Meet Three Big Island Community Spirits Who Keep Their Communities Resilient and Relevant
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Each of the islands of Hawai‘i has its own unique qualities that draw you to them. I love all of the islands, but the Big Island is — and will always be — my favorite.
It’s the diversity of landscapes and how the land affects its residents that make the Big Island special to me. The people are surrounded by the primal forces of nature that can be both beautiful and destructive at the same time. But the island is their home and community, so they try to find peace, despite this confluence of contradiction. For those who live in impact zones, be it from lava, earthquakes or the eruption fallout of vog and ash, life is unpredictable and unsettling. But most have come to grips with that reality. Between volcanic episodes, life goes on, and they make the best of it.
I’m drawn to the island because of its raw beauty and the energy that exudes from this nascent volcanic island. The aloha that is second nature with people in these rural communities reminds me of my small-kid days growing up in Wahiawā.
When I go to the Big Island to visit friends or just to unwind, I always leave refreshed, inspired and wanting to return.
In this story, I’ll introduce you to three close friends who make their home in three of my favorite rural Big Island communities. They’ve all dealt with adversity in one form or another as a result of the recent Kīlauea eruption and lava devastation in lower Puna.
These three — Eric Tanouye, Edwin Goto and Michelle Galimba — have common traits: They are hardworking entrepreneurs who are running businesses to provide for their families and their employees. And yet, they volunteer their time and effort to raise the social capital — the trust and cooperation — of their communities.
Eric Tanouye: president, Green Point Nurseries (Hilo)
Eric’s introduction to the life of a nurseryman began when he was 7 or 8 years old, pulling weeds on occasional Saturdays while his father did his daily nursery inspection. “If I was lucky, I would get paid with a Popsicle, and in those days, that was a big treat,” he said, laughing.
Eric’s dad, Harold Tanouye, was born to be an entrepreneur. He started Green Point Nurseries in 1976, focusing on growing and selling anthuriums in Hawai‘i and abroad. Starting a new business was a struggle at first, just as it is for most entrepreneurs. If the business struggled, so did the family that depended on it. Eric, the eldest of four children, saw his father and family struggle, and wished he could help.
“Being an entrepreneur building a new business can be a lonely journey,” he said.
Eric said his dad was sometimes impatient with the progress at the nursery. He had a family to provide for and college tuitions to pay, so he took out loans using their home as collateral. Eric had just completed his sophomore year at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, where he did well and was enjoying his time in school. Eric’s three younger siblings were either in, or about to enter, college, and he knew the financial burden that would create. As the eldest son, and a filial one at that, Eric asked his dad if he could join the business. “I knew my father needed a right-hand man,” he said. Although his dad wanted Eric to finish college, he accepted his son’s help.
Together, father and son steadily grew the business. Today, Green Point Nurseries is one of, if not the largest anthurium producer in the state with 50 employees managing nursery operations in Pana‘ewa and in Kurtistown.
Eric said his dad was active in community service and offered him some good advice. “My dad told me I need to contribute to my community if I wanted my children and grandchildren to live here.” Eric took that advice.
I’ve known Eric for more than a dozen years and his commitment to his community is as natural as the air he breathes — it’s just part of his DNA.
Eric is president of both the Hawai‘i Floriculture and Nursery Association and the Synergistic Hawaii Ag Council. He also travels to Washington, D.C., on behalf of the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources to encourage members of Congress to provide federal research funding for the college. And, on top of all that, he is an active member of the Church of the Holy Cross in Hilo.
As president of Hawai‘i Floriculture and Nursery Association, he was quick to respond to last year’s Lower Puna lava inundation, organizing a meeting with affected farmers and government stakeholders. Federal, state and county officials were there to assist displaced farmers. The lava response effort is ongoing to help those who lost their farms but still want to get back into flower production.
Back in 2009, in the midst of the “great recession,” Eric felt his industry needed to lift the community’s spirits by doing something positive for them. He thought that supporting the Merrie Monarch Festival, a Big Island tradition, by donating flowers to decorate the Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium would lift everyone’s spirits, growers as well as the public.
And feel good they did. This past April’s Merrie Monarch Festival marked the 10th year that the industry has been donating flowers — anthuriums, orchids and other tropical blossoms — and creating large floral designs for the premier hula festival.
A few years ago, Eric told me a story, which, when I think about it, goes to the heart of why I love Hilo so much.
In August 2014, Tropical Storm Iselle hit the Big Island hard. Green Point Nurseries was not spared. According to Eric, the shade cloth had fallen on 15 of their 20 acres of anthurium fields at the Pana‘ewa nursery. The weight of the cloth directly on the plants would have severely damaged them if left for an extended period of time.
On the morning after the storm, Eric, his son Jon and Green Point’s general manager, Neo, were clearing debris from the road so their employees could get to the nursery. When the employees arrived and saw the shade cloth covering the anthurium plants, they immediately went to work.
“They took it upon themselves to start propping up the cloth with whatever they could find. They went beyond what we would have asked for, and because of them, we were able to recover relatively quickly,” said Eric.
“We held a luncheon for our employees as an appreciation for their hard work after Iselle. And it just so happened to be the one-year anniversary of my dad’s passing and we decided to honor him, as well. Estella, who has been with us for over 30 years, got up to say a few words about my dad. You couldn’t find a dry eye in the room after she was done speaking.”
Green Point Nurseries is what a thriving workplace culture looks like, and to me, it is a microcosm of the Hilo community.
Edwin Goto: chef/owner, Village Burger and Noodle Club (Waimea)
Back in 1976, Edwin Goto waited two hours for a job interview at the former Little George’s Restaurant in Kaka‘ako. He was 17 years old at the time and attending culinary school at Kapi‘olani Community College. He wanted to get into a kitchen something fierce — he even applied for a dishwashing job at Zippy’s, but wasn’t hired.
Fortunately, Little George’s chef did hire him. “The chef felt sorry for me,” said Edwin, laughing.
Any chef would recognize Edwin’s passion. But it’s not the kind of passion that you’ll find listed on a resume.
After completing his culinary training at KCC and his stint at Little George’s, Edwin went to work at the Le Meridien San Francisco, where he trained in classical French cooking at the hotel’s French restaurant, Pierre. He returned to Hawai‘i after his time in San Francisco and did a stint at the Halekulani. He was then offered an executive chef position at The Lodge at Koele on Lāna‘i, where he won the “triple crown” from Zagat for ambiance, service and food. Edwin was then appointed executive chef at the Manele Bay Hotel, also on Lāna‘i, where he was nominated for the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef for his work on the resort island.
The next stop in Edwin’s culinary career was the Big Island, where he was hired as executive chef at the Mauna Lani Bay Resort and Bungalows. Edwin felt comfortable on the Big Island and decided to make Waimea his home.
In 2009, after 33 years of working in fine dining for some of Hawai‘i’s premier resorts, where every fork, knife and napkin had to be placed just so, he decided to branch out on his own. He saw an opportunity to fill a void in the Waimea area with America’s go-to comfort food: the humble burger. To some, going from white tablecloth restaurants to a burger joint could be viewed as quite a downshift. But Edwin didn’t want to serve your run of the mill fast food burger. He wanted to serve quality burgers that celebrated the Big Island’s grass-fed beef and complement it with fresh Big Island produce.
If his grand plan were successful, it would allow Edwin and his family to make their home in Waimea, the village he has come to love and call home. Hence, the name of his restaurant, Village Burger, located in the Parker Ranch Center.
In the hands of a top-notch chef, Village Burger has become hugely successful. When the online site TripAdvisor included it in its “America’s Most Delectable Burger Joints” top 10 list, the restaurant was overwhelmed, with long lines of customers that snaked out the door.
Success did not come without significant risk. “I put my family in financial risk by taking out a loan on our house that we built on land we had purchased,” he said.
He did the same thing when he opened the Noodle Club in 2015, also in the Parker Ranch Center.
Edwin believes in supporting local ranchers and farmers for both his Village Burger and Noodle Club restaurants. He understands the hardship and unpredictability of trying to eke out a living in agriculture. And, he sees the strong work ethic that ranchers and farmers live by in order to get their products to market.
He purchases the majority of his products from his immediate surroundings, like beef from Parker Ranch and Kahua Ranch. His lettuce come from Earl Yamamoto of Fresh Farms, and his tomatoes are from Maureen Nakano of Nakano Farm, both in the Lalamilo Farm Lots just outside of Waimea Village. Edwin also buys beef from small ranchers around the Big Island. The Brioche buns for his burgers are baked by Standard Bakery, which was established in 1941 in Kealakekua by the Fujino family.
Sun Noodle in Honolulu supplies the noodles for Edwin’s Noodle Club restaurant, and he buys abalone and shrimp raised at the Natural Energy Lab in Kona. The dashi broth for his noodle dishes is made from dried opelu from South Kona. Clearly, Edwin is keeping the Big Island in as many of his dishes as he possibly can.
In its blog on Village Burger, TripAdvisor wrote: “This island gem embodies the spirit of aloha by proudly supporting its community.” TripAdvisor was referring to Edwin’s support of local ranchers and farmers.
In reality, though, Edwin is committed to his entire Waimea community. He volunteers to cook for events that support the Hawaii Beef Industry Council and the Hawaii Beef Cooperative. He also donates food, and his time, to feed Habitat for Humanity Hawai‘i Island volunteers who repair homes on Hawaiian Homelands in Waimea.
In 2017, over 600 community volunteers came together for a week to help repair the Ānuenue Playground at the Waimea District Park. They worked in the pouring rain, under the blazing-hot sun and battled the stiff winds of Waimea because their children love to play there and because it’s a gathering place for all their families. Every day that week, a different Waimea restaurant volunteered its time and donated food to feed as many as 100 volunteers. Edwin’s daughter loves to play there, so Village Burger and Noodle Club each took a day to feed the volunteers.
That speaks volumes about this Waimea community — a diverse community of ranchers, farmers, restaurateurs, astronomers, hospitality workers, retired dot-commers and every occupation in-between. And they all came together to fix up a playground for their kids and grandkids and extended ‘ohana.
Michelle Galimba: vice president, Kuahiwi Ranch (Ka‘ū)
Michelle is quite the anomaly in the Big Island ranching community. She veered off — actually, I should say — she did a 180-degree turnaround from her career path. Michelle holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of California at Berkeley, but has chosen to be a scholar on horseback, working cattle.
After earning her doctorate, she spent a year working off-and-on as an English as a Second Language teacher in Taiwan while learning Chinese. She can read and write Mandarin and is proficient in conversational Mandarin.
Her doctoral dissertation was on the 11th century Chinese poet Su Shi, or “The Great Su Dongpo,” as Michelle affectionately refers to his literary name. Su Shi was also a painter, calligrapher and a gastronome (creator of Dongo pork). He was a statesman who served as prime minister during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) before being exiled to Hangzhou in Hubei Province. During this time, Su Shi became a farmer/intellect and lived on a farm called Dongpo, meaning “eastern slope,” from which he took his literary name. So, it’s rather poetic that, centuries later, Michelle would become a rancher/intellect on the southeast slope of Mauna Loa. In a sense, Michelle is a reflection of her literary hero.
In a video interview (shegrowsfood.com) that a friend and I did with her back in 2009, she explained why she made her U-turn and returned to Hawai‘i.
“I would be coming home during summers and my family would be roping [wild cattle] in the mountains. It was just a lot more alive thing to do being out there with the horses and the dogs and the mountain and the mist, and it was wonderful, versus being in an office and playing academia,” Michelle explained.
She returned to the Big Island in 1994 and taught Chinese and world literature at UH Hilo. Five years later, on Jan. 1, 1999, Michelle became a full-time cowgirl on the payroll of her family’s Kuahiwi Ranch.
“Why Chinese literature?” I asked Michelle.
“Follow your bliss,” she replied with a smile. She continues to follow her bliss, but now that bliss is ranching. She and her family manage roughly 3,000 head of cattle on approximately 10,000 acres in beautiful Kā‘u, in the southeastern part of the island. And, they are contributing to Hawai‘i’s efforts to achieve a higher level of food self-sufficiency. Although it changes from year to year, Kuahiwi Ranch keeps roughly 65 percent of its grass-fed cattle for the local market.
Michelle does everything a rancher does to manage a sizeable cattle ranch operation, from helping to run the ranch’s business aspects, to training horses and shoeing them, as well. She fixes waterlines and mends barbed wire fences and keeps a watchful eye on Kuahiwi’s cattle and its 70-or-so horses to ensure they are on good pasturelands. The land the animals forage on needs to be managed sustainably, so everything has to work right.
If that weren’t enough, Michelle is also a single mom, raising her daughter Ua, who will be heading to Harvard next year. With all of that going on in her life, she still finds time to volunteer for causes near and dear to her heart.
When she was 9 or 10, she participated in 4-H. Now, as an adult, she shares her time and energy with the 4-H program in her district, where her daughter is now a member. She also volunteers with the Agricultural Leadership Foundation of Hawai‘i and is a board member of the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. Michelle has also served as a member of the Hawai‘i Board of Agriculture.
She’s also a community activist. Michelle and other like-minded people are working on protecting valuable cultural and environmental resources at Waikupuna in Ka‘ū. The site holds the remnants of an old fishing village. The late and much-beloved Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukui spent part of her childhood at Waikupuna. Michelle also joined Ka‘ū coffee growers in helping to organize and launch their first Ka‘ū Coffee Festival in 2008. The festival is now an annual event and going strong.
Most of the current coffee growers are former displaced sugar plantation workers. Their transition to independent coffee growing helped to revitalize their community. Ka‘ū is today recognized as one of the best coffee-growing regions in the world with Ka‘ū coffee in high demand.
Hawai‘i’s Heart and Soul
Rural communities are the heart and soul of our island state. From them, we learn about resilience and relevance and, by example, they teach us personal and community well-being.
In a 2018 Gallup poll, Hawai‘i ranked number one in the country for well-being. A 2011 statewide survey by SMS Research and Marketing Services Inc. published in Hawaii Business magazine found that South Kona and Ka‘ū were number one for personal well-being and seventh for community well-being, and a 2007 Pew Research Center Social Trend Survey found that rural areas have a 43 percent “high level of social trust” compared with the 23 percent of large cities.
Rural communities have their share of crime and economic challenges, but these numbers on well-being give us another perspective on the story. In a recent commentary, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote: “Everybody says rural America is collapsing. But I keep going to places with more moral coherence and social commitment than we have in booming urban areas. These visits prompt the same question: How can we spread the civic mindset they have in abundance?”
Eric Tanouye, Edwin Goto and Michelle Galimba are the kinds of civic-minded people that David Brooks describes as “weavers.” They, and others like them, are deeply rooted in their communities. They help to weave threads of reciprocity, trust and cooperation into a resilient fabric that bonds their communities.
Society could use more “weavers” with the rising tension we see today dividing communities across our country and around the world.