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)