Back in the early 1990s, when 12 local chefs were developing Hawaii Regional Cuisine, Hawaii island farmer Kurt Hirabara helped them set the standard for the fledgling movement.
“Everything he produced was gorgeous and perfect, the very best quality, from how it was grown to how it was packed to the condition it was received in,” said chef Peter Merriman, one of the founders of the cuisine, who began serving Hirabara Farms produce in 1998. “He set the bar that other farmers follow now.”
Hirabara died Sunday in Waimea after a short illness. He was 59.
The Waimea farm, which Hirabara ran with his wife, Pam, grows some 35 specialty items exclusively for hotels and some of the top restaurants in the state. It is well known for its 14 varieties of lettuce. Other crops include radishes, tomatoes, herbs, fingerling potatoes, Asian greens and more.
Prior to starting the farm in 1993, Hirabara worked for Unisyn, a waste management company in Waimanalo, where as an agricultural manager he processed cow manure to create energy and agriculture products such as fertilizer.
“Next to our farm, this was the most important job he had,” said Pam Hirabara. “He had free reign to experiment with different crops. This was where he developed his knowledge of plant and soil science.”
When Unisyn closed and the couple purchased land in Glenwood on Hawaii island to farm, he applied his out-of-the-box thinking to the venture.
“He had pretty wild ideas. His latest thing was growing crops with deep-ocean seawater, and he developed a way to do this,” said Pam Hirabara. “He was thinking about sustainability: How do we feed ourselves well without importing inputs (fertilizers)? How do we provide nutrients for what we grow? So he got the idea that the only thing that has all the minerals we need is the ocean, and he started trucking water up from Keahole, where they pump water from 3,200 feet deep. So if you eat our tomatoes, they taste like they’re seasoned.
“He was always the crazy professor, doing stuff like that. There was no box in Kurt Hirabara’s life. He was a ‘what if’ kind of guy.”
Hirabara always had a passion for farming, the result of growing up in the agricultural community of Wahiawa. He graduated from Leilehua High School in 1976 and earned a horticulture degree at the University of Hawaii in 1980.
He married Pam in 1988, and the couple lived on Oahu until they moved to Glenwood on the Big Island, where their partnerships with chefs began.
“The HRC movement was a time when chefs were dedicated to building a farm base here and using products grown closer to home,” Pam recalled. “In 1993 chefs were looking for farmers, but there were not many of us. There were 12 of them, but there were probably not 12 farmers at the time.”
In 1998 the Hirabaras relocated to Waimea, where the farm now operates on 6 acres.
Chef Chris Kajioka, co-owner of the award-winning Senia restaurant and a client for six years, said the Hirabaras have become beloved friends.
“Our relationship goes way beyond business. Kurt was my mentor, and we would talk for hours about everything,” he said, calling the loss “devastating.”
Pam Hirabara said that while her loss is huge, she’s grateful for her time with her husband.
“We built a good life together. We were not just husband and wife; we were business partners and friends. We spent every minute of every day together.”
Hirabara is also survived by son Matthew and brothers Keven, Kyle and Kent.