While working in the American Silicon Valley can be a dream come true for some, it can also be just another record in their resume for others. That was the case with Joe Hewitt, who decided to leave his job at the Facebook company in 2011 to start gardening in Hawaii. Nowadays he grows more than a hundred different species of tropical plants, and he is an admin to a group of over thirty thousand plant enthusiasts on the social media of his ex-employer. This story is brought to you exclusively by Houpací Osel.
Gardening was close to Joe Hewitt’s heart ever since his childhood. He used to spent his summers with his grandparents, where he would pick tomatoes and green beans. He would plant tulips with his mother every year. Despite that, he then began his career in programming.
After graduating from high school, which means at the beginning of the new millennium, he worked on developing the internet browser Firefox and for an American internet service provider, AOL. Later he moved to Silicon Valley, the center of the computer and technology industry.
That is where he was to reach the top of his career – he was set on starting his own business. He started saving money by taking a job at Facebook, which was still growing at that time. The first version of the most well known social media for smartphones iPhone was developed under his leadership.
„It was exciting since the iPhone was brand new and touch screen interfaces were unchartered territory,“ Hewitt informs Houpací Osel. However, after four years of working for the tech giant, Hewitt decided to spend his saved money on something entirely different than he intended to. He chose to go back to his roots.
The man who planted trees
„Until I discovered computer programming, I spent so much of my childhood outdoors. After 20 years of being glued to a desk, it was necessary to return to a life spent mostly outdoors,“ he says.
To be able to grow plants again, he bought his first house with a backyard after twenty years of renting apartments. One of the first things he did was planting a few dozen fruit trees in his new backyard. „California has an excellent climate for growing fruit. Each winter, I would look for new fruits I could grow, and that eventually led me to the world of rare tropical fruits,“ he says.
His search led him all the way to Hawaii, where he first encountered the „strange“ kinds of fruit that he had never heard of for the first time. „That is where I learned that just because a fruit is rare does not mean that it does not taste good.“
The problem was that Hewitt could not grow many of these „strange“ plants in California. It is a subtropical state, where temperatures are not as consistent as in Hawaii, which is the only American state with a tropical climate.
That is why he moved to Hawaii two years ago and started growing plants from scratch. He purchased land to expand his collection of tropical plants that will last decades. Today, he has about 450 different species. It also includes Hewitt‘s favorite fruit, Pulasan, which looks like litchi, and jaboticaba with juicy black and purple berries.
„I can eat them until my mouth is raw. They are sweet and juicy with well-balanced acidity, are easy to open, and do not make a mess,“ he describes. He is still fascinated by the diversity of kinds of fruits. He adds that he is yet to be satisfied with his collection and that moving to such a different environment poses many challenges.
For Hewitt, it is primarily about spending his time meaningfully, not about running a business. “Plants have awoken latent parts of my childhood self,” he says.
Moreover, according to Hewitt, the market for fruit is a joke and exporting most Hawaiian fruits near to impossible. It is the fault of missing infrastructure and paranoia about pests that tag along with the fruit and subsequent restrictions.
Hewitt also calls to attention that there are political obstacles. For example, avocados from Hawaii can not be sold in California because the California avocado industry does not like competition. Hewitt jokingly calls it an ‚cartel‘ because of that.
The final nail in the coffin is the consumer attitude. They are either not interested in new kinds of fruit or believe that food should be cheap, which makes it very difficult for any farm to be financially sustainable.
Those are the reasons why Hewitt would not and will not start a business with fruit. Instead, he intends to create a space where he and people with the same interest can taste fruits for which they would have to travel half the world otherwise.
A symbiosis of IT and nature
Although Hewitt spends an abundance of time with his hands in the dirt now, he did not give up IT. In his opinion, gardening and programming complete each other. Working on the computer is a way to unwind for him. Right now, he is working on an app for the management of plant collections.
Hewitt also founded a Facebook group called ‘Grow All The Fruits’. There, more than 30 thousand people from all over the world that grow tropical fruits exchange experiences and trade with strange plants, fruits, and seeds. It is this community that is very important to him because it makes growing plants even more compelling.
As he sees it, the internet plays an important part in globalizing gardening. „Internet has only recently made it easy for people living in undeveloped countries to sell seeds all over the world. What is more, the US has a program that allows seeds to be legally imported as long as you have them inspected upon entry,“ he explains.