IMAGE BY ALLYSON TAYS We invite a community member to Talk Story and share a
personal experience related to our issue theme.

A group of four women spark change within themselves and the community for lasting shift in our food system. Have you ever noticed an unmet need in your community, and asked yourself, “Why doesn’t somebody do something about that?” This is what happened to me and three of my colleagues/friends a few years ago as we gazed at the Central Valley of Maui, now fallow after Alexander and Baldwin (A&B) stopped mono-cropping sugarcane. Two of my friends, Kutira Decosterd and Sandra Hay, had just seen Oprah give her “Live Your Best Life” talk at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center. During her speech, Oprah mentioned that all of us here on Maui were obviously living our best lives. “Really?” they thought. The beautiful environment and tropical weather may create an image of paradise, but underneath the rainbow we still have our share of problems.  

Hawaii imports approximately 85-90% of our food, which makes us particularly vulnerable to natural disasters and global events that disrupt shipping and other transportations of food. Many in Hawaii suffer from illnesses such as diabetes after adopting a “Western, fast-food” diet. While the tourism industry thrives, we wrestle with issues of homelessness and lack affordable housing for the people who live, work, and raise their families here. And don’t forget the climate change threatening our coastline at an alarming rate. 


When Kutira and Sandra walked away from Oprah they had an “aha” moment. Around that same time another friend, Charlotte O’Brien, and I were having similar conversations. We all knew a lot about agriculture and the methods, policies and infrastructure that supports it. We understood that cultural practices of long ago had sustained populations larger than ours is now. We saw that a marriage of new regenerative farming methods with ancient cultural practices could hold the key to a healthy food future. 

During a get-together one evening, we decided to write Oprah a letter asking if she would join us in our cause to inspire regenerative agriculture practices and grow food for local consumption in Maui’s Central Valley. Food grown in vibrant, chemical-free soil brimming with healthy microbes contains vital nutrients and minerals that we need to grow strong and healthy bodies. Microbial rich soil is also one of the foremost ways to achieve carbon sequestration, which reduces carbon emissions. We wanted to live our best life, and we thought food could be at the center of making that happen. 


By growing our food locally we can grow our economy. According to State statistics: for every 10% of food grown locally, $313 million is infused into our State economy. Growing food within the State enables the expenditures on food to remain in the local economy. We can feed the people and the economy at the same time! 

Regenerative farming practices will protect our water, reefs and air quality instead of poisoning them with toxic chemicals. Many new jobs could be created and our tourism and economy could thrive. This may seem idealistic, but statistics show that new, regenerative methods are proving to increase yield, boost nutrition, and sequester carbon, all while growing a healthy bottom line. 

Our letter to Oprah was never sent. We decided we had to be the ones to take action. I am not sure what we were thinking, never dreaming we would get as far as we have. But, much like a farmer when he gazes upon an empty landscape, our vision was birthed that day. 

We called our new company “Aina First.” A love of the land is at the core of the Hawaiian culture – when we honor the land that feeds us then we honor all life, and we all win. Our motivation and guidance created our tagline: Driven by Urgency, Guided by Nature, and Supported by Community. These three guiding principles keep our mission in focus. 


Together we stumbled through the dynamics of starting a business. We gathered experts from across the State and abroad and began negotiating with A&B to purchase the land. We reached out to the community, creating a coalition for local food production for the Central Valley. Our farm plan took shape and a Pro forma was created. Then on December 28, 2018 we learned that someone else – Mahi Pono, a division of Trinitas – had purchased the land. 

Perhaps this is the best thing that could have happened. We are now moving forward in hopes of leasing a large piece of the land, and our community outreach continues to inspire new ideas as we proceed with our educational series around the benefits of regenerative agriculture. We started with a vision to grow food for Hawaii and growing takes patience. There is a momentum that is flourishing here and with nourishment we will continue to grow our dream. IMUA! 

Susan Teton Campbell, author of Eating As A Spiritual Practice, The Healthy School Lunch Action Guide, and the Chef Teton Essential Cuisine DVD Series, resides on Maui. Susan is an active educator and community organizer for healthy food and regenerative farming practices. She teaches cooking, and coaches for health and longevity.