KAPAAU — When he was younger, Aukea Kaaekuahiwi didn’t realize all it took to get dinner to the table.
“When I was small, I thought, ‘OK, things just happen,’” the 16-year-old said. “‘They just come onto our plate. I don’t know how, but it just comes to our plate.’”
But a bit older and wiser, he knows there’s more to it than that.
“Now seeing that you raise the animals,” he said. “Oh, wow, this is pretty cool.’”
Almost two and a half years since he started raising pigs with his brother, Alii Kaaekuahiwi, the two Kohala High School sophomores have created an enterprise that not only puts food on their family’s plates and money in their wallets, it’s also resulted in a model for small, local agriculture in their community.
Aukea Kaaekuahiwi was recently awarded a $10,000 grant and named a 2019 Dreamstarter for Running Strong for American Indian Youth for his and his brother’s hog operation they call The Swine Project.
“Stuff needs to stay local. We don’t have to keep importing food. We don’t have to depend on the barge,” Aukea said. “If the barges stop coming, then if you’re depending on the barge that brings in all the vegetables and meat, then if that stops coming, what are they going to do?”
Since 2015, the Dreamstarter program has given 10 $10,000 grants each year to a nonprofit to mentor a young person in support of a project driven by the youth’s dream for his or her community.
The honor also involves a trip to Washington, D.C., next month for Dreamstarter Academy. The academy brings together the year’s Dreamstarters where they’ll develop their leadership skills, including workshops on social media, public speaking, storytelling and more.
Aukea and Alii have been raising the hogs as part of their involvement in Kahua Paa Mua, which has a program that mentors youth in Korean natural farming techniques. The method emphasizes the use of microorganisms in agriculture to boost soil health, and then applies that knowledge in animal husbandry and crop farming.
David Fuertes, executive director of Kahua Paa Mua, said through teaching youth about agriculture, his hope is that they get a sense of knowing where they come from as well as identify their values, purpose and destiny.
Even for young adults who don’t go on to pursue agriculture professionally, Fuertes said, the skills agriculture teaches them are ones that will carry them forward.
“If we can teach these kids that, hey, maybe they’re not going to all be agriculturalists,” he said. “But if we can teach them leadership skills, we can teach them to create and provide for themselves and their family and friends, they know they can always go back to that then and be able to raise vegetables and raise animals.”
Alii and Aukea plan to use the grant to expand their existing operation — to include getting their own sow — as well as getting a garbage cooker to process food waste for the hogs. They also want to create a certified imu, which will give them even more options for putting their pork on market.
But the teens also see the opportunity they have to use the grant to build an enterprise that inspires other youth in the community.
A sow, for example, wouldn’t only provide new litters for The Swine Project, it would also give the boys an avenue to sell piglets to other kids in the community.
“We’re still learning,” said Aukea, “but then we can sell pigs to other youth so they can start their own business or start making money for themselves.”
Looking toward his own future, he said he can see himself following Fuertes’ example by helping others learn about agriculture.
“He’s helping younger people know what they can do with pigs,” Aukea said.
Poana Berdon, Aukea and Alii’s mother, said she’s already seen the way this project has shaped her teens into role models for younger members of Kahua Paa Mua.
“They’re one of the oldest in the mentorship. So I see all these younger ones — they’re looking up to them,” she said. “If they’re setting this good example for them and these young kids are able to pick up where they left off when they get into adulthood, that’ll help their families, that’ll help the kids under them.
“Because we don’t want the mentorship to stop either. I think every child needs a mentor,” she added. “Every child needs somebody to look up to and set the example.”
The boys’ 4-year-old brother, Ikaia Fuertes, is already taking on his own agricultural endeavor in the form of a vegetable box in front of the house where he’s growing cabbage and green beans.
This idea of hyper-local agriculture where a person can work full-time while also taking the time to grow and raise enough of their own food to feed themselves and their families is what Fuertes sees as the future of agriculture.
“You still can be a part-time farmer and provide for the 90 percent of what we ship to feed ourselves,” he said.
That sustainability is important, Alii said, so the community can know where its food is coming from.
“If you look at your plate and you know where all that’s coming from, then that’s a good sign,” he said.