By Rich Figel
There's been some buzz about Michelle Obama's planned visit to MA'O Organic Farms in Waianae this Sat., Nov. 12. We did a feature about the farm on Career Changers TV last year, which focused on how they are training a new generation in the ways of Native Hawaiian culture and agriculture (click here for that video link). They also offer college scholarships to financially-needy kids. Yet there has been some negative comments in letters to the editor and blogosphere about how this organic farm caters to the wealthy -- the so-called "1 percent." Huh?
You know, I sort of expect negative comments from certain factions related to anything the President or First Lady are involved with. But to criticize a local farm program that is trying to get our youth interested in sustainable farming seems so far off target, I don't know what to say. True, "organic" is one of those labels that conjures up images of affluent, educated consumers who can afford to shop at places like Whole Food Supermarkets. In reality, organic is stuff grown without a lot of chemicals.
However, there is a human cost to sustainable farming. I've become even more conscious of this while working on the videos for the 808HALT.com project to promote awareness about human trafficking in Hawaii. While the Aloun Farms/Global Horizon case has gotten much media attention, what has been overlooked is the fact that similar exploitation of immigrant workers is happening on smaller farms too -- not just on Oahu, but other islands as well. One trafficking victim, who had been sent by Global Horizon to "five or six" different states on the mainland to work at various farms, told me the worst conditions he encountered were actually on the Big Island.
The biggest problem though is us. Because we want cheap produce, farm owners are pressured into cutting costs wherever they can. Unfortunately, human labor is one area where they can save money by bringing in immigrants who do the math, and figure they can pay off the $15K - 20K "recruitment fee" in a year, then send back money to their families in the next one or two years and come out ahead. In many cases though, the laborers aren't paid what they were promised or charged additional fees and living expenses that wipe out any potential savings. Or there simply isn't as much work as was expected due to weather conditions... and then their temporary visas expire, leaving them in limbo. Many of these men have been separated from spouses and their children for years while trying to get help with their legal and financial problems.
Of course, it's easy to say farm owners should pay them decent wages and provide health benefits (many wind up getting sick from handling chemicals and pesticides, but can't afford treatment). The question is, are we willing to pay more to buy local produce that is supplied by socially responsible farms? Do you even think about it when you're at the supermarket?
On a related note, our current Career Changers TV show has a short segment about Waimanalo Country Farms, where we shot our segment intros. Not included in the piece was some news the owners shared with me: in the next year or two, they will have to move off the 50-plus acres the family has been farming since 1948 to make way for 200 Hawaiian Homestead Lands houses that will be built on that site. On the plus side, they will be getting about the same acreage near their existing farm operations, but they seem to have some doubts about the impact of having that many homes constructed right next door.
Another interesting tidbit: one reason they diversified by growing pumpkins and offering farm tours is that their sweet corn crop was being affected by weather... and wild pigs. Shawn Kadooka said last year there were as many as 80 pigs that did a number on the corn fields. They tried to enlist local hunters, but had to go out and shoot the pigs themselves. Oh, the joys of farming!