Michael Crowell in his palm plantation
Minh & Wass
Both literally and metaphorically, this is a brave new world. As I travel the island and listen to farmers' stories, I find myself pondering a no doubt pretentious but fundamental notion. When people change their lives, do they in some way also change their world?
For Richard Spiegel, such questions come with the territory. A native of New Jersey, he came of age in the 1960s. He practiced law briefly, traveled across the country in a Volkswagen bus, and eventually lived what he describes as a mountain-man existence in Washington state. Then, while cutting wood for the winter, he was seriously injured in a saw accident and realized he couldn't recover in such a remote spot. He called a friend who lived in an old Shinto temple on the Big Island and came here to heal. That was 30 years ago.
Spiegel had kept beehives back on the mainland and soon started beekeeping here ― the origin of Volcano Island Honey Co. Beekeepers had worked the kiawe forests for 100 years before he arrived, but it's technique that really distinguishes his artisan honey.
Combs of honey are hand-selected from 150 hives rather than the thousands that many beekeepers maintain. By not using heat as in conventional honey extraction, Spiegel preserves enzymes, allowing his product to crystallize without processing; the operation is entirely organic.
For all of his idealism, Spiegel also recognizes the irony of his situation. As he puts it, he's a onetime hippie who eschewed sugar, only to end up producing gourmet honey at $15 per 8-ounce jar. It's like those bee stings that zing him back to reality: Spiegel understands that when he speaks at business schools about organic small farming, he won't be taken seriously unless his honey succeeds not just artistically but financially too.
"The edge of hypocrisy follows me all the time," he says. "We touch the Earth but sell at Neiman Marcus."
Fog drifts across the rolling green pastures of the Waimea upcountry, which provides a transition from the yin of the sere Kohala Coast to the yang of the tropical Hamakua Coast. Once a major sugarcane growing area, the northeastern coast is now a center of the new Big Island agriculture, as farmers and producers transition the land from sugarcane to specialty crops.
Among the growers here is Honolulu native Jim Reddekopp. Ten years ago he was a tour operator who wanted to establish a new life for his family in a rural setting. Despite having no growing experience, he purchased 6 acres on the slopes of Mauna Kea, near Pa'auilo, hoping to produce a high-value crop. During a dinner conversation, he learned that vanilla came from an orchid. Farmer or not, Reddekopp was convinced vanilla would grow here. After all, this is the Orchid Isle, home to thousands of varieties.
"So we took all that we ever had and laid it on a dream," he says.
Next: The economics of vanilla