|Story by Aaron Kandell
Photos by Dana Edmunds
William Aila Sr. crouches among rows of red oak lettuce and baby kale, pointing out the plants mature enough to harvest. Attentive students huddle around him to hear his soft baritone. At 72, William serves as chief agricultural consultant on O‘ahu’s largest certified organic farm. Set on a sixteen-acre stretch of volcanic soil in the sun-parched heart of Lualualei Valley on the leeward coast, MA‘O Organic Farms doesn’t fit the typical pastoral image. Nor is William, or “Papa Aila” as everyone calls him, your typical farmer.
|Much of Lualualei Valley on O'ahu's leeward side was once uninhabited and filled with unexploded ammunition. Thanks in part to William Aila Sr., today the valley is home to one of the state's most successful organic farms.|
With his weathered physique, Aila resembles a Hawaiian Clint Eastwood. He’s always in motion, his hands often dipping into the garden with the precision and speed of a hummingbird. He’s quadruple the age of everyone around him, but he moves twice as fast. He speaks eloquently but directly and simply. Nothing, neither action nor word, is wasted—just as in the agriculture he teaches.
“Organic farming isn’t new,” Papa Aila explains to the assembled youths. “Our ancestors practiced it for hundreds of years. It was how they survived, it was their way of life.” William moves on to the herb garden, pausing along the way to fix things. Near the kale fields he adjusts a leaking irrigation hose. Among the kalo he bends to correct a small plant growing crooked. “This is love and respect,” William tells the kids as he crosses through rows of mustard greens and chard. “If we neglect the Earth, we hurt ourselves. But if you love the land, the land will love you.” He pauses, his crow’s feet deepening as he smiles. “And if you have that here, you’ll carry it with you always.”
But transforming the harsh landscape of Lualualei Valley into a verdant organic farm was a long and rough road. Papa Aila was born poor in a house with no address. His grandfather was a Hawaiian paniolo, a cattleman, who in 1939 bought ten acres in Wai‘anae for just under $400. William grew up close to the land, raising his first horse when he was just a boy. When he got out of the Navy in 1960, he leased his own four hundred acres in the back of Lualualei Valley, which “was a military buffer zone filled with live ammunition,” he says. The Navy had used over nine thousand acres of Lualualei to store live ordnance. “No one could live there, but they let me ranch.”
Ranch he did. For almost forty years William worked as a cowboy—all day, seven days a week. “I was kinda young and stupid,” he chuckles. “I rode bulls, I raised cattle, I raised kids … four sons and six daughters.”
It wasn’t only children and livestock that flourished under William’s care; the land did, too. In the red dirt of his backyard, William taught himself sustainable farming in a time before “organic” was a buzzword. For many years he operated one of the largest compost businesses on the island. He used his own compost to raise a nursery of thousands of palm trees, which he sold. William’s reputation as a green-thumbed Midas spread—anywhere he touched, it seemed, plants would grow. Which is why in 2001, when Kukui Maunakea-Forth and her husband, Gary, decided to establish MA‘O Organic Farms, the first person they called was William. He’d long been retired, but once William heard about their community-driven vision, he pulled himself out of retirement to become MA‘O’s first official employee and the lifeblood of the organization.