HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
By Kelly Moran
Beautiful Fruit Trees
In the 1970s, it was hard to buy a fruit tree on the Big Island. A handful of people grew fruit commercially, but none raised young trees for sale. “It’s a whole different world today,” said Susi Hamilton, whose Plant-It Hawaii nursery now supplies about one-fourth of all the fruit trees you’ll find here at retail.
Susi came here 35 years ago from California, looking to grow her own food, but she especially wanted to grow fresh fruit on the six acres she and her brother Eric bought in Hawaiian Acres. But in those days, she recalled, “There was no nursery trade. Only a few varieties of fruit trees were actively cultivated here, and many of them, like the rambutans, were descended from seedlings.” She went to the University of Hawaii’s experimental station on the Stainback Highway, but they didn’t teach nursery skills. So she turned to growers like Mr. Iwasaki, who raised only citrus trees, but taught her how to graft and bud; and Phil Ito, from whom she learned propagation techniques.
Armed with those skills, she went to southeast Asia and brought back “named” varieties of tropical fruit trees, planted a dozen or so, and selected the ones that did best here to specialize in. Most of the longon that’s grown here now, for example, came from varieties she found on the Chinese mainland across from Hong Kong.
Bob Hamilton, who grew up here, was a homebuilder when he and Susi met and started dating, but he soon became her partner in the nursery business, which they moved to the present 20-acre site in Kurtistown. Eric worked with them in the fields, in the early years, but nowadays he runs their post-harvest fruit export processing facility.
“For a while,” she said, “we operated a successful fruit stand on Highway 11, mauka of Kurtistown, and sold vegetables there too, from local ‘micro-farmers.’ We started a tropical fruit cooperative with other growers, to purchase and sell together, which helped to keep prices stable and ensure high quality control. But we were always the packers. Even today, our products are shipped in what we call ‘the yellow box,’ which wholesalers and retailers know stands for high quality.”
But their goal, all along, was to have a fruit-tree nursery. And in the 1980s and ‘90s, with the demise of sugar, a lot of acreage that had been in cane was put back into production with fruit trees. “Our timing was impeccable,” said Susi. “The formula, so to speak is: ‘Ag land plus nursery cultivars equals synergy.’
“We’re selling Plant-It Hawaii because we’re getting older, and I’m happy about that. I’ve had a great time doing this. But our kids are grown, and it’s time to move on. I’m still healthy, so I want to paint, do photography, and travel. But we’re not leaving. It’s only the nursery and processing business we’re selling: not Hula Brothers, our fruit business. We’ll stay and provide consultation and training for new owners. I want them to be successful. There are expansion opportunities in exports, and online sales. Demand is driving local expansion too, and I haven’t wanted to expand. If the turnkey nursery sells, it will be to someone young and energetic who can take my place. I think they might want to focus on lychee – there’s a crop that totally under-planted!”
Plant-It Hawaii is well-positioned for a new owner: the production manager, ten full-time and two part-time employees are all in place. “Our workforce is terrific! Even the managers do production work – whatever needs to be done, everyone pitches in. They’re loyal people, dedicated to the business; most have been here ten years or more, a few have been with us more than twenty years. And that gives us very high quality control. We stand behind all our products. Trees don’t go out of here until they’re ready to plant.”
And Plant-It Hawaii is doing very well. “Last year was our biggest ever,” she said, “with $800,000 in gross sales, yielding over $250,000 in profit. Even in an otherwise down-market, fruit trees are a growth industry.” Plant-It Hawaii is the leading nursery in its field for a variety of reasons, but as Susi puts it: “What we really do best is grow beautiful fruit trees.”
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