Aloha, Oprah

By Emily Ornberg

Media mogul Oprah Winfrey is adding another title to her list of many occupations: organic farm owner.

An OWN spokeswoman confirmed that Winfrey will produce and sell a line of organic products made of resources grown in Maui, Hawaii, where she is currently developing her organic farm.

“The trademarks were filed for Oprah’s farm on Maui to enable the farm to grow and distribute produce on Maui and throughout the Hawaiian Islands,” the spokeswoman said.

According to documents from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, several applications were filed Oct. 29 for an Oprah’s Organics product line of bath soaps, sunscreen, massage oils, hair products and food items such as organic salad dressings, frozen vegetables, soups, beverages and snack dips.

Bob Greene, Winfrey’s longtime friend and former personal trainer, said the operation began when he announced he wanted to move to the Hawaiian Islands in 2002 and Winfrey asked him to find her a plot of land nearby.

“I’ve always been enamored with Hawaii, and she was looking for a warm weather retreat, so she looked at land in Hana,” Greene said. “She bought 100 and some odd acres, and I bought a little piece [not far] from her.”

Greene said he bought another 1,100 acres of land on Maui three years later with the intent of loaning a portion to Winfrey, who had expressed interest in establishing her own ranch. He said Winfrey eventually bought a large piece of the land and named it OW Ranch. Dividing the plot between OW and Greene’s Kamaole Ranch, she built a 12-room private bed and breakfast. He said they each grew small amounts of organic produce and coffee, which inspired Winfrey to further cultivate her green thumb.

Greene said Oprah bought more land adjacent to her ranch that had previously been a farm but hadn’t been in operation for decades.

“It was in a raw state,” Greene said. “The house was falling down, the land wasn’t cleared, it was overgrown, and she said, ‘That’s where I want to put my farm.’”

Franz Weber, president and secretary of the Hawaii Organic Farmers Association, said one of the most significant problems Hawaii faces is that 95 percent of its food must be imported because of frequent water shortages and a lack of refrigerated storage for perishable products. As a result, growing local sustainable food is becoming an urgent issue. Weber says that he sees the possibility of Winfrey’s organic farms, which span hundreds of acres, being widely publicized. He said the impact of Winfrey’s business on the island will hinge on what type of farm she plans to operate.

“Is this going to be a gentleman farmer that’s going to get a lot of land, and put stuff out there, and try and be impressive and look for promotional reasons?” Weber asked. “Or is it going to be farming that employs people and actually creates a product that can be used locally?”

Weber explained that publicizing organic agriculture in Hawaii may help the state because it currently receives little federal aid, farmers are required to pay high prices for water and taxing is unfair.

“Oprah might be drawing more capital to Hawaii, more people interested to invest [and] more government support that is willing to supply infrastructure,” Weber said. “That’s where she can have a big impact by growing attention to these shortcomings.”

Greene said he and Winfrey noticed Hawaii had a local food shortage when they were researching and planning the farm. This inspired Winfrey to create her own Maui-based agricultural business that would hire local farmers and distribute the products exclusively to Maui and possibly the rest of the Hawaiian Islands.

Though most Maui farms face financial issues with the government, Greene said Winfrey isn’t too concerned about government help herself.

“Here’s the difference: It’s Oprah, so she’s not going to knock on the government’s door and say, ‘Help me out,’” he said. “That’s not reality, but there’s [an issue with] local farmers that needs to be addressed for sure.”

Gerry Ross, owner of the organic Kupa’a Farms in Kula, Maui, said Winfrey’s farm will promote an organic lifestyle, which will benefit the islands’ farmlands as well.

But Ross said Winfrey’s financial resources don’t necessarily mean she will succeed as an organic farmer.

“You can’t just sort of instantly make an organic farm,” Ross said. “It has to be born, you have to bring soil to life. You have to be really dedicated and have passionate farmers involved. It’s not really something you can throw money at and expect to get a farm out of it … I think it’s going to take her longer than she thinks, and it’s going to cost more than she thinks.”