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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, August 20, 2001

Island People
Island-raised Cole moves from software to farming

By Joan Namkoong
Advertiser Food Editor

He's a techie in every sense of the word, a leader in the world of computers and the Internet and a man who has made a fortune in it. Now he's growing food, one of man's most basic low-tech endeavors, but doing it with a high-tech mind set and according to principles that help to sustain the earth.

David Cole, who grew up in Hawai'i, left a telecommunications job at America Online five years ago and bought a farm in Virginia.

Photo by Deborah Booker, photo illustration by Stephen Downes • The Honolulu Advertiser

David Cole is a local boy who has made good.

Technically, Cole is not a keiki o ka 'aina; he was born in Pennsylvania. But he came to Hawai'i as an infant, his father an electrical engineer recruited to Hawai'i by RCA. "He was an inventor," said Cole, who has two sisters and a brother. "My parents live in the same house in Kailua that I grew up in."

Cole's boyhood years were typical: Pop Warner football, hiking Jackass Ginger, ti-leaf mud sliding in the Ko'olaus, fishing, bodysurfing and skipping school to surf. "I have my lu'au feet," he says, pointing to his custom-made shoes. He used to deliver The Honolulu Advertiser, waking up before dawn, a time of day he still cherishes.

He grew up in the public school system, is an alumnus of the University of Hawai'i, where he was a liberal arts major and served as vice president of Associated Students. After graduation, Cole left Hawai'i to pursue a law degree at Antioch College in Washington, D.C. But he dropped out to work for Prentice Hall, a publisher of college textbooks and professional reference books. It was there that he developed an interest in computer software as he talked with scientists and engineers in the then fledgling world of computers. He signed up authors to write software but was fired because Prentice Hall was a book publisher, not a software company.

It was a pivotal turning point for Cole: "I was born as an entrepreneur."

As a strategist for the then-young Microsoft, as a key player in the evolving BYTE magazine for techies, Cole knew that there was a market for information about the coming microcomputer revolution in the late 1970s. The economics of software publishing became the topic of seminars he sold and then produced. The consumers of his seminars and information became his clients, and soon he was involved in the production of software products and pioneered the strategy of licensing software.

David Cole
 •  Age: 48
 •  Education: 'Aikahi Elementary, Kailua Intermediate, Kailua High School; Pacific Preparatory Academy (now defunct); University of Hawai'i at Manoa
 •  Family: Married to the former Maggie Butler; 4 children
 •  Quotes: "The world is changing as we change; do we take responsibility or duck? I was glad to grow up in a multicultural society, faced with different situations. Hawai'i is one of the most empowering places on earth. I'm intrigued with the notion of harnessing market power to promote biodiversity for individuals, business and government. Organic food is a sustainable ethic; it's about doing different things for good outcomes."
 •  What others say: "What makes David David is his insatiable curiosity; he knows a lot about a lot of stuff and enjoys the learning process. Maggie, too; they feed on each other. ... He is one of our local-grown heroes, as forward-looking a person as anyone." — Jeff Watanabe, friend and lawyer

"David sets his mind on things with laser-like intensity, and he applies this to everything in his life. He's a person who sets the bar high for himself. ... Everyone looks at David as a brilliant person, but the smartest thing David did was to marry Maggie. She's really bright; they are partners. She is involved in all decisions, business and philanthropic, but David is out there front and center." — Kelvin Taketa, friend; president Hawaii Community Foundation

Moving from company to company, he helped launch programs that organized data (DBase II at Ashton Tate), developed consumer computer publications (at Ziff Communications) and worked on international strategies, local online services, business-to-business groups and telecommunications (at America Online).

In between, Cole and his family returned to Hawai'i, settling in a house on Makiki Heights, sending his four children to Punahou School and becoming involved in the community, primarily with the Nature Conservancy. But after several years, he returned to the Mainland to settle in the Washington, D.C. area, though maintaining a residence here.

It was at Ashton Tate that Cole struck gold in stock options, forming the financial base from which his future endeavors evolved. He doesn't like to talk about money; he has it and has been generous with it, financing a personal family charitable foundation, donating to the Nature Conservancy, the Academy of Arts, the Contemporary Museum, Punahou and other Hawai'i charitable organizations.

Farm owner

Five years ago, Cole purchased 425-acre Sunnyside Farms in Washington, Va., from descendants of the original owners. "Maggie wanted to put roots down and have a place to call home," said Cole of his high school sweetheart and wife of 31 years.

But Cole was not about to become just a gentleman farmer; he had a vision and strategy for Sunnyside Farms and he is pursuing it with focus, determination and energy.

When he left AOL, Cole was faced with a one-year noncompete agreement. "I couldn't do anything I knew," said Cole. "Biology was a great interest, so I spent my non-compete time learning about farming — organic farming. The year gave me time to do intensive research and recruit people."

When Cole took over the farm, the land had been depleted by conventional farming. Within three years, he had removed old and diseased trees, established new plants, restored the soil, installed an irrigation system and earned organic certification. Today, there are more than 200 varieties of vegetables, herbs and fruits grown along with livestock — beef cattle, sheep, chickens and pigs. The company wholesales its products in the mid-Atlantic region, has an on-site store, participates in farmers' markets and sells to restaurants in the area, among them the award-winning Inn at Little Washington. "We consult with chefs on what they want and grow it for them," said Cole.

Cole sees himself as a strategist. "It's all about the way chi (energy) flows. Where the dragon and the white tiger intersects is where new schools form; you follow the trails and ride the dragon," he explains in feng shui metaphors. "In the computer world, the economics of publishing and the rise of computers gave rise to certain businesses. It's all about how major forces evolve and collide. In organics, it's understanding the green revolution, the policy of cheap food and the support for commodity crops. It's a broken food system and there's an increased suspicion of our food supply."

Soil analysis

His approach to farming is a holistic one; it's not just about planting seeds and selling the harvest. He's looking at the fungi growing in the soil and what they produce in the way of nutrients for plants. Then how that soil retains water and how root systems tap into the water. All of this, he says, affects what will be planted and where and how. When soil needs to be enriched, chickens housed in movable coops are transported to areas of the farm where they can feed on bugs and help to fertilize the ground. "It's a perennially productive agricultural system," said Cole.

Cole wants to be a responsible steward of the land. He is developing a model for economic development with a conservation component which, he says, is more exciting to policy-makers than just saving the environment. In addition, Sunnyside is a hub farm that networks with smaller farms in the area to share expertise, equipment and resources.

"I want to move organics to the mainstream and enhance nature in the process," said Cole with determination. "Organic products taste better, look great and are better for you. Generally they are really great foods."

A recent Gourmet magazine article looked askance at Cole and his ability to pour money into organic farming, estimating he'd spent $11.5 million on the farm up to a year ago. "I'm just trying to bring the values of agribusiness to sustainable agriculture. This is not a lifestyle thing," said Cole. "This is business."

Cole is immersed in farming now. "David sets his mind on things with laser like intensity and he applies this to everything in his life," said close friend Kelvin Taketa, president and CEO of the Hawaii Community Foundation. "He's a person who sets the bar high for himself."

Cole has a soft spot for his island home. On his recent visit he was putting in an offer on a condominium for future visits. Asked if he had plans to venture into agriculture in Hawai'i, he had no comment but a twinkle in his eye.

"Eating is a political act: It affects the tone of the community," said Cole with conviction. "Instead of bringing in stale food, why not grow it and leave open spaces in Waimanalo? Farming is compatible with Hawai'i's golden industry, tourism. If you surrender the open spaces, it's a detriment to the hospitality industry."

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said where Cole was born.