In the early 1970s, with a baby on her hip and a feminist sensibility, Lesley Hill walked into a Young Farmers of America convention on Molokai where she surprised the room full of men who were past 50 — hardly young.
“I was haole, young, and I had a baby,” she recalled with a laugh during a 2011 video interview with She Grows Food, a website featuring Hawaii women farmers. “They didn’t even wanna talk to me.”
But Hill talked to them, raising her hand and calling out responses to their discussions. “They thought I was nuts,” she said.
But it didn’t take long for the fearless newbie farmer to win them over, and she ended up being elected the group’s state president.
Hill, who built the heart of palm industry in Hawaii and co-owned the 110-acre Wailea Agricultural Group in Hamakua, died Sunday on the Big Island. She was 66.
Hill was a pioneer of Hawaii’s tropical fruit industry. As a member of the Hawaii Agricultural Leadership Foundation, Hill traveled to such countries as Japan, China, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, where she continually sought out tropical fruit. She brought in commercial rambutan, and with her partner Michael Crowell, nurtured the expansion of heart of palm. Today, some half-dozen farmers are growing the crop, and Wailea Ag has taken the vegetable all over the mainland and internationally.
Wailea Ag is also lush with a range of tropical fruits and other crops: avocado, 10 varieties of citrus, durian, mangosteen, lychee, longan, jackfruit, starfruit, and spices such as mace, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric, lemongrass, and bay, curry and kaffir lime leaves.
“When Hawaii Regional Cuisine was just starting off, Lesley was one of the early farmers doing something different,” said food writer Joan Namkoong. “Over the years, she diversified. She was looking at what chefs were interested in, and she grew those things.”
Hill and Crowell owned portions of Wailea Ag separately and together, calling the farm “yours, mine and ours — she had hers, I have mine, we had ours,” said Crowell. “Now, it’s last man standing. We agreed that whoever was left would take care of things. We have seven full-time employees, and our team is gonna make her proud.”
In 1978, Hill met Crowell, then a UH agriculture student. The two took a trip to Bali to seek out tropical fruit that would be good candidates for farming in Hawaii. That was the start of a decadeslong partnership in business and life.
“We figured if we could handle the rigorousness of a rough Southeast Asia trip, we were meant for each other,” said Crowell.
Hill came to Hawaii in 1970 at age 19 on a six-week summer study tour at the University of Hawaii. She had been a discontented student at Auburn University, where she had been sentenced to four days and nights in her dorm room after protesting for women’s rights. After a camping trip on Maui, she decided to stay in Hawaii.
Her first job at an orchid shop in Palolo Valley involved pulling weeds and washing clay pots, but “it lit a little spark” in her for growing things, Hill said in the video interview. She later moved to the Big Island and started her farming career in Kapoho. In the mid 1990s, when C. Brewer began selling former sugar land, Hill and Crowell bought a collective 110 acres.
Hill also opened Paradise Plants, a home and garden center, in Hilo 40 years ago. She hosted the Green Growing radio show for years, interviewing experts and giving advice to callers, started the Big Island Association of Nurserymen and tropical flower- and fruit-grower organizations and even joined the culinary women’s group Les Dames d’Escoffier.
Hill is survived by Crowell, her daughters Maikalani Hill Higgins and Loke Hill-Higgins, Moani Ruth Crowell, and sisters Patricia Blackwell and Pamela Hill.
Crowell said Hill arranged to donate her body to the John A. Burns School of Medicine. The family is still planning a celebration of life.