Issue 19.6: December 2016/January 2017
Native Intelligence: Hawai‘i Island

The Shampoo Farm

Story by Alan McNarie. Photos by Joshua McCullough & Jack Wolford.

Harry McDonald is an architect, but when he met Paul Mitchell in 1983, he was managing a natural foods store in Honoka‘a. Mitchell and his business partner, John Paul DeJoria, had just bought an upland Hāmākua farm that was to be a sanctuary in the event of global meltdown. The pair, who planted 1,500 fruit trees on the thirty-two-acre farm, hired McDonald to build them each a cottage using ‘ōhi‘a posts harvested on-site.

Mitchell was already a well-known hairstylist, but the hair product company he and DeJoria launched was still in its infancy, not yet the multibillion-dollar behemoth it would become. One day McDonald showed Mitchell ‘awapuhi, or “shampoo ginger,” whose club-shaped pink flowers ooze a soapy gelatin. Mitchell had the goo’s chemistry analyzed and discovered that it contained nineteen amino acids that are good for hair. The goo itself proved too prone to fermentation to use in hair products, but the ‘awapuhi’s roots contained the same amino acids and could be dried and powdered. The farm soon earned its current name—Awapuhi Farm—by producing the signature ingredient for one of Mitchell’s first lines of hair products. Today the farm remains the company’s sole supplier of ‘awapuhi, producing hundreds of pounds of powdered concentrate a year. But the place hardly looks like a commercial enterprise. ‘Awapuhi grows in flower beds along wind-ing paths, and the airy wood-and-glass processing center is nestled among the trees, guarded by a Balinese spirit house. The drying shed is solar heated, and solar panels power the little hammer mill that reduces the ‘awapuhi to powder.

Mitchell died in 1989; his ashes, and those of his mother and fiancée, are on the farm. The McDonald family still runs the place. They host tours by appointment and are renovating Mitchell’s and DeJoria’s cottages to transform them into green vacation rentals. The tiny cottages are hardly typical billionaires’ homes: Each is an octagonal sleeping cottage with separate outbuildings for shower, kitchen and bathroom. Both are quiet works of art in which every board seems custom-shaped and fitted.

Ancient Hawaiians used ‘awapuhi ginger as a natural hair conditioner. The late stylist Paul Mitchell built his hair product empire using ‘awapuhi as a crucial ingredient, still grown on the Awapuhi Farm on Hawai‘i Island (above).