WAIMEA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - It's one of the largest capitol improvement projects that's ever been granted to a homestead, and Governor Neil Abercrombie was there in person Tuesday night to award the $3.5 million to Waimea Hawaiian Homesteaders' Association.
The funding from the state through the Department of Agriculture will turn a 161 acre parcel of Waimea Hawaiian Homestead land into a community park, cemetery and agriculture complex.
"We're very excited to finally receive this $3.5 million. It means a lot to me being that my dad is now 78 years old and he was told at the age of 14 that they were going to have a park and a place for him and all his brothers and sisters to play and also a community center. They've waited since 1952 and today, 2014, that dream has become a reality," said Tricia Kainoa Hodson, the Waimea Hawaiian Homesteaders' Association secretary.
Waimea was once the agricultural capitol of Hawai'i.
"We have the most fertile soil in the state. It was tested and we're just like the Napa Valley of California, but of Hawai'i. We're trying to bring that back and utilize our land -- our rich soil here," said Risse Ala, the Waimea Hawaiian Homesteaders' Association Grant Finances manager.
Pu'ukapu Community Ag Park will consist of 246 parcels, each consisting of a 5,000 square foot area to farm, that will be available to the community to grow and harvest their own food -- even create their own energy -- and become truly self-sustainable.
"Being a kanaka maoli, of Hawaiian descent, it's very important for us to farm our lands. Our Prince Kuhio, who had given this lands to us, he fought for these lands for us to have it in our possession that we can use our lands to feed ourselves, to eat, to raise our families, to perpetuate our Hawaiian culture," said Hodson.
The hope is to give new farmers a chance to learn and grow in an area with educational resources and mentors, like the Hodson family who started WOW Farm on 10 acres of their homestead land.
"We're farmers. We're mahi'ai. We are the mahi. We're working on self-sustainability and getting all of that paʻa so that we can take care of the rest of the homesteaders out here, so that we can get them farming as well," explained Baba Hodson Kamohoalii, who has been managing WOW Farm for the past five years.
The Association's dream was driven by the vision of Prince Jonah Kuhio, who championed for the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act that lead to the creation of homestead land.
"The Prince would be very, very happy with the knowledge that people are not just living on the land they're producing from the land for all of Hawai'i," said Governor Neil Abercrombie. "That's the result of the initiative and the hard work and the perseverance and the faith of Native Hawaiians," he said gesturing to a table of fresh, local grown produce during the Homesteaders' Association meeting during which the award was announced.
Officials say the initiative will create and keep jobs in Waimea.
"It's amazing when you read the Hawaiian Homes Act and you read the life story of Prince Jonah Kuhio -- how much passion he had for our people -- you decide that somebody got to step up to the plate. Somebody has to step up and make things happen. He did it. He spent his lifetime doing stuff to take care of our people, but we have to continue the legacy. We cannot be sitting idle waiting for people for do for us, we got to start doing for ourselves. We as the Hawaiian people, the natives of the land, the aboriginals of the land -- we lead the way because this is our land. We have no place to go, we're already here," said Mike Hodson, the Waimea Hawaiian Homesteaders' Association president.
Governor Abercrombie said it was an honor to be part of something that gives back to Native Hawaiians.
"The foundation of this state is the spirit of aloha in Hawaiians. The Hawaiians selflessly have shared every noble human trait with all who have come to these shores," Abercrombie said.
The Waimea Hawaiian Homesteaders' Association recently got the license to a 161 acre parcel of land that is designated community development land. They reached out to the homestead community and identified the priority projects members wanted to have -- including a community cemetery.
"The county cemetery in Waimea is full, so right now our families have to be buried in either Kona or Hilo and that is so against our culture to bury outside of our ahupua'a. Our kupuna who have been born and raised here, they would like to bury here as well, so that is one of the main reasons we're going to start a cemetery for our Hawaiian people," explained Tricia Kainoa Hodson, the Waimea Hawaiian Homesteaders' Association secretary.
Governor Abercrombie says the Waimea Nui Regional Community Development Initiative will serve as a model for the rest of the state when it comes to creating local economic opportunities and self-sustainability. Food that is farmed there is already being flown to farmer's markets on neighbor islands.
Officials say one of the distinguishing strengths of this project is that it is rooted in the Hawaiian traditions of collaboration and cooperation.
"We're a small town, but the majority of our people here are Hawaiian so it's a different place when you come to Waimea. You'll feel the difference in the people, their aloha and just who they are and so it's awesome to be a part of something such as big as this," said Ala.