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Agritourism takes off in Hawaii

Farmers markets with tropical fruits. A cattle ranch. A cacao farm. These are becoming visitor favorites, in addition to the luaus and beach days.

April 22, 2012|By Russ Parsons, Los Angeles Times
  • Marco Garcia / For The Times
Marco Garcia / For The Times (m2c737pd20120419115525/600 )

HANALEI, Hawaii — It's a warm Tuesday afternoon on Kauai and tourists are lining up — just a few at first, then a dozen or so. Finally more than 100 have gathered, waiting patiently. They're not here to swim with dolphins, snorkel in turquoise waters or even learn to hula at a luau. They're here for a farmers market.

Manager Kalen Kelekoma climbs atop a wooden crate and welcomes the throng with a warm "aloha" and an explanation of the market rules. Then the horn sounds, and they rush the stalls. Some head straight for the obvious draws on this hot day — ice-cold coconuts and soursop ice cream. Others start grabbing tropical fruits they rarely get a chance to taste on the mainland — rambutans, longans, lychees and mangosteens. Some buy salad greens and broccoli.

Agriculture has become a tourist draw in Hawaii, which imports about 85% of its food but used to export almost everything it grew — tons of pineapples and sugar cane. In just one week on the islands, I slept on a farm, toured a coffee plantation, learned how chocolate is grown and much more. Yes, the beaches are a draw — snorkeling at Two-Step on the Big Island was unforgettable. And sure, some people still want to see hula and go to a luau.

Photos: Hawaii's agricultural side: Kauai

But visitors are also looking for — and finding — another kind of experience, and local farmers are happy to supply it.

For some growers, agritourism provides a chance to make a sales pitch for the products they grow. For others, it's a chance to help the public reconnect with where food comes from.

For almost all, it's an economic lifeline — a chance to add a few dollars to a bottom line that has been steadily shrinking for the last 20 years.

Perhaps most unexpected, Hawaii now boasts farm-to-table restaurants, which source many of their ingredients from small farmers, often identifying those growers on the menu. That might not be unusual on the mainland, but here in the land of the "plate lunch" — ice-cream scoops of mushy rice and macaroni salad flanking a piece of long-cooked meat — it's a welcome surprise.

Photos: Hawaii's agricultural side: Big Island

The big kahuna of the farm-driven restaurants in Hawaii is Peter Merriman, who started with one place in Waimea, the heart of the Big Island's agricultural district, and now has five restaurants and cafes scattered over three islands.

Merriman is the glue that holds together this new scene. He now has a steady supply of almost everything he could want, but when he started 25 years ago, he had to place classified ads asking local growers to sell him the fruits and vegetables he needed.

"Originally we really had to go out and encourage people to grow for us," he says. "Even into the '90s, we were a kind of a banana republic — in Hawaii most of the farmland was taken up by sugar cane and a little bit of pineapple grown for export.

"So our timing kind of worked perfectly. The sugar market was going down, and that made land available for farmers to come in and grow crops that hadn't been done before. At the same time, tourism was on the increase, so there was a market that was willing to pay a little more for higher-quality stuff."

He wasn't trying to change the world, he insists, although that's what happened.

"When I started I wasn't altruistic about it at all," Merriman says. "I wanted to serve great-tasting food. But as it evolved I did become a little more altruistic. You can't spend time with these farmers and go out to their fields without realizing how important it is to help them perpetuate what they are doing."

One of Merriman's favorite suppliers and a poster child for agricultural tourism is Kahua Farms, a fourth-generation livestock operation just outside Waimea. The 8,500-acre spread, operated by Tim Richards, hosts about 10,000 visitors a year — more than one tourist for every head of cattle and sheep it runs.

Richards and his father, Monty, are the models of modern ag, using state-of-the-art grazing rotations to reduce soil erosion and a wind turbine to generate most of the electricity for the ranch and the village of workers that support it.

Besides cattle and sheep ranching, Kahua Farms offers horseback tours of its lovely, hilly property, which sprawls along the slopes of Mauna Loa from mountainside rain forest to the ocean. There are all-terrain vehicle tours too and a site for corporate team-building exercises. The ranch also works with a tour operator to host regular barbecues, the visitors coming and going on one bus to minimize the impact.

None of these things adds substantially to the bottom line, Richards says, but all of it helps. Perhaps as important, it gives him a platform.

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