The Pittsfield native has built a business model for baby food production on a foundation of resilient, community-based agricultural practices
HONOLULU, HI--Scientists use the word ‘symbiosis’ to describe the mutually beneficial relationships that diverse organisms form to strengthen their communities. It often refers to the web of interdependent connections that ecosystems require to support healthy growth.
As founder and CEO of Piko Provisions, Ethan West ’08 has planted his entrepreneurial roots in Honolulu, Hawaii with the goal of implementing resilient, localized systems of food production on the islands and beyond.
“A resilient food system doesn't come from monocropping–it doesn't come from having one thing planted over and over again,” said West. “That is a non resilient food system and a non resilient crop. Agricultural resiliency comes from diversity.”
West has spent his young lifetime developing a knowledge of sustainable agriculture practices, beginning at his parent’s organic produce and dairy farm, West Farm Organics, on Route 100 in Pittsfield. It was here that came to recognize food production as a means of taking care of one’s community.
After graduating from The University of Maine with a degree in political science in 2013, West found an opportunity to diversify his own experience by moving to Hawaii. Lifelong friend Chris Cook ’08, who was living in Honolulu and pursuing his MBA from Chaminade University, invited West to move out to the islands and stay with him.
“I bought a one way ticket. Central Maine is great–I love it, and it made me who I am. But I had an opportunity that I knew that I would be kicking myself if I didn't take. So I'd moved out and hit the ground running,” he said.
Ethan West '08 shows off the fruits of his labor in a Hawaii agricultural field
West began working in the academic advising office at Chaminade and turned the gig into a tuition-free MBA through work study. It was here that he began to build a network of friends and colleagues in the local agriculture industry, including folks who work with the Hawaii Center for Food Safety and the Kunoa Cattle Company. Eventually, he landed a position as Channel Manager at Kunoa Cattle, a job which pulled him back into the world of food systems and local agriculture he’d known growing up in Pittsfield.
Two years at Kunoa Cattle helped him to round out his understanding of the local food systems and the players involved, including those from the public and private sectors. While the experience provided invaluable opportunities for learning, West said the urge to “chase his entrepreneurial dreams” was too strong, so he decided to branch out on his own.
He said the decision was a realization of his own need for freedom and creativity. “I had taken some interviews for higher up positions with Pepsi, and I was interviewing with a bunch of other companies, and none of them felt right,” he said. “I knew what I needed to do. When I went to college people would always ask, ‘What job do you want to get when you leave?’ And I'd say, ‘I'm not going to college to get a job, I'm going to college to create a job.’”
A sort of perfect storm of factors led him to pursue baby food production, including becoming an uncle. West’s brother Jeremy ’05 and sister Sarah ’07 had recently welcomed newborns to their own families, and baby food was “top of mind,” he said. “My mindset is, when you walk down the aisles in the grocery stores locally, if you don't see an option that is grown here and made here, why is that? I'd really like to help solve that puzzle. And baby food was one of them. There was a national study that was released at the time that looked at all the baby food across North America, and it said this stuff is really packed full of lead and cadmium and arsenic at alarmingly high rates. Why aren't there standards? Why isn't there something better?”
Ethan West '08 is the founder and CEO of Piko Provisions, a Hawaii based company that produces organic baby food from locally grown Hawaiian produce like Okinawan sweet potato and taro. photo courtesy of Piko Provisions
Piko Provisions is West’s answer to these questions. “Better baby food, made with Aloha,” is the tagline used on Piko’s website and packaging. The company’s calling card is its commitment to using locally sourced Hawaiian superfoods like taro, Okinawan sweet potato, breadfruit, banana, and pineapple.
Ingrained in Piko’s mission is support for biodiversity. The company works with partners who, according to the website, use “regenerative farming practices to prevent land degradation and to show respect for the planet that nurtures us.” In practice, this means Piko sources its ingredients from small farms that use techniques like rotational planting, cover cropping, and biodynamic farming. These practices support a diversity of lifeforms, and the resulting symbiosis provides ingredients that are free of genetic enhancements, non-organic preservatives, and artificial flavoring. By sourcing from these farms, Piko supports the continuity of regenerative agriculture while bringing the literal fruits of it to babies on the islands and beyond.
It wasn’t long before West was recognized for his success. Pacific Edge Magazine named him “Young Professional of the Year” in 2020 as part of their annual Business Achievement Awards. And if you think early career success has led to complacency, think again. West is constantly continuing his education by completing programs like “Feeding the World” through University of Pennsylvania, “Childhood Nutrition and Cooking” through Stanford University School of Medicine, Lean Six Sigma Green Belt, and Lean Management, just to name a few.
“I would say my desire for lifelong growth and education was really fostered and developed right there in Central Maine and at MCI, specifically,” said West, who says his appreciation for diversity came in large part from his years at MCI. “When you go around the world and see different communities, you realize how special it really is to have so many different countries represented right there in that little school. That right there made me want to learn about other cultures, made me want to go and experience it and find my place.”
West also wants to make it clear that “regenerative agriculture isn’t new. There are cultures across the world—here in Hawaii, and on the mainland—that have been doing this for hundreds of years. If anything, it's a rediscovery of traditional practices of people that know the land in those places. It used to just be known as agriculture.”
West has a knack for seeing the big picture. “What I'm working on is a replicable local food system model that you can pick up and plug into rural areas around the world,” he told me. “I see a lot of similarities between [Hawaii] and Central Maine, both in terms of economic vitality, the need for good local jobs, the need for local foods and teams for production, and most importantly, resiliency. And as we saw during COVID, If the docks go down, if there's an act of God, if there's a pandemic, we only have enough food on the islands to feed the population for seven days. During COVID that went down to three. In rural communities it’s the same thing. If trucks can't get in, what do you have?”
Fortunately for islanders, West’s vision for an improved food production ecosystem isn’t limited to his own company. In 2017, he learned about a system called high pressure processing (HPP) that uses water and high pressure to inactivate food-borne pathogens and spoilage microorganisms in food, helping to extend the shelf life of locally produced food without pumping it full of preservatives.
Intrigued by the process, he began to look for ways to bring HPP to Hawaii. The plan took shape when West helped form a cohort that approached the State Senate Ways & Means Committee with plans to appropriate state funds for the implementation of HPP on the islands. “The inspiration was all centered around how we can grow more food, create healthier products and extend shelf life of Hawaii grown goods,” he said.
West and company successfully secured the funding, and In December of 2021, he joined a delegation made up of Hawaiian food company executives, university administrators, and lawmakers including state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz on a trip to the mainland to learn more about HPP.
“The trip was all about bringing innovation to Hawaii and learning from other successful models,” said West. Now, the state is working to build and implement two processing systems in Hawaii that are available for use by farmers and food producers across the state. In effect, the HPP systems will allow local farmers to produce food that’s free of preservatives at non prohibitive costs, and in turn, nurture a cycle of growth and consumption that is far more resilient by being less dependent on mainland imports.
In December of 2021, Ethan West '08 helped form a delegation made up of Hawaiian food company executives, university administrators, and lawmakers including state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz on a trip to the mainland to learn about high pressure processing. photo courtesy of Ethan West
Meanwhile, Piko Provisions continues to flourish. West said in addition to working on local alternatives for slaughter processing for pork and beef, his company has added on distributors and retail partners in Hawaii and is looking at mainland expansion. On top of that, he’s in the process of developing a new pet food brand that is separate from Piko Provisions but will help to minimize food waste by repurposing materials. “In the baby food, there's about a 10% yield loss in production. Awesome. Incredible ingredients that can be used for pet food. A lot of sweet potato peels and kale stems, stuff like that is great for dogs. And we've got a great relationship with a venison company over on Maui that we're going to be sourcing a lot of trim from,” he said.
At the heart of this expansion is hyper-localized efficiency and sustainability. “It’s all centered around this archipelago food system and ecosystem,” said West.
If there’s one thing that we can all learn from West and his ventures, it’s the importance of healthy communities—that, and the recognition that our human communities are one and the same as the biotic communities we rely on. While he’s developed a professional life 5,000 miles from home, West said you don’t have to look that far to find a healthy ecosystem in action.
“Resiliency comes from diversity, right? And having a thriving system that supports each other comes from diversity. That's what MCI is—a thriving, diverse ecosystem that really supports growth.”