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This youth farm in Hawaii grows both food and future leaders


Nestled in the breathtaking panoramas of Oahu, Hawaii’s third largest island, you’ll find the MA’O organic farm. Literally translating to “youth food garden”, this farm has a new and decidedly green approach to youth empowerment…

MA’O Organic Farms is not your usual organic farms, or any kind of farm for that matter. Made up of 24 acres in the super-lush Oahu Valley, this farm nurtures and grows everything from mangoes, bananas, parsley and Mizuna in the hot Hawaiian climate. But these natural tropical delights aren’t harvested by professionals – they’re harvested by college students.

30 college interns from local colleges commit to two and a half years of work on the farm, in return for help paying their college tuition. If you (like me) are thinking two years feels like an eternity, the life skills these interns walk away with will last them a lifetime.

The farm’s ethos stems from the Hawaiian notion of Kuleana, a tough love approach with an emphasis on responsibility. In order to get paid, the students have to maintain a certain grade in college, and each semester the student has an appraisal on both their school GPA and ‘farming GPA’. Your grade determines how much you get paid, meaning the students get to learn about the consequences of working hard.

You’re probably thinking ‘harsh, much?’ but it’s also a way to encourage young students of colour to get a college degree and academically excel. Even in Hawaii, people of colour are at a huge disadvantage when it comes to the working world. This system ensures the interns are well equipped to go far in their post-college careers with a good GPA and 2 years of sustainable work experience under their belts. Double win.

Rather than the leaders giving the weekly announcements, it’s the interns who take it in terms to address the group with their achievements – and what they can improve on. Yep, there’s no way to avoid stepping up on this farm.

It’s not just living green that the students learn, either. Part of the MA’O training includes something called the ‘Ramp Up’ programme, a 10-week programme which teaches the interns about something ridiculously important, and yet so often overlooked – emotional intelligence. It’s specifically aimed at young men, who learn how to connect with their emotions, problem solve, and manage anger. (Can all men take an emotional intelligence class please?)


With cooperative living, sustainability and championing young people of colour all lying at the heart of their operations, MA’O Farms can teach us all something about instilling the right priorities in young adults.