Do you dream of being on the Big Island of Hawaii, lying in the sun, waves pulsing along the nearby shore? Do you close your eyes and picture a fantastic dinner at one of the super deluxe hotels, like the Hilton Waikoloa Village – a juicy steak or seafood, a salad of fresh greens with luscious tomatoes and velvety avocados, and, of course, aromatic coffee with a decadent chocolate dessert? Did you know that this “fun in the sun” island also is home to thriving small farms that supply the delicious feast for your vacation table? Agriculture is alive and well and growing amazing products in Hawaii.
After sugar plantations began closing in the mid-1990s, much of that land went into diversified agriculture. The sudden availability of arable land changed, for the better, the lives of many farmers and would-be farmers.
Kimo Pa, of Hamakua Springs Country Farms (808-981-0805) on the slopes of Mauna Kea, says they were growing bananas on 600 acres leased from a large sugar plantation landowner. When the owner decided to sell, they bought the property.
“It gave us the freedom to grow whatever we wanted,” Pa says. “We started diversifying about three and a half years ago. We were thinking about tomatoes and other crops for many years, but then the opportunity came up. (Today) hydroponics is about 50 percent of what we do.”
As farmers move forward, the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Cooperative Extension Service, College of Tropical Agriculture and the Mealani Research Station help guide and inform. Each September, the university sponsors “Mealani: A Taste of the Hawaiian Range” at the Hilton Waikoloa Village. The event (808-981-5199, extension 201) draws crowds of at least 2,000 to sample delicacies produced on local farms and ranches and prepared by top chefs.
One of the farmers at the event, Al Salomon, facility manager for Big Island Abalone (866-509-1144), says that they, along with other aquaculture businesses, are located at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) in Kailua-Kona. Cold sea water, from 3,000 feet below, is pumped up to the 10-acre abalone farm, the first of its kind in Hawaii, where the company keeps more than 2 million abalone in inventory.
Many of the farmers have found that Hawaii is the place to grow unusual or rare products. It’s the only state growing cacao, coffee and vanilla. Bob Cooper, Hawaiian Chocolate Factory (888-447-2626), says the company raises the first American bean chocolate: the Hawaiian coca bean.
Kona, the first American-made coffee, is one of the best in the world. Now coffee grown in the Ka’u region is becoming internationally known and respected. Will & Grace Rising Sun coffee, grown by William Tabios, Will & Grace Farms, won sixth place at the Specialty Coffee Association of America in 2007. A full-time carpenter, Tabios manages to grow coffee on seven acres in Pahala.
The rare Hawaiian Organic White Honey, found exclusively in the Puako Kiawe Forest, has been produced by Volcano Island Honey Co. (888-663-6639) for 27 years. As Sunee Campbell says, “Most honeys, when they are harvested, are liquid, and they stay liquid. The Kiawe honey turns white within five days of harvesting. It has a natural crystallization process that creates the white.”
Some of the farmers at the Mealani event have been farming and ranching for generations. Jill Mattos, Hawaii Beef Producers, in Paauilo, says her grandfather started their ranch in 1906. Charlene Nackagawa, B.E.S.T. Farms, Waimea, tells of her grandparents working on the plantation. Her grandmother supplemented income for the family of seven by growing and selling vegetables. When Charlene’s father grew up, he bought the land. Donna Mah, of J&D Farm, Waimea, has been growing lei flowers for 24 years.
Other modern-day island farmers visited Hawaii and fell in love with the place, knowing right away that they were going to come back. Chef Mark Vann, from Lubbock, Texas, has been coming to the islands since he was about 17. He and his wife, Lisa, opened their second restaurant, Fujimamas Kona, a continual hit in Kona for years. Their first restaurant, Fujimamas in Tokyo, continues to be a success as well. Then came Huli Sue’s BBQ and Grill (808-885-6268). Their 10-acre farm sustains both restaurants with organic herbs, eggs, greens and vegetables.
Kathy Patton, Hilo Coffee Mill (www.HiloCoffeeMill.com, 866-982-5551), in Mountain View, is an ex-banker who says she came to Hawaii on a job, decided to stay and telecommute to work. Now she is part of a group that owns the coffee mill and an espresso café, the Latte Da Bar. They also are coffee distributors, have a coffee farm and the group grows, Kathy believes, the next major Big Island farm product: tea.