HAMAKUA COAST — Hawaii Island farmers Jesse Fujimoto and Laura Rieber produce different forms of garden-fresh turmeric, wild Hawaiian vanilla and an array of edible leafy greens on their small farm between Pepeekeo and Papaikou along the Hamakua Coast.
They conscientiously operate their business — Hawaii’s Simple Gourmet — under the principle that the plants they grow support a healthy lifestyle and population, or food as medicine, so to speak. They’re also all-natural growers who follow the principles of regenerative agriculture to protect the soil.
Picking the farm life
As a young adult, Fujimoto – who was born and raised on Oahu – found himself like many other native islanders working four jobs just to make ends meet.
He had decided to “co-op life” and move to Kauai to live off the land, when a last-minute recommendation from a friend led him to the Big Island. That was about 15 years ago. Shortly after arriving on the island he met Rieber, and the two have been together ever since.
One of the couple’s first ventures was a trip to New Zealand where they were introduced to the concept of regenerative agriculture — where farmers usually produce just as much, if not more, food than their conventional counterparts, but with fewer inputs. By using the principles of nature, these farmers are able to eliminate expensive fertilizers, pesticides, GMOs and sometimes even machinery. Even more appealing, their income is equal to or better than a conventional farmer.
New Zealand has a similar history to the Hawaiian Islands in that, aside from Polynesian voyaging here and there, the land got extremely devastated from Western agricultural practices, Fujimoto explained. So a lot of the natural flora and ecosystem changed.
To remedy that, New Zealand incorporated various forms of regenerative agriculture practices.
“There’s a real strong drive there and they seem to be about 10 to 20 years ahead of us in the states on actual positive, productive regenerative agriculture practices,” Fujimoto said. “I have a true belief that regenerative agriculture can and does work.”
A change in the national food supply
In Fujimoto’s opinion, the U.S. food industry changed shortly after World War II, when for-profit businesses got involved and encompassed the food industry.
“A hundred years ago we all used to grow our food. If you look back at your family history, almost every one of us can pinpoint someone in our family — a grandparent or great grandparent — who actually used to have a garden,” he said.
But the passing on of that information, and just how important yet easy it is to have a garden, got lost throughout the years. Consumers became more concerned with their day-to-day existence.
“We got stuck on that hamster wheel of getting a job and making money and it fell to society (large corporations) to take over farming operations and produce food,” Fujimoto noted. “When you consider that every business exists for profit and big business is now in charge of food production in the U.S., that’s a little scary.”
Educating the public
The excitement and promise of what they witnessed in New Zealand inspired Fujimoto and Rieber to want to educate consumers and farmers about the benefits of natural gardening and regenerative agriculture.
Rieber obtained a degree in agriculture with a focus on sustainability from the University of Hawaii-Hilo in 2012. That same year the couple formed a company called No Spray Hawaii, a sole distributorship formed to share informational brochures and printed shirts and hats with their message.
“We wanted to spread the news and help the world,” Fujimoto said. “Our intent was good, and we were hardworking and dedicated, but within just a few short months we were $100 from being completely broke.”
In an ironic turn of events, they realized they needed to make money in order to survive and achieve their goals. So they started a company called Hawaii’s Simple Gourmet to sell gourmet food products. For their first product, they resurrected an organic chocolate recipe they’d inherited and began experimenting to get it just right. They then started incorporating contributions from small natural growers to make different flavors of chocolate.
The additions include wild Hawaiian vanilla, green tea macha from a small family farm in Mountain View and Kona coffee provided by growers who don’t currently use any pesticides and didn’t during the coffee bore beetle epidemic.
“We ended up becoming the bridge between consumers and Hawaii natural growers,” Fujimoto said. “That’s our thing and in doing that, we succeeded at meeting our goal.”
One of the company’s current best sellers is turmeric — a rhizome, or underground stem with well-known documented medicinal properties. There is just one medicinal component within turmeric — curcumin — which has been linked to anti-inflammatory properties.
“For our turmeric product, especially, we’ve had tons of people come back to us saying how it’s been helping them and keeping them off of their anti-inflammatory drugs,” Fujimoto said.
Because it is an herb, fresh is best so Hawaii’s Simply Gourmet grows turmeric in raised beds and harvests it every week. To ensure a consistent, high-quality supply for their customers, the turmeric is harvested in small batches and powdered at the lowest heat possible. The company also sells turmeric extract and turmeric-filled capsules – all of which are mailed free to the mainland.
Farms tours and cooking classes
The success of Hawaii’s Simply Gourmet products has made it possible for Fujimoto and Rieber to finally spread their message of sustainability and the importance of healthy eating for healthy living.
“We want our customers — folks who are removed from agriculture — to understand what we are doing, how much we care and that we’re always striving to be more sustainable,” Fujimoto said. “I truly believe that as more people become conscious of not only our food industry but also how that relates to their health, and the health of their relatives and family members, they will make better choices about the food they choose to buy and eat.”
He concurs that the education part of what they do is as important as the products they grow and sell.
“They’re hand in hand because without the education there’d be no need for our products, and without the products there’d be no opportunity for the education,” Fujimoto said.
The business is now at a point where they plan to take the next step — helping other small natural growers progress. And while they still will have a booth at farmer’s markets — they’re a permanent fixture at Waimea Town Market at Parker School on Saturdays — the couple will soon start offering classes on how to cook fresh vegetables and start selling live plants at their farm next summer.
It’s a rewarding culmination of more than six years of hard work.
“It is hard to keep up with the work year after year,” Fujimoto said, “but what makes it easy to keep up is the amount of gratitude we get from our customers who come back and thank us for what we do and how we do it. That’s very gratifying and inspires us to keep going.”
The couple will continue working to bridge natural growers of Hawaii with the conscious consumer.
“Supporting small growers now will ensure there will be small growers in the future, and will ensure Hawaii’s natural farmers will grow food with a passion for quality rather than mass quantity,” Fujimoto said.
The bonus for consumers will be the opportunity to buy gardened plants with a higher quality, better flavor and superior nutrients.