Last week I shared a little of background about Hawaii’s agritourism and the forces behind it. I had the pleasure of learning a lot about the topic from Lani Weigert when I visited Hamakua Mushrooms. For my last day in Hilo I would actually eat, drink and breathe agritourism on an agricultural adventure called Hilo Grown Tour.
I was picked up at my hotel, the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel (more on this lovely spot coming up tomorrow) and the moment I saw my tour guide I knew it was going to be a great day. Notice something familiar about this smiling face?
That’s right! That’s Lani’s brother! The passion for supporting local farmers runs deep in the family and Benson Medina is as knowledgeable and relentless about the topic as his sister. He worked with Lani to petition the state government for grant money to launch the Hilo Grown Tour. It is the first tour developed for Hawaii Ag Tours, a pilot still in its first year. As the program develops, new tours will be added in other areas and other islands.
I was thrilled to spend the day with Benson and a reporter from the local newspaper who is a transplant from Ohio. We explored the fabulous farms and agriculturally focused businesses around Hilo.
Our first stop was Green Point Nursery, Hawaii’s largest anthurium farm. I did not know what an anthurium was until I saw the flower and realized that I had seen them all over the world. This tiny farm services hotels and restaurants everywhere. It is a family operation, three generations in the making, starting with Harold (who recently passed away). Harold went to school in Iowa, where his mother would send the beautiful flowers to his host family. To say the flowers were well received is a bit of an understatement, people would go nuts for them.
When Harold returned home to start a local business he decided on the anthuriums. The time was World War II and the military on the bases prevalent in Hawaii was sending the flowers back home to their sweethearts and families. What better business to start? Now they are the largest anthurium shipping business in the world. We got to peek into the production inside and the rigorous cleaning and quality control that the Tanouye name is known for.
They have 10 acres of flowers on site and we walked through some of the plants to see how they are cultivated. Check out the gorgeous clouds.
Our next stop was a KTA Super Store. You may think that is a strange place to go on a farm tour, but it is perfectly natural when you consider how this fifth generation business started and what their food philosophy is today.
It started when farmers would bring their products to the back door of the original KTA (there are now 6 stores all on the Big Island). The Taniguchi family would buy the product to support the community. One farmer would bring tomatoes, and when a second farmer would come with tomatoes they would say, we’ll take this, but we really need lettuce, can you grow lettuce?” It continued from there.
Today KTA continues to support local farmers from all the islands, giving them preference over non-Hawaiian products. They promote local farmers with their own brand, like Mountain Apple Brand. If you go into their fish department to buy poke, there is at least a dozen to choose from, all recipes from store employees built upon over the decades. Same for the bakery department.
Walking through the grocery store got us hungry! So Benson decided to take Megan (the reporter from the Hawaii Tribune-Herald) and I to lunch in downtown Hilo. We chose sushi and Benson took us to where the locals go, Ocean Sushi (see my AFAR Highlight for more info). We chatted over lunch learning more about the politics around several agritourism bills, what local life in Hilo is like and just generally enjoying each other’s company.
On the way over to lunch, we had passed Two Ladies Kitchen mochi shop, so of course, we stopped for dessert after. They have amazing mochi (trust me, I tried several) but are most known for their strawberry ones which is what we ate for our post-sushi sweet.
In a sugar coma, we headed to the Imiloa Astronomy Center. Again, it may seem weird to go to astronomy center on a food tour, but let me tell you, it actually works! The original Hawaiians arrived via canoe from Polynesia guided by the stars. They came with their canoe crops – those food staples that could make the long voyage and which were the basis of their cuisine. In addition, for many centuries, and still occurring today, farmers used the phases of the moon to plant their fields.
The Imiloa Astronomy Center is a really great spot for kids (think rainy day activity) and I could definitely imagine myself spending much more time exploring this spot. However that day we had a schedule to keep (I had a flight to Maui that I couldn’t miss) so we headed to the grand finale, OK Farms.
I don’t want to choose favorites, but it is hard not to fall completely in love with this farm. And the family that runs it. For my tour, we were accompanied by the “farmer’s wife” Ala’amoe Keolanui, wife of Troy Keolanui (the K of OK Farms) along with two of her kids (out of spring break). She was totally and completely adorable (absolutely gorgeous!), smart, knowledgeable and so gracious.
We toured the farm tasting spices as we cruised along the road, stopping here and there to look at macadamia nuts, chicken coops, wild pig runs and oh yes, the back side of the spectacular Rainbow Falls! I had so much fun, I could spend an entire day there!
I have to say for an operation just in its first year, I was impressed with what Lani and Benson have put together. This tour highlights some pretty fascinating aspects of farm and food culture in the Hilo area. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and never once found myself missing out on the beach. I was so grateful to be able to visit these spots and learn more about what they are doing for their communities.
If you are visiting the Big Island, I HIGHLY recommend this tour! You can book tickets on their website. Also here is a video they put together on the tour:
How about you? Have you been to Hilo? Think you would like to do this tour?
My visit to Hawaii was courtesy of the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, my Hilo Grown Tour was comped. But as always, all opinions are my own.
You can also view more of my trip to the Big Island in my Big Island of Hawaii for Foodies Wanderlist on AFAR.