We had traveled almost 4,000 miles to spend our Saturday morning admiring Hawaiian-grown produce at the Hilo Farmers Market, and it was worth the trip.
Giant avocados were stacked behind hand-lettered signs proclaiming their buttery texture and ripeness. Piles of papayas leaned into bunches of bananas. Turmeric and ginger roots were lightly dusted with soil, contrasting with the slick glossiness of the star fruit. There were plastic bags stuffed with calamansi, a small citrus fruit resembling a lime, and bins filled with purple sweet potatoes.
Browsing through a selection of fruits and vegetables definitely isn’t the postcard version of a Hawaiian vacation. But in many ways, agriculture is just as important to Hawaii as the sunsets, sandy beaches and palm trees that symbolize the state.
For centuries, Hawaii has been shaped by farming. Polynesians brought taro, bananas and breadfruit when they settled the islands around 400 A.D. In the 19th century, European-Americans established sugar cane and pineapple plantations. Over the decades, agricultural jobs brought Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Filipino and Korean immigrants to Hawaii, creating a rich multicultural society. Today, agritourism — including tours, farm stays and more — is a growing sector of the state’s tourism industry.
My husband, Mike, and I had gotten glimpses of Hawaii’s agriculture side on previous trips, from spotting taro fields on Kauai to enjoying a plate of locally grown papaya and dragonfruit at our bed-and-breakfast. This time, I sought out local food. Freezing temperatures had recently ended the growing season in Minnesota, and I wasn’t ready to give up on fresh local produce just yet. So during our nine-day vacation to the Big Island and Maui, we took farm tours and stopped at roadside fruit stands.
On the island of Hawaii, the Big Island, we stayed at an Airbnb with breadfruit, orange and lime trees and a resident flock of chickens in the backyard. Then there was the main event: the Hilo Farmers Market, held in Hilo’s historic downtown on the eastern side of the Big Island.
Most days of the week, the Hilo Farmers Market is a sedate affair, with a dozen or so growers offering tropical fruit and a handful of vegetables, plus a few craft and souvenir vendors when a cruise ship is in port. But on Wednesdays and Saturdays, more than 200 farmers, artisans, crafters, retailers and food vendors set up booths.
We spent a Saturday morning wandering the market’s aisles, captivated by the brilliantly colored fruit and the thwack of a vendor splitting coconuts with a machete.
The market’s prepared food vendors reflected Hawaii’s cultural diversity. Offerings included Filipino lumpia, Thai spring rolls and Japanese bento boxes with artfully arranged pieces of meat, vegetables and rice. Several food vendors also offered Spam musubi, a uniquely Hawaiian snack made by wrapping nori, a sheet of dried seaweed, around white rice and a thin slice of Spam.
In addition to eating locally grown food, we also wanted to learn about how it was grown and processed. Many of Hawaii’s farms and food production facilities offer tours, from the very touristy visitor center at the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corp. on the Big Island to private tours at small family farms all over the state.
Biting into coffee beans
The Big Island is famous for its coffee, most notably the Kona variety from the western side of the island, but beans are grown across the island in eight of its 10 microclimates. We saw how the crop is cultivated and processed with a behind-the-scenes tour at Hilo Coffee Mill, which processes and packages coffee for over 70 small coffee farms. The owners also grow their own coffee on-site, so we got a chance to sample a raw coffee cherry straight off the tree — it tasted more like a bell pepper than a latté.
Our tour guide explained that what actually goes into your cup is the coffee bean, or the pit at the center of the fruit. After the coffee cherries are harvested, the pulp is removed from the beans, and the beans are then dried, roasted and eventually milled into ground coffee.
Another delicious crop growing in popularity on the Big Island is cacao, the main ingredient in chocolate. Puna Chocolate Co. owns cacao orchards near Hilo and Kona and offers tours at both locations. It also operates a downtown Hilo shop stocked with chocolate bars and cocoa mix. The store sells made-to-order drinks featuring locally grown coffee and chocolate, including hot chocolate, cocoa tea and sipping chocolate, which is thicker than hot chocolate and has a rich, gritty intensity.
Eating and driving on Maui
On Maui, we found local food along the Hana Highway, famous for its sharp curves, lush tropical scenery and picturesque one-lane bridges. The steady stream of tourist traffic has inspired many enterprising locals to set up food stalls and fruit stands. Hana Farms is one of the more elaborate, with an adjacent grill serving lunch and produce, preserves and bakery items (the chocolate macadamia nut cookies are a must). Another option, Hana Fresh, is operated by a health clinic and offers certified organic produce, vegetable-packed lunch entrees and fruit-forward smoothies.
More common along the Hana Highway are self-serve fruit stands, with homemade signs and a small assortment of produce. Some resemble bookshelves, with a roof and screen door to keep out the elements and pests; others are simply a wooden table heaped with fruit. At a pay-what-you-wish stand just past Haleakala National Park, Mike loaded up on lilikoi, a bright yellow variety of passion fruit. Back at our rental condo in Kihei, he strained the seeds out of the pulp, added sugar, and cooked it down into a thick orange syrup that we drizzled over ice cream.
We also found local produce at the supermarket. Grocery shopping in Hawaii is an exercise in sticker shock (expect $5 boxes of cereal and gallons of milk that ring up close to $6) but the locally grown options in the produce section are often a bargain. We stocked up on avocados for breakfast and apple bananas by the bunch. A variety originally hailing from Central and South America, apple bananas are smaller than the Cavendish bananas that are a staple on the mainland. I’m not usually a fan of bananas, but the firm texture and slight tang of apple bananas make them one of my favorite fruits.
On Maui, we spent a morning at Surfing Goat Dairy. Visitors can take a 30-minute tour of the farm and dairy or opt for an extended “grand dairy tour,” which includes hand-milking a goat, leading the herd to pasture and interactions with the friendly animals.
Although the goat breeds raised at the farm originated in Europe and mainland United States, the goats have adapted well to a tropical existence, grazing on the farm’s pastures and being milked twice a day. Their milk is used to make the dairy’s 25 varieties of fresh and aged cheeses. After a sampling marathon, we decided our favorites were the chèvre flavored with fresh garlic chives and the quark (a spoonable German cheese) mixed with lilikoi, cane sugar and honey.
Drinking in pineapple
Our final agritourism activity was inspired by Hawaii’s most iconic crop: the pineapple. While the fruit is one of the state’s most popular motifs, it originated in South America — Costa Rica, Brazil and the Philippines are top producers today. Hawaii’s current pineapple industry is a small fraction of what it once was, and it primarily exists to supply the local market and tourists.
But demand for local pineapples is strong, thanks to the state’s burgeoning microdistilling industry; the fruit’s high sugar content means that it can easily be distilled into vodka, gin and other spirits.
Haliimaile Distilling Co. — across the street from fields of Maui Gold pineapples — calls for hyperlocal sourcing. About one pineapple is used per bottle of vodka, although the fruity taste is lost during distillation. “After all, regular vodka doesn’t taste like French fries,” quipped our distillery tour guide.
Our guide went on to explain some of the pros and cons of distilling in a tropical climate. Thanks to the warm temperatures, fermentation is faster, but aging spirits is a challenge. Barrels have an unfortunate tendency to explode if the storage facility isn’t carefully climate-controlled.
We wrapped up our tour by sampling Haliimaile’s spirits, ranging from a Kona coffee-infused rum to whiskey blended with distilled pineapple.
Browsing roadside fruit stands and sipping whiskey isn’t the postcard version of Hawaii, and it might not be everyone’s ideal island getaway. But for us, meeting local producers, seeing how some of our favorite foods are grown and enjoying samples along the way gave our vacation the flavor we traveled to Hawaii to find.
Stacy Brooks is a Minneapolis-based food and travel writer. She blogs at tangledupinfood.com.