to survive. The early Hawaiians survived using only their island resources and their wits.

One really big event that happened about 200 years ago that changed Hawaii’s food system was industrial sugar plantations. These plantations came to Hawaii because during the Civil War, sugar in the southern states was cut off from the north and the western states. Those people needed another source of sugar, and Hawaii became that source. The sugar plantations brought in migrants from around the world. You had Chinese, Portuguese, and Japanese workers all coming to Hawaii. That's one of the reasons today Hawaii is so multicultural; we are such a mosaic of ethnicities. I'm five ethnicities myself, and that’s not uncommon. Besides Hawaiian, I am Chinese and Japanese and a lot of the ethnicities that came during the sugar days. That’s one really lovely thing that sugar brought, is the diversity among the people living here. Now, cue the scary music. There was bad stuff that sugar brought with it as well.

Sugar is a very thirsty crop. The plantations created irrigation systems that took water away from the natural water sources of the islands to divert it to be used to grow sugar. That meant that a lot of the Hawaiian farmers, subsistence farmers, saw their farms dry up. We know what happens when a farm doesn't have water—it’s not a farm anymore. It's just a dry piece of land. It was a chain reaction from there. Hawaiians became disenfranchised from their ancestral lands. We feel the effects of this to this day.

Something really interesting that illustrates the effect this had on the culture is that in the early 1900s the life expectancy of Hawaiians was 30 to 35 years old. I would be dead by now if that were true today. It was devastating. Hawaiians were an agricultural people. It wasn’t something they did; it was the way they lived, the way they thought about themselves, their relationships to each other and to the planet. It was really devastating; it was like cutting off a limb for Hawaiians to cut them off from their land. We were exporting sugar, and the lifestyles went from subsistence to importing and exporting food. Around 1960, just after Hawaii became a state, we were importing about 50 percent of our food. Today, in 2020, we import about 85 to 90 percent of the food we consume in Hawaii.

Kelly:

I imagine importing food to Hawaii makes it quite expensive. How is the sugar industry in Hawaii now?

Lehia:

Exactly. That’s one of the challenges of living here and that’s kind of one of the reasons that we started growing our food.

The last industrial sugar mill on Maui closed in 2016, so sugar has just recently ended here. Around 41,000 acres was sold from the last sugar mill to a new company called Mahipono, which is the largest landowner here on Maui. They have about 41,000 acres, and Maui has about 130,000 acres of total land, to give you an idea of the percentage of land they own. Pretty much the entire central plane of Maui is now in the hands of this new company. They’ve started to grow diversified crops, and they’ve started to make their impact on Maui. They are new, though, so we are seeing how they go. I’m hopeful that they can keep those lands in agriculture. But I also know the reality of farming on a small scale, so I can only imagine, on a large scale, the challenges that they have. I, for one, really hope they are able to keep [the land] in agriculture. That is what’s currently happening with those former sugarcane lands.

As far as Hawaiian agriculture goes, there’s been a real resurgence and interest in putting culture back into agriculture. That's what we’re doing [at Polipoli]; we’re kind of part of that wave of trying to get back to our agricultural heritage—growing food by growing the connection with culture as well.

Kelly:

I appreciate that abbreviated version of Maui’s agricultural history. I’m curious to know more about the movement to put culture back in agriculture. What's the organic, local farm scene like? Do you have a good peer-to-peer network out there of farmers?

Lehia:

Yeah! There’s all kinds of farming styles happening on Maui and different groups that you can align with. For my husband and I, we really gravitated towards the Hawaii Farmers Union United (HFUU), which advocates for organic, smaller family farms, and they also hold space for conventional farmers, which I really appreciate. They work to reach out a hand rather than wag a finger at people who are growing in different ways. I think that’s really important, not to just preach to the people who already agree with you.

HFUU was the group we found. In the early days, I remember wanting to join HFUU, but also thinking, “We’re not farmers! What are we going to do in this group?” But I totally missed the whole point. We did join them, and my first thought after joining was “Duh, of course we have to be around this community!” Being a part of the HFUU was a major part of our growth. In fact, we found out about CCOF through the Farmers Union, so it goes full circle there!

Kelly:

Reaching out a hand rather than wagging a finger is how the CCOF Foundation tries to support our programs, creating a welcoming environment about how to learn about organic. We want to provide you the education and training, whether you’re a conventional farmer in Idaho or a small farmer in California.

What are the big challenges you see facing your farm and other Maui farmers over the next 5 to 10 years?

Lehia:

I wouldn’t put a timeline on it, but a challenge that’s been a challenge for a long time and will continue to be a challenge is the high cost of everything, from the high cost of land to the high cost of living here in Hawaii—the high cost of shipping anything.

We're the most isolated island chain in the entire world, so getting stuff to us is not easy or cheap. The hardest part for farmers is figuring out how to do what you love (which is farming) and to continue to do it as a business, because otherwise it’s just a hobby. So, trying to figure out the business aspect and making all those spreadsheets work is a real challenge.

In March 2021, the median price of a home on Maui was just under $1 million. If you can imagine how that affects the cost of land and farmland, it’s much more valuable to have a structure on land than it is to have a plant growing in the ground. As far as living costs go, it’s about $6 to $7 for a gallon of milk, which is an easy comparison. For farmers in particular, some equipment can be shipped to you at a high price, but sometimes they won’t even ship it to you, period! We’ve had to source things by sending them to friends and family who we know living on the continental U.S., and then they’ll ship it to us. It’s really this puzzle sometimes of trying to get what you need to you and then trying to ship your products at an affordable rate as well. That’s one of the advantages of growing organically, because for us here on our farm we try to create a lot of that vitality we need right here on the farm. We try to recycle the nutrients we have on the farm and keep them here, doing things like composting and cover cropping, rotational grazing, agroforestry—and all these practices are ways to build fertility right here. That's important for any farm, but in Hawaii that’s really exacerbated because of the high cost of shipping.

Another huge challenge is pests. We have year-round growing, so we don’t have a frost to help manage pests in the wintertime. Pest pressure can be pretty intense.

Imports are another huge challenge. If you’re a farmer in Hawaii, you’re competing against very cheap imports in the marketplace, which is a major challenge. I do see people—especially now because of the pandemic—it made people realize the importance of supporting local. I don’t want to be all “doom and gloom,” but those are some of the realties and the challenges we face.

Kelly:

Thank you. My policy brain turned on to think about all the ways to protect the land and support farmers in Hawaii. It's really helpful to hear about the unique challenges of your region, like not having a frost season.

My last question is, if there were a call, a way CCOF could support what you’re trying to achieve in your vision for your farm and on Maui, is there any advice you could give us—ways that we could give back to support your mission?

Lehia:

I feel like you have been! Continuing to do what you’re already doing. I don’t mean to dodge the question but doubling down on that would be great. I love what CCOF is doing with Future Organic Farmers and with these grants because it really targets people who need it the most. You really need a lot of help when you’re beginning. You need help throughout the course of farming, but I think helping beginner farmers like myself, who have no agricultural background, figure out a way to switch careers and get into farming is great. I'd say more of the same!

Kelly:

Your story inspires us and keeps us motivated in figuring out how we can do more and how we can support other farmers like yourselves.

If you'd like to support Polipoli Farms, you can use the coupon code “CCOF” to get 15 percent off on all their products. Donate to the CCOF Foundation to support organic farmers like Lehia Apana today.

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