Growing Pilina


“It all started around 2011. I began learning about GMOs and Monsanto. I wanted to know the mystery of what is in our food and what, exactly, we were eating. So we began by planting a garden in the backyard to grow some of our own food and I loved it,” said Lehia Apana explaining the start of her journey as a farmer.

Around the same time, Apana began to eat kalo every day from Hui No Ke Ola Pono’s Simply Healthy Café.

“Growing up, kalo was a luxury item. But when I was able to eat kalo regularly, I began to have a pilina with Hāloa. I could feel my ancestors. Having access to kalo was meaningful, and kalo was able to meet me where I was at the time.”

Inspired by her growing pilina with Hāloa, Apana reached out to experienced farmers as mentors, adopted a loʻi kalo, and began to research Indigenous methods of agriculture including agroforests – also known as food forests. “The more I learned, the more I felt that pilina. I wanted others to have that pilina too. I wanted kalo to meet them where they were at.”

Apana and her husband, Brad Bayless, both had stable careers, but the land called to them.

“I was hesitant at first, but I knew that farming was what I wanted to do,” Apana shared. “Working on the land makes you think differently. You also begin to appreciate how our kūpuna were efficient resource managers.”

As if a hōʻailona, 3 acres of land in Waiʻehu in the ‘ili of Polipoli came up for sale in 2017. Apana was able to purchase the land and that was the beginning of Polipoli Farms, a “heart centered” business that fosters connection.

“When we arrived, it was covered in invasive grass. We knew there was an ‘auwai somewhere, but it was choked out,” Apana recalled. “It took over two years to clear the land. But little by little, as we cleared, we found a loʻi kalo that was once there and that we did not know about. That was a big smack on the forehead. It showed us that was what the land wanted us to restore.”

She notes that the region where Polipoli is located is called “Nā Wai ʻEhā,” the place where the four major rivers of Maui Komohana (West Maui) meet. At one time this was one of the largest kalo producing regions in all of Hawaiʻi. That changed when the area was taken over by sugarcane plantations.

“Sugarcane and crops like pineapple extracted from the ʻāina and broke down our food system leaving us to the point that we now import more than 85% of our food,” Apana said.

“We need to reverse that, not only by enaging in farming, but by supporting our farmers. When you buy from a mahiʻai (farmer), you are empowering every mahiʻai. Anyone who eats is part of the food system and what you choose to eat has an impact.”

When she first started, Apana said that finding resources to begin the farm was a huge challenge, particularly due to the high costs of land, labor, shipping, establishing a support infrastructure, plus access to water and competition from cheaper imports. “But these are struggles that farmers all face,” she noted.

“Building pilina is important especially when you are starting,” Apana reflected. “Farmers help each other out. You cannot act any ʻkine. Building pilina is a kuleana. When I look back at the moments in the begining of Polipoli Farms, and people who helped me, pilina always stands out. When the pandemic hit, and recently with the Lahaina fires, the pilina you have with the community is what helps you through any crisis.”

Apana added, “For Hawaiians, the land is personified. The land is kūpuna. The land is family. It is watered with our tears – not just tears of sadness but tears of joy. Having that pilina with the land is everything.”

As part of its vision of “to grow for the future, we must learn from the past,” Polipoli Farms is dedicated to agroforestry, essentially creating a food forest – a traditional growing style that mimics natural forests and integrates trees and multi-level crops that support one-another in a single ecosystem. They are primarily cultivating “canoe plants” (plants originally brought to Hawaiʻi by our ancestors) such as kalo, ʻulu (breadfruit), maiʻa (banana), and niu (coconuts).

Polipoli Farms also serves as the Maui hub for Project ʻUlu which helps other farmers with growing ʻulu and is currently in discussion with members of the Lahaina community about replanting ʻulu there to restore the famous ʻulu groves of Lele (the old name for Lahaina).

They are also members of Māla ʻŌiwi, a safe space and support network for Kānaka Maoli farmers that embraces Indigenous values and farming techniques.

And Apana and Bayless are working to build a food processing center on their land so that they and other farms can scale up their processing and increase community access to Indigenous foods and medicinal plants.

On its website, Polipoli Farms currently sells their special māmaki and ʻulu tea blend and chewy dried maiʻa, and they plan to launch more online products soon.

“It’s not just about the farm,” said Apana. “It’s about the people. We invite people to farm. We want people to have that pilina to the ʻāina, so they understand why the ʻike of our kūpuna is still so relevant. We want them to feel the wai (water) so they have a pilina to wai and understand why it’s so important. We want to grow pilina.”

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