Ancient Traditions, Local Business, Homegrown Values: A Recipe for Success

Photo: Noni Fruit

This month, Down to Earth celebrates our long standing commitment to supporting local farmers and manufacturers with a profile of one of our favorite Hawaii-based businesses. Eleven years ago, Down to Earth first gave this family enterprise their start, and since then we’ve enjoyed a healthy partnership - in every sense of the word. 

Have you ever wondered how to make noni juice - that dark, vinegary tonic, famed for its healing properties? The makers of Puna Noni have instructions posted on their website. Since pure, Hawaiian noni juice is their premier product, one might consider this a bad business strategy. However, unlike corporate competitors who market their juice as a “special formula,” this family-run business worries more about upholding the tradition of their kupuna than monopolizing a natural medicine. 

Noni, or morinda citrifolia, was used in traditional Hawaiian culture to treat imbalances in virtually every system of the body as well as to encourage healing of muscles, bones and connective tissue. Modern research has confirmed that noni supports the immune system, contains pain-killing properties, and may help prevent cancer. In traditional Hawaiian culture, noni was considered a gift of God, and it was shared freely between neighbors according to need. Jim Titcomb, who leads his family in a tradition of making noni that was passed down to him from his grandmother, admits, “Because of our upbringing, we experience some degree of guilt in making a living selling noni juice. We try to reconcile this by conducting our business in the highest tradition of ola pono, with honesty and integrity, by treating our customers with respect, and by actually caring about their welfare.” 

These principles have guided the Titcombs since 1999, when they established the Noni Connection. All their noni comes from a 15-acre farm in Puna on the Big Island. 

Getting to know the Titcomb family, it’s clear why Down to Earth prefers to deal with local farmers and manufacturers. The integrity and transparency they bring to their business is their most valuable asset. At Down to Earth, we’re glad to be able to act as a medium between Puna Noni and their extended family of customers. As it turns out, building a business on the spirit of aloha is actually good for the bottom line. In an industry dominated by people out to make a quick buck with far-fetched health claims, Puna Noni has grown and prospered steadily due to their solid reputation for quality, kindness and accountability. 

In an age of cookie-cutter health care and industrial agriculture, people are rediscovering the satisfaction and security gained from food, drink and medicine from a known and trusted source. While the buy local movement has gained traction across the mainland in the last few years, nowhere is it of more vital importance than in Hawaii. The isolation of these beautiful islands contributes to a rare and fragile ecosystem, and a culture deeply in tune with the natural world. At the same time, it also heightens our vulnerability in a global economy increasingly reliant on fossil-fuel based imports. Fortunately, Hawaii is home not only to all-purpose medicinal plants like noni, but also to hearty staple foods like taro, breadfruit and sweet potato which possess rich nutritional profiles. As the issue of food security asserts itself with increasing urgency, perhaps we will be motivated to turn back to this true kama’aina diet – local, plant-based, sustainable, nourishing. 

The Titcomb family gives the phrase “getting back to your roots” a tangible meaning. For them, it means cultivating the roots, fruits, flowers and leaves that their forebears grew, processed and shared. Noni typifies the pluck one needs to get established on an island still growing out of the sea. In the fresh lava fields of Puna, where you can almost hear the pahoehoe flows still popping and sizzling, you might see a noni tree growing directly from between the iridescent cracks. Drawing on the minerals recently deposited from the center of the earth, noni lets nothing go to waste. Every part of the noni plant can be used – the fruits, leaves, bark and roots all have distinct medicinal or nutritious qualities. We can learn from noni, to make the best of a bad bargain, to not only survive in a sometimes harsh environment, but to thrive and give back. 

Not too long ago, everything that was eaten on these islands came from these islands. As gas prices skyrocket, and food-borne illnesses proliferate in the process of unclean mass-manufacturing, we might all consider getting together with family and friends and deciding what food, medicine or ability we have to offer to our neighbors. Eleven years ago, when the Titcombs found themselves with a pure, undiluted case of one of the best medicines known to man, they brought it to Down to Earth and we helped them find a market. More than a decade later, the need for locally-produced foods and values-driven business has only increased. We hope you’ll join us in supporting the efforts of local farmers and manufacturers. Like the noni plant, though they may struggle against adverse conditions, ultimately the whole community is benefited by what they have to offer.