Exploring agritourism in Hawaii
From 2-acre coffee growers to 15,000-acre sugar plantations, Hawaii's farmers get on board with the state's tourism industry

By Laura Sayre

Agritourism Resources

Hawaiian destinations and events mentioned in this article:

Big Island Agricultural Tourism Map
www.hawaiiag tourism.com

Kona Coffee Cultural Festival

Kona Historical Society and Uchida Living History Farm

Cedar House B & B and Coffee Farm

Macadamia Meadows
Farm B & B

Gay & Robinson Sugar Plantation

Habein Ranch

Kuaiwi Farm



For more information...

Agritourism as an alternative ag enterprise.

Doing agritourism requires careful consideration of logistical and regulatory issues like parking, restrooms, and liability insurances. The following resources can help you get started.

Taking the First Step: Farm and Ranch Alternative Enterprise and Agritourism Resource Evaluation Guide

Published in January 2004 by the Southern Maryland Resource Conservation & Development Board, this 27-page booklet includes a series of worksheets designed to help farmers assess their goals and potentials with regard to agritourism ventures.

Available from Southern Maryland RC & D, 303 Post Office Rd, Suite B4A, Waldorf, MD 20602, from the NRCS Resource Economics and Social Sciences Division at 202-720-2307.

Agricultural Tourism Project, Small Farm Center, University of California at Davis

The Small Farm Center website features a wealth of agritourism resources, including a searchable database of Californian agritourism destinations and a series of fact sheets for those interested in getting started in agritourism.

For more information write to Small Farm Center, Univ. of California, One Shields Ave., Davis, CA 95616-8699; call 530-752-8136.

Vermont Farms! Open to the Public

A number of states have leveraged USDA Rural Development grants to launch online and/or print directories of farms open to the public.

March 4, 2004: To get to the Cedar House Bed & Breakfast and Coffee Farm on Hawaii's Big Island, you turn east uphill from the main road in the town of Captain Cook (in 1778 the great navigator met his tragic end in Kealakekua Bay, just below) and follow a single-lane track as it climbs sharply up the mountain, walled in on both sides by eight-foot-high coffee bushes.

This is the heart of the Kona coffee belt, less than 50 square miles of steep, rocky terrain yielding 2.5 million pounds of beans a year, and the land is too valuable to waste on grassy road margins. Short pullouts allow you to pass workers' cars and farm trucks coming from the other direction. After a series of twists and turns, a small sign points you to your destination, and the view opens up down to the sea.

Here you will be greeted by Cindy and Tim Brady, farm and B & B managers since the Cedar House's owners, Diana and Nik Von der Lühe, returned to their native Germany last year. Cindy works four days a week at Adaptations, a local organic vegetable farm and small-scale distributor, Tim works the 3 acres of coffee, and together they manage the B & B and vacation rental.

"It balances out well," explains Cindy, "because the slow period for the B & B is October, November, and the early part of December, and that's the busiest time [harvest season] for the coffee."

Although small coffee acreages like this one are the norm in Kona--and have been since the crop was first developed here by Japanese immigrants in the late 19th century--the Bradys say that Cedar House's income from accommodation now exceeds its coffee income, greatly boosting the farm's overall viability.

Having guests at the farm also enables them to increase the amount of coffee they sell directly to the consumer, since nearly every visitor to the farm buys at least a pound or two, and many also visit the farm's website for subsequent purchases.

Cedar House is one of many small farms on the Big Island that have gotten into the hospitality business in the past decade. So-called 'farm-stay' accommodation is well established in many European countries, with websites, publications, and quality-rating systems to help travelers find the experience and the amenities they're looking for.

Guests at such establishments will tell you that farms make great B & Bs because they tend to be quiet, interesting, off the beaten path, and run by generous, friendly people who serve up terrific breakfasts made from fresh, locally-grown ingredients. (At Cedar House you get not only the farm's own just-roasted coffee but an array of delicious tropical fruits like apple bananas, starfruit, and cherimoyas--all grown on the farm or very nearby.)

In Hawaii, however, farm-stays are just one part of a burgeoning agritourism movement. Among American states, Hawaii may not have the greatest number of farms participating in agritourism ventures--Pennsylvania, New York, and Vermont are leaders in terms of absolute numbers and percentage of farms involved--but it may very well be doing the most to explore the full range of what agritourism can mean. A survey conducted by the Hawaii Agricultural Statistics Service (HASS) in 2000 found 126 farms (out of a total of around 5500) engaged in agritourism statewide, with another 84 farms planning to start agritourism activities in the near future. But the total value of agritourism in the state of Hawaii at that time was pegged at $26 million. And, everyone agrees, all those figures are on the rise.

SLIDESHOW: Hawaii's open-door farms
Agritourism in the 50th state

The key word is diversity

Hawaii Agricultural Statistics Service defines agritourism as "a commercial enterprise on a working farm conducted for the enjoyment, education, and/or active involvement of the visitor, generating supplemental income for the farm." As such, it may not even capture some elements of the trend, such as private farm visits organized by professional tour guides. Any guidebook you pick up—including the freebie magazines prominently displayed at the airports—will feature at least one, if not dozens of farmers' markets, sensory smorgasbords where locals and mainlanders alike can stock up on jackfruit, rambutan, tree tomatoes, Asian greens, giant avocadoes, and much, much more.

. . . the total value of agritourism in the state of Hawaii [in 2000] was pegged at $26 million.

Rob Pacheco, who with his wife Cindy owns and operates an eco-tourism company called Hawaii Forest & Trail (www.hawaii-forest.com), believes that "the number of people doing ag-tours is almost certainly underestimated," especially in the Kona area, where many tourists just drive the belt road, taking in the sights. A free "Kona Coffee Country Driving Tour" map encourages such behavior, as does the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival. Held each November since 1970, the latter features coffee picking contests, coffee 'cupping' competitions to determine the farm producing the best brew, and the crowning of a Miss Kona Coffee.

But that's all budget-agritourism compared to the private tours and high-end 'culinary weekends' also on offer, usually through one of the luxury hotels. In 2002, the Pachecos began working with the Hilton Waikoloa Village—one of the Big Island's largest and ritziest resorts—to develop farm-based culinary tours, including stops at vegetable farms, grass-based livestock ranches, and the Kona Coffee Living History Farm (run by the Kona Historical Society and representing a Japanese-American coffee farm in the 1920s). Hosted by Waikoloa Village executive chef Wilhelm Pirngruber and executive pastry chef David Brown, the all-day farm tours are followed by a second day in which participants watch the chefs work with the local farm products in the kitchen and then get to enjoy the results.

. . . their underlying goal with all of their tours is to educate visitors about "the biogeography of the place."

Pacheco says that working with private tour operators enables farmers to access some of the benefits of agritourism—or to try it out—without making a big investment of time and other resources. As eco-tour operators, the Pachecos have long been using private ranches as locations for their natural history tours, and they say that their underlying goal with all of their tours is to educate visitors about "the biogeography of the place."

Hawaii's vast potential for agritourism is grounded in at least three factors. First, of course, there is the enormous stream of tourists coming to Hawaii—from all over the world—in search of sun, fun, and relaxation. Second, Hawaii's tropical climate and rich natural and cultural history present dozens, if not hundreds of farm types and products to the touring public. On the northern arm of the island, vast cattle operations like the Parker Ranch run tours; in the south, the Big Island Flower Company does a roaring trade in orchids and other exotic tropical plants. In between, there's coffee, macadamia nuts, citrus, pineapples, exotic fruits, vegetables—almost anything can be grown here, if you just find the right microclimate for it. As Charlene Cowan, owner and operator of Macadamia Meadows Farm B & B in Ka'u and head of the Hawaii Agricultural Tourism Association, explains, "we're not just trying to market one or two crops. Something new comes into fruit every day of the year."

Sugar boom, and bust

Surprisingly, however, it was not always so. Hawaii's agricultural economy has been going through a period of enforced diversification since the collapse of the sugar industry over the last three decades, as protective tariffs have been withdrawn and cheaper sugar from overseas has entered the US market. There were once 24 sugar plantations in Hawaii; today there are just two.

One of these, Gay & Robinson on the island of Kauai, offers visitors a view into the past and present of Hawaiian sugar production. For $30 per person, you get a fascinating two-hour tour of the plantation fields and factory from Wilfred Ibara, a mechanical engineer with more than 20 years of experience in the sugar industry. Ibara is also a third-generation sugar plantation employee, so his perspective on the industry goes way back. Pricier tours go up into the mountains for views of sites used in the movie "Jurassic Park."

Chris Faye, Gay & Robinson's tour supervisor, says that although the small-scale tour operation makes no significant contribution to the plantation's $25 million annual budget, she feels it's a valuable program. "We get engineers, farmers, food processors, and people who like sugar—sometimes it's kids, dragging their parents along," Faye explains. Those not involved in food production tend to be "shocked at how much work it all is," but everyone finds it interesting. "As little as two generations ago, most Americans worked on farms," she observes, "so lots of people still feel a natural connection to agricultural life."

Future opportunities—and challenges

The many faces of Hawaiian agritourism serve as a reminder that although agritourism ventures are frequently presented to farmers as an 'alternative' enterprise, they are not necessarily synonymous with sustainable or small-scale farming. Just down the road from the Gay & Robinson sugar plantation, the Kauai Coffee Company has a gift shop and visitors' center with a continuous loop video describing their large-scale mechanized processing methods. On the north side of Kauai, the 450-acre Guava Kai Plantation receives 75,000 visitors a year, selling fresh fruit and value-added products direct to the public as well as to mainland processors. Outside of Honolulu on Oahu, the Dole pineapple plantation, open to the public since 1989, attracts nearly a million visitors a year.

Back on the Big Island, residents are bracing themselves for a proposed expansion of cruise ship traffic, from one a week to as many as five a week. Debbie Ward, an extension agent based at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, says her office would like to see more agritourism development, particularly on the Hilo side of the island, to meet this coming tide of daytrippers. Hopefully, she says, it will include many small operations as well as a few large ones.

The by-laws of the Hawaii Agricultural Tourism Association state that activities must take place on a 'working farm'—without attempting to specify precisely what that means. Macadamia nut grower Charlene Cowan says that her rule of thumb is, "Does it help people stay on the land? If so, I'm all for it." Another measure of integrity in agritourism might be the quality of the educational experience that farms offer the public. In Hawaii, such opportunities are there for tourists willing to seek them out.