Sacred island soil: How a Church farm in Hawaii is feeding bodies and souls

An aerial photo of the Church’s Laie Hawaii Crops Farm could double as a postcard of an idyllic tropical Eden.

Well-ordered family garden plots, rows of banana plants and towering coconut trees border a stretch of blue Pacific coastline that appear endless.

But the view at ground level of the Laie Hawaii Crops Farm tells a different story.

While the Bible’s Eden once offered its abundance without effort, the crops here are harvested with sweat, muscle and cooperation. The reaping only occurs after a season of sowing.

But the scores of Latter-day Saint families/farmers here don’t begrudge the work. Together, they are raising taro, tapioca, sweet potatoes, breadfruit, guava and a variety of other traditional island crops. Joy accompanies their labors. 

Owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for more than two decades, the 178-acre Laie Hawaii Crops Farm is yielding both temporal and spiritual relief at a time in the world usually associated with fear and worry.

“This farm,” said Bishop Saimone Tonga of the Hauula 6th (Tongan) Ward, Laie Hawaii Stake, “is enabling us to produce food that can bless the lives of members and other folks that are in need.”

Temporal and spiritual relief during a global crisis

Located about five miles south of Laie on the island of Oahu, the Laie Hawaii Crops Farm has been invaluable during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Dips in Hawaii’s tourism industry — coupled with temporary operational interruptions at the nearby Polynesian Cultural Center and Brigham Young University-Hawaii — have left many local members out of work. Some are food vulnerable.

“The bishops in this area have been very busy in many wards because this situation has dragged on so long,” said Elder Mons Ellingson, a full-time missionary who manages the Church-owned farm with his wife, Sister Sarah Ellingson. “The farm is a very important tool for bishops with regards to helping their members in need.”

Elder Mons Ellingson, left, and Sister Sarah Ellingson move their Bobcats from their driveway on Saturday, March 20, 2021, on the Laie Hawaii Crops Farm in Hauula, Hawaii. The Ellingsons manage Laie Hawaii Crops Farm, which is comprised of 178 acres that are divided into farmable plots, ranging in sizes up to 1 1/4 acres. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the farmland has been a vital part of feeding the church community and their families who take care of the land.
Elder Mons Ellingson, left, and Sister Sarah Ellingson move their Bobcats from their driveway on Saturday, March 20, 2021, on the Laie Hawaii Crops Farm in Hauula, Hawaii. The Ellingsons manage Laie Hawaii Crops Farm, which is comprised of 178 acres that are divided into farmable plots, ranging in sizes up to 1 1/4 acres. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the farmland has been a vital part of feeding the church community and their families who take care of the land. Credit: Jamm Aquino, for the Deseret New

Demand for farm plots has steeply increased during the pandemic, he added. “In years past, the missionaries assigned to the farm have sometimes added around 10 new farm plots a year. Over the past nine months, we have added over 130.”

The Church farm provides relief in multiple ways.

For one, the farming plots assigned to families enrich their diets with healthy, traditional native crops that are nutritionally superior to the highly-processed and often expensive foods stocked in grocery stores.

“Members of the [participating] stake presidencies have told me that, on average, families using the farm will save about $1,000 per month on their food bill,” said Church welfare farm specialist Wade Sperry. “Many using the farms have several generations living in one household, so being able to save that much money is a real benefit to the people.”

Ten-year-old Tua Pulotu holds a tomato grown on her family’s farmland on Saturday, March 20, 2021, on the Laie Hawaii Crops Farm in Hauula, Hawaii. Laie Hawaii Crops Farm is comprised of 178 acres that are divided into farmable plots, ranging in sizes up to 1 1/4 acres. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the farmland has been a vital part of feeding the church community and their families who take care of the land.
Ten-year-old Tua Pulotu holds a tomato grown on her family’s farmland on Saturday, March 20, 2021, on the Laie Hawaii Crops Farm in Hauula, Hawaii. Laie Hawaii Crops Farm is comprised of 178 acres that are divided into farmable plots, ranging in sizes up to 1 1/4 acres. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the farmland has been a vital part of feeding the church community and their families who take care of the land. Credit: Jamm Aquino, for the Deseret New

Assigned by local bishops, each family farm plot also teaches gospel principles such as self-reliance and consecration. Food that can’t be consumed by its growers is distributed to relatives, fellow ward members and neighbors. Much of the produce has been used to help feed homeless people in the community.

“Whatever produce our farmers don’t use, they share with others or give it to the bishops’ storehouse,” said Elder Eillingson.

Similati Vanisi, who served as missionary on the farm, said people working on the Church property “are always willing to share with others and help each other. It is a blessing for many in many ways.”

Farming can also be fun. Preparing a garden plot, caring for crops, harvesting  fruit and, ultimately, eating and sharing the food are communal activities. Farmers of all ages — including youngsters and the elderly — enjoy being outdoors (this is Hawaii, after all) and being with one another, all while observing the safety protocols of the day.

“Every day I go to the farm and I see families and kids working together,” said Bishop Tonga. “They are plowing and planting and they are seeing the fruits of their labors. They are producing  food for their families. … Every plot, all the way to the hillside, has been planted with different types of food. It has been such a blessing.”

The farm is also a popular destination for full-time missionaries and other volunteers who simply want to serve. The farm averages more than 800 volunteer hours each month.

A pair of pit ovens located on the farm can also be reserved for family and friends to gather and cook traditional Hawaiian meals.

Read more: Food distribution brings physical, spiritual sustenance to pandemic-weary Fort Hall Reservation

Fertile Hawaiian soil, holy ground

The Laie Hawaii Crops Farm was established in the mid-1990s under the direction of beloved Church leaders such as Laie Hawaii Stake President Sione Feinga and Elder John H. Groberg, a General Authority Seventy who was presiding over the area at the time.

Kregg Teichert, right, and father-in-law Arapata Neha look out on their plot of farmland on Saturday, March 20, 2021, on the Laie Hawaii Crops Farm in Hauula, Hawaii. Laie Hawaii Crops Farm is comprised of 178 acres that are divided into farmable plots, ranging in sizes up to 1 1/4 acres. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the farmland has been a vital part of feeding the church community and their families who take care of the land.
Kregg Teichert, right, and father-in-law Arapata Neha look out on their plot of farmland on Saturday, March 20, 2021, on the Laie Hawaii Crops Farm in Hauula, Hawaii. Laie Hawaii Crops Farm is comprised of 178 acres that are divided into farmable plots, ranging in sizes up to 1 1/4 acres. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the farmland has been a vital part of feeding the church community and their families who take care of the land. Credit: Jamm Aquino, for the Deseret New

With the blessing of President Ezra Taft Benson, a site in the Hauula community was selected from several Church-owned properties. President Feinga, who died last year, was selected as the farm’s original agent.

The sprawling property is divided into farm plots of various sizes. Each plot is fenced and organized according to the specific needs of the farmer and his or her family. A pair of wells fitted with diesel pumps deliver water when needed to approximately 230 farms being utilized by over 310 families.

Managers such as Elder and Sister Ellingson commandeer the farm’s excavator and tractor to help clear land and prepare soil for planting. They also teach novices farming basics such as planting, watering and weed control.

For the hundreds of people laboring at Laie Hawaii Crops Farm, this is sacred ground. 

“Just to be able to see the benefits of work, and to see the gratitude that people have for their opportunity to grow their own crops, has greatly increased our testimony and our understanding of self-reliance and the value of the law of the harvest,” said Elder Ellingson.

When the Church originally purchased the property decades ago, no one had ever uttered the word COVID-19. But the inspired, guiding foresite of Church welfare leaders such as President Harold B. Lee, President Thomas S. Monson and Elder Glen L. Rudd, a General Authority Seventy, continues to sustain life and live spirits.

“They are the ones that had the vision for these farms,” said Sperry.

The property value of the farmland has appreciated dramatically over the years. But its eternal worth cannot be measured in dollars. Each designated plot of rich Oahu soil allows families to feed themselves and others — even as they practice “true religion” and other eternal principles.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified missionary Sister Sarah Ellingson as Marlene in the story and captions. Also, the correct number of farm plots is approximately 230, being used by over 310 families, not approximately 180 plots.