Rebuilding from ashes: volunteers gather to help fire cleanup

Simpli-Fresh Farm owners regroup after losing 70 percent of their farm

Paia Youth & Cultural Center members Samson Campbell, 15, Sunshine Eblacas, 12, and Jet Cosmo, 16, clear debris next to a burned-out truck along with Maui Hero Teen CERT Project Director Loren Lapow Saturday at Simpli-Fresh Farm in Lahaina. Farm owner James Simpliciano said it was humbling to see more than 200 volunteers show up Saturday morning to help. He said it was, “very cool, amazing, a lot of love.” Simpliciano was one of several farmers in the area hit hard by the Aug. 24 brush fire that burned more than 2,000 acres above Lahaina and Puamana. He said he lost about 70 percent of his crops as well as farm equipment, vehicles, irrigation pipe, valves and controls, greenhouse screens, bee hives and machinery. “All we can do from now is rebuild,” he said. • The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Five years ago, James “Kimo” Simpliciano left the hotel industry to learn “what it feels like to be a farmer in the state of Hawaii.”

On 20 acres in Lahaina, he and his wife, Janell, cultivated moringa, also known as drumstick tree, that they turned into a popular green antioxidant powder. Their oldest beehives produced honey that chefs marveled was as dark and thick as balsamic.

But now much of that is destroyed by the brush fire that burned 70 percent of the farm, forcing the farmer and former hotel chef to reconsider his future.

“Now I got to rethink my life,” said Simpliciano, who owns Simpli-Fresh Farm with his wife. “I’m getting older, and I got to be more wiser, and with my knowledge, people are knocking on my door for creating a plan for a farm.”

The 1,500-acre brush fire that started in Kauaula Valley — one of three West Maui wildfires on Aug. 24 — consumed the most of the farm’s irrigation system, cover crop seeds, conservation plants and 21 out of 24 beehives that were ready for harvesting. It also burned tractor tires and damaged a backhoe.

James and Janell Simpliciano share a quiet moment as a workday with more than 200 volunteers winds down Saturday. • The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

On Saturday, more than 200 people showed up to help the Simplicianos clean their property, pulling out melted irrigation tubing and salvaging crops to be planted near streams and in the yards of friends until Simpli-Fresh can get back on its feet.

“It was hard the first week. Very traumatizing,” Simpliciano said. “Not just myself but for the whole community and the families that lost their homes.”

The Simplicianos started Simpli-Fresh in 2009, growing moringa, ulu, ginger and tropical fruit trees on 20 acres of Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estate land that Simpli-Fresh subleases from the Maui Cacao Farm. For awhile Simpliciano juggled both the farm and his job as the lead banquet chef at The Westin Maui Resort & Spa. But in 2013, he left the hotel industry to farm full time.

“It’ll be lonely, but at least I’ll be doing something I love,” he told himself.

The Simplicianos sold their produce to West Maui restaurants and hotels. They made an antioxidant moringa powder that became popular with customers who enjoyed adding it to their smoothies. The Simplicianos combined moringa oil with hemp oil to create a more affordable version of cannabinoid oil for arthritis and other medical problems.

The Simplicianos also offered bee removal services and cared for the hives on their property along with Honey Hand Hawaii, run by Eldon and Sally Dorsett. They dreamed of starting a bee sanctuary and offering eco-tours that would help sustain the farm, but the fire “really sunk us,” Simpliciano said.

The hives had been ready for harvesting just before the fire struck, but in between hurricane preparations and efforts to relocate the farm’s greenhouse, there just wasn’t enough time, Simpliciano said. The bees are another big loss; it took five years to build up the hives.

“It took a lot of money because we make our own custom boxes,” Simpliciano said. “We make our own frames. . . . We have to rebuild boxes, make more queens. It’s a process.”

While Simpliciano is determined to rebuild the farm, Simpli-Fresh is scaling back in the interim because of a lack of water. Maui Cacao Farms will take 10 acres, and Simpliciano said the remaining 10 acres is “enough to sustain me.” He’s given away whatever plants he can and hopes the crops that escaped the fire can still survive until a new irrigation system is installed. The Natural Resources Conservation Service plans to bring an engineer by to help Simpliciano redesign the system and make sure the farm has adequate water.

“If I don’t have water, I could lose it all,” he said. “I’ve been praying. The rain has come every night. My soil is healthy. The principles I learned from my grandfather has been working.”

Simpliciano said he’s started a campaign called Simpli4Life that he’s pitching to nonprofits and the Maui Visitors Bureau to help build up a fund that would help the farm in times of disaster. Restaurants, for example, could give diners the option to put just $1 toward the farm, he said. A GoFundMe page for the farm had also raised more than $52,000 as of Wednesday.

The 47-year-old Simpliciano, who was raised by his Filipino immigrant grandparents on Oahu, said his humble upbringing taught him to stay strong in the face of struggle. His grandfather, a second-wave sakada, taught him the principles of farming and hard work. His grandmother shared her language, food, natural remedies and the power of prayer.

“I’ve always survived,” Simpliciano said. “I kept going. I never quit.”

Simpli-Fresh’s most pressing needs right now are irrigation, and the Simplicianos are looking for possibly a water truck service in Lahaina. The farm also needs utility vehicles, battery timers, organic seeds, trees, bee swarms and 20 bee boxes. Other needs include weed mats of 12 feet by 300 feet or 6 feet by 200 feet, two greenhouse screens with eyehooks 25 feet wide and 100 feet long, and 1- or 1/2-inch tubing of 500 or 1000 feet in length.

Simpli-Fresh is holding another workday at the farm from 8 a.m. to noon Friday. Volunteers should bring water and covered shoes; the farm also has dust masks.

For more information, visit simpli-fresh.com or the farm’s fundraising page at gofundme.com/wdswp-rebuild-the-farm.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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