New Traditions; From the Ground Up

It’s a steamy afternoon on a verdant bluff overlooking the Big Island’s Hamakua Coast when Shawn Pila decides to put down his shovel and trade in his work boots for a pair of sandals. He hops on the roof of his SUV to soak in the sunset from the vantage point of his newly purchased farm. At his side are his lovely fiancee, Kelly Green, and his trusty pet pig, Humphrey, also lovely. Stretched out before them is a 8.5-acre dream that’s literally taking shape by the day. “I can’t believe we’ve actually made this happen,” Shawn says aloud, a slight grin taking shape. “I can’t believe we bought a farm.” 


Six months and a world ago, Shawn spent the bulk of his time behind the lens or hunched over a dimly lit computer in an editing bay. As an acclaimed photographer and filmmaker, purchasing a small farm wasn’t exactly at the forefront of mind. In his pre-pandemic life, he was constantly on the hustle, bouncing from one shoot to the next, a cell phone in one hand, a lens in the other. Always on the move, always on a deadline.


“It’s funny because looking back on it now, I think I ate leftover production food for dinner, or we’d eat at a restaurant with clients, most days of the week. That can’t be healthy, ya know? You get used to working at this pace where it’s go, go, go all the time. Months just fly by,” Shawn says, “You don’t really have the time to reflect on what’s important, because you’re up to your knees in the daily grind.”


But then our world suddenly changed.


Shawn, like so many of us, was forced to adapt to a new normal in the wake of the pandemic. Lockdowns and social distancing effectively quashed the idea of doing any film or photography work for some time. “When the pandemic hit, things felt really uncertain. My fiancee, Kelly, was living on O‘ahu and I was home on the Big Island. This sudden shock led us to have real discussions about what we wanted out of this life,” Shawn recalls. “We’ve both always dreamed of owning a small plot of land that we could farm and call our own. We talked it over, weighed our options, and found the perfect piece of land in Hakalau to start a new beginning.”


Amidst the tumult, the duo found clarity, grounding, and love. “Not long after Kelly decided to move back, I asked her to be my wife and she said yes. We closed on our property the very same day. It’s like this whole other life has come together for us since the pandemic hit. It spurred us to embrace this new beginning. Now we’re going to be married and own a farm.”


While Shawn’s always considered himself handy (his father’s side of the family are ranchers and paniolo, Hawaiian cowboys) he’s quick to admit that dropping his old life and diving into this endeavor hasn’t been without its hurdles. But thanks to the many ‘ohana that he’s proud to call his own, he’s been able to navigate the inherent complexities of running a farm with grace. “I’m by no means an expert farmer or rancher, but thankfully, I know a lot of people who are,” Shawn says with a laugh. “Having ‘ohana to rely on and help build our dream is what’s made this all possible. I can reach out to this uncle for help with the greenhouse or that aunty for questions on the garden any time. That’s the amazing thing about living here, you can rely on your community and ‘ohana when you need help.”


Most mornings now begin with Shawn roaming the grounds, tilling the land, and readying the fields for future plantings. Currently, they’re in the midst of harvesting mai‘a, or apple bananas, and plan to sow ulu, breadfruit, in the coming weeks. You can also find wild olena, turmeric, running through the property as well. Soon, they’ll be working to erect a greenhouse stocked with herbs and flowers and a citrus orchard composed of lychee and other sweet fruits. But for now, it’s bananas. And that’s perfectly cool with Shawn.


“Having a thriving banana patch on the property has been great and was a huge plus for us when we decided to purchase it. I’ll usually go with Humphrey (who incidentally loves to surf and swim with Shawn) down and harvest what we can. I’ll cut down the stalks, looking for what’s ripe, and let Humphrey grind any rotten ones. He absolutely loves them. He’s my companion up here. It’s pretty perfect.”


To be sure, Shawn will be the first to tell you that the barter system is alive and well on the Hamakua Coast. And as it stands, bananas are always a hot commodity. Shawn often uses his fresh supply to trade for other fruits, vegetables, and fish. “Once the pandemic hit, the bartering system really began to flourish here. The idea of sharing and working together was already ingrained into our community, but since COVID, it’s gone into overdrive. It’s part of the heritage of this place and it feels really good to see it thriving. We have a small pod of neighbors and friends that we can rely on. Even though it feels like a different world, we’re approaching it all as a family, and that feels really good.”


Ever the lensmen, Shawn couldn’t help but document the journey as they transformed their newly purchased land into a working, sustainable farm. With Kelly and Humphrey by his side, they’ve created “The Farmstead” a 13-part YouTube series detailing the journey of building a from the ground up in Hawai‘i.


“Part of the reason I wanted to create the web series was to show the world what it’s like to go through this process of building a farm here in Hawai‘i. But I also wanted to show the world how we’re able to work together. How we’re able to build on the knowledge from generations past to create something that will sustain us into the future. I wanted to show how we rely on ‘ohana. Plus, and I’d be lying if I didn't say this, the idea of chronicling this journey that Kelly and I are undertaking is something that I felt I had to do. One day, when we’re old, we can look back at this time as our new beginning. Even though it was crazy, it was stilI special.”