Organic farming hero of Maui chef James “Kimo” Simpliciano has an enduring quality that reminds me of the sun-hardened monkeypod logs we pass as we walk along the red dust road of his farm. Far-seeing eyes hidden under a billed cap, Kimo speaks softly, each sentence distilled.
“It’s hard.” His shoulders are tight with the burden of responsibility and heavy work as we look across ten acres slowly greening into paradise, set jewel-like in the gold of arid, depleted former sugarcane fields all around us. “But look. It’s a sanctuary for native plants and wildlife.” He points. “Pueo! Our day is blessed.” The diurnal Hawaiian owl dips and darts, buff and silver against the deep blue of the endless Lahaina sky, making me gasp with its grace.
His day didn’t start out blessed. It started with a call from the fire department that one of his compost piles was smoking heavily, and he got to the farm at the crack of dawn to try to redistribute the massive mound before it spontaneously combusted.
I arrive for our scheduled interview around 8 a.m., interrupting as he works a backhoe to break down the smoldering mountain of compost while a worker hoses down the hot material.
Who knew organic farming could be hazardous?
Crisis somewhat averted, Kimo hops down from the backhoe and meets me in the rich slurry of water and mud at the base of the biggest pile of compost I’ve ever seen. “That’s how much it takes to break up this kind of soil,” he says. “I accept all this rubbish material from landscapers and we grind it up. It’s a slow process because I’m building the soil, and that takes time.”
We talk about the vision for the farm. “This land belongs to Kamehameha Schools, and I get to use it in return for developing a native practices farming educational program. The summer school kids are going to be out here working soon. We’ll focus on all the varieties of dryland kalo (taro) and sweet potato so the students can get familiar with the staples of the Hawaiian diet and how they grow.”
Kimo kneels to show me a baby wiliwili tree, an oddly-shaped, highly endangered endemic tree. “These, ulu (breadfruit) and other native trees are all over the property.”
“Where do you get these?” I ask, surprised by the number of bright, healthy seedlings.
“I foraged the seeds.” I can see Kimo in my mind’s eye, hat drawn low, boots laced high, hiking through the arid scrub to find the wiliwili, a canvas bag for seeds looped across his chest like a modern-day Johnny Appleseed. That’s Kimo at work. ‘Sustainable’ is one of his primary values, and foraging and barter are a way he can coax plenty from dust.
“My grandfather came from the Phillipines to work the cane,” he tells me. “He’d bring me to work, and sit me on a stump to watch the big cranes and those huge trucks, clanking with chains. Even then, I wanted to see the land go back to the way it was before sugarcane.” He touches his heart with a fist, conveying without words a deep longing that encompasses this barren, arid landscape.
Whatever of this island that hasn’t been sold, developed, or made into “gentleman estate farms,” lies fallow in the wake of pineapple and sugar. Another 33,000 acres will fall into limbo after September brings the very last sugar harvest on Maui. On other islands, sugar and pineapple gave way to development.
We’re all worried about what will fill that void, and lawmakers and citizen groups are agitating to make sure the land continues to be used for agriculture. (See here for more information.)
Kimo knows more than most how challenging it will be to get something to grow in soil that has been chemically flogged to produce for decades—he is one of the very few pioneering totally natural, organic agriculture practices on Maui.
“But how we grow food matters,” he says. “It’s worth it to build the foundation right so that food is healthy at the cell level.”
As I leave, I look back in my rearview mirror at the terraced space filled with Hawaiian soil-binding plants, waving rows of bananas, tender shoots of trees—and a mountain of compost. I’m joining Kimo’s efforts in my own small way as I prepare my home organic garden, compost pile in the corner of the yard and all—because how we grow food DOES matter, and sometimes it’s as much a matter of the heart as it is of the head.
Look for the farmer character in Bitter Feast, out May 12, that is inspired by James “Kimo” Simpliciano. Thanks, Kimo, for taking time to share your vision and passion with me!
Support local. Buy organic. Grow your own food, and reduce, reuse, recycle. If we all did we, we can not only live longer ourselves, but leave a healthier world for the generations after us.
Share your thoughts on food and farming in the comments below, and be entered to win an early BITTER FEAST Advance Reader Copy! Giveaway ends May 1.
(click on any of the images to open to a full slide show)
Love what Kimo is doing. Can’t wait to read Bitter Feast.
Living in Salinas, Ca with strawberry fields across the road we are surrounded by the importance of farming organically. It’s expensive but totally worth it to protect ourselves and the planet. Very excited to read Bitter Feast!
Toby, as always, your writing is beautifully lyrical and inspiring. I live near Sacramento, which bills itself as the farm-to-fork capital of the world. After we moved to California 12 years ago, one of the things I immediately appreciated was the year-round availability of fresh produce, fish, and seafood. Organic, sustainable farming is a big deal here, and it’s a rare day when some aspect of farming isn’t making news, from pesticides to water allocations. I am a strong believer in sustainable farming, and I am glad to see people interested in restoring the land stripped by cane farming for so long. I love the availability of fresh fruit and some veggies on Maui, and think expanding the farming diversity would be great for both the economy and the people of Maui.
Living in the High Desert in Northern NV I don’t see a lot of farming, but when I lived in Redding CA my ex-husband and I grew some veggies and my parents grow tomatoes where they live. I’ve driven past the Walnut trees in Fresno and been past large strawberry fields. What he is doing there on Maui sounds amazing. I think that is wonderful. And love the interview. Thanks, Toby.
Yes How we grow food does matter. AND how we will buy it as well. Shopping at Waimea Farmers market today swas amazed at the bounty we have available to us here in Hawaii. Really looking forward to reading Bitter Feast. You always bring such life to your stories.
Wonderfully said about restoring land. I had a small 1/4 acre garden and it was tough back in NJ in the 70s and 80s. Crop rotation, tilling, natural fertilizers — but it was fun and the rewards made it all worth while. My neighbor and I put up 84 pints of beans one year and then we had 25 tomato plants that supplied my wife with tomato sauce for an entire winter.
I hope you realize you have brought back wonderful memories. Thank you, Toby, for the wonderful stories and descriptions of Hawaii that paint a beautiful picture of paradise.
I love that Kimo takes his seed bag and collects seeds from the wild and rehabittates them. What a great way to reuse and renew. I live in a rural area with a lot of farms and ranches and love the freshness of our farmers market. I cannot wait for Bitter Feast to come out! Thank you Toby, for the giveaway .
It’ll be really interesting to see how the land ends up being used. It will take a lot of money to purchase the properties and insure their continued agricultural use. Toby, love your work. They are so real I get stomach aches when they are in trouble. good writing!
Thank you for info I need to find taro and banana leaves for my lau lau and kaluapork wrap
This story brings back so many
wonderful childhood memories of raising vegetables with my dad and grandparents , who lived next door. Shucking corn or shelling beans on the porch and knowing how good they would be for supper that night . Those vegetables where so incredibly good and we never used pesticides . We didn’t know we where organic farming ; we where just doing it the same way as our family has done for generations. It seems farming is coming full circle to the ways of our forefathers.
As a native Californian transplanted in retirement to the mountains of southwest Virginia ,and who has finally has her dream organic garden, I can certainly appreciate what Kimo is doing. Good for the earth, good for the people, and good for my soul as I tend my own garden spring though fall here in these lovely mountains. It does my mind and body good to work the soil and reap the bennefits. I really look forward to reading Bitter Feast when it comes out.
WOW! Organic and love of the land…. Kimo is awesome. Can’t wait to ‘dig’ into Bitter Feast.
It seems to me that turning cane fields into sustainable crops is a no brainer ? Turning Maui into a true paradise, feeding it’s people good food !
Interesting and inspiring person. I am always inspired and amazed to read and listen to the stories of these wonderful souls
Thank you for introducing us it Kimo. It is wonderful to see the work that he is doing. By weaving his philosophy into the Lei series you are helping raise the collective consciousness. I have had a small organic garden since 1978 and know the joy of picking and eating the freshest of vegetables! Can’t wait for Bitter Feast!
Wonderful! Thank you to Kimo (andToby!) for caring and working so hard to make things better. It does matter. So very much. It is a difficult process to restore and rebuild the soil but so very important and critical. Praying that good decisions for the health and welfare of the land and people are made.
There aren’t enough people who are willing to invest that much work and heart to any kind of project. Hearing about people like this gives me hope.
This was a great blog post! I love reading about people like Kimo & fully appreciate the importance of what he’s doing. I feel hopeful knowing there are people like him in the world. I have my own organic garden here near New Orleans – and compost as well. What I don’t have I buy as locally as possible. I wholeheartedly agree with & practice the reduce reuse recycle concept. Cannot wait to read Bitter Feast! I have read every book in the series 3 times each & plan to read them many more times in the years to come. The Lei Crime Series is my “happy place!”