Finding Their Roots

How two homegrown farmers are working to save the future by looking to the past.

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Polipoli farms Lehia and Brad
Bayless and Apana plant a young māmaki which they will use to create an herbal-tea blend. As part of lā‘au lapa‘au (traditional Hawaiian plant medicine), māmaki is used to support overall well-being. It’s endemic to Hawai‘i, growing naturally only in these islands.

“As brand-new farmers, we were told that growing traditional plants like kalo isn’t a sustainable business model,” she says. “But seeing the lo‘i, this reminder of the people and practices that came before us, we knew we had to figure out a way to make it work.”

To help guide their vision, Apana and Bayless joined the Farm Apprentice Mentoring program and the Hawai‘i Farmers Union United. They consulted with other growers and interned on Hōkūao Pellegrino’s Noho‘ana Farm in Waikapū to learn about traditional agriculture. Pellegrino turned out to be the consummate advisor, an authority on native agriculture. He also gave them the name for their venture: Polipoli Farms.

“Not that Polipoli,” Apana says, laughing, referring to the state park 6,200 feet up the slopes of Haleakalā. “Polipoli is the original name of our ‘ili [land section]. When we shared our concern that it would confuse people, Hōkūao said, I totally understand. But it’s also a teaching tool.

So is the indigenous wisdom the Polynesians developed over millennia. Apana points to their keen understanding of astronomy and planting according to lunar cycles, their engineering intelligence in developing lo‘i kalo systems as a sustainable way to manage water, and their commitment to serving the land.

Polipoli farms
Canoe plants: bananas.

“With farming, I found that missing link I was always seeking — connection to the ‘āina, the greatest teacher, with my hands and with my heart,” she says. “My mission is to emulate the mahi‘ai [traditional Hawaiian farmers] who came before me. Mahi‘ai did more than just cultivate food. They were masters of observation, forming a deep relationship with the land — from the soil and plants to the weather patterns and moon cycles. This intimate connection not only affected the way they grew food, but also how they made sense of the world around them.

“When I left writing to become a farmer, I had a sense of mourning,” she continues. “Writing was all I ever wanted to do. I went to school for it. I worked as a writer for 15 years. Then I realized that what I loved was the storytelling. Storytelling is what we do at the farm.”

The couple plans to share those stories through farm tours, teaching visitors, residents and students about how Hawaiians farmed sustainably and regeneratively. They are already selling farm-grown products like banana chips and herbal teas, and as much as possible, use traditional methods to raise their crops.

Polipoli farms
Canoe plants: kō (sugarcane).

“Many people are looking for new ways to deal with climate change and extreme weather, and it can feel daunting,” she continues. “For me, it’s not about discovering something new — it’s about rediscovering what has already worked.”

In early December, 2021, the islands were hit by a storm whose ferocity made international news. The Associated Press reported 53 people rescued from flash flooding. A National Weather Service meteorologist told The New York Times that some parts of O‘ahu had waist-deep water.

The morning after, Apana and Bayless awoke to a devastating scene: snapped mango trees, flattened māmaki, banana plants bent in half, and a 35-foot-tall loquat tree that had nosedived just outside their bedroom.

When I call Apana to make sure she’s all right, I’m struck by the resilience and optimism in her voice.

Polipoli Farms sits within the Nā Wai ‘Ehā (“The Four Great Waters”) region, known for its abundance of fresh water. Here, a stream running through the property irrigates the farm’s lo‘i kalo (taro patch) in the upper left corner.

“It was hard,” she admits. “Walking the land was like identifying bodies. But oh my gosh, the outpouring of community support! Various organizations combined forces to collect relief donations and offer assistance, and everyone helped in whatever way they could. We had people calling and texting us all day, asking, How can we help?

Kālisi Mausio was among those who extended a hand. The Hawai‘i Island farmer and fellow agroforestry advocate created Project Kanu, a program that encourages people to sponsor an ‘ulu tree that will eventually be planted on local farms. Polipoli Farms is one of the “foster farms” that will nurture the ‘ulu seedlings before they go to live on their forever farms.

Polipoli farms
Dried banana chips are another of Polipoli Farms’ products.

Within hours of the storm’s passing, Mausio had posted a kōkua (help) page on her website for Polipoli Farms and others, and collected monetary and seedling donations to help farmers rebuild.

“I see our relationship much like the agroforests we both love so much,” Apana reflects. “Just as the plants in an agroforest work together for shared resilience, so do we. This kind of cooperation is crucial for everyone’s survival.”

Four days later, the worst of the damage had been cleared.

“Farmers can be a fiercely independent bunch,” she says. “It’s easy to forget that you’re part of a community. But my ancestors didn’t survive by doing it alone. They relied on the power and cooperation of many. The recent storm was an epic reminder.”

For updates, videos, recipes and more, visit polipolifarms.com or IG/FB @polipolifarms.

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1 COMMENT

  1. I’m an artist and a sea captain and ran a charter Business for 8 years off Maui to Molokini . Best years of my wife and I! Now I want to place some advertising in the Maui magazine ! I was also the first Catholic deacon on Maui in St Theresa’s Church .

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