For a sign of agritourism's ascendance in Hawaii, look no further than the latest course catalog from the University of Hawaii at Hilo, a campus that recently announced its first class covering agricultural and food tourism.
"Over the last decade agritourism has grown immensely, and it's been supported by the state itself," said Ancil Clancy, general manager of O'o Farm on Maui. "It's a natural union as a unification of Hawaii's two biggest industries, agriculture and tourism. Agritourism is a necessary truth, and it will help create a sustainable future for agriculture on the Hawaiian islands."
Additionally, as a generational shift occurs on Hawaiian farms, with younger, more change-minded people taking over farm management, new farms are joining the tourist-friendly ranks and programs are becoming more robust and innovative.
"There have been a lot of economic and social shifts in the last 10 years," said Pomai Weigert, marketing and project coordinator of the Hawaii Agritourism Association. "The average age of the Hawaiian farmer has dropped. Also, Hawaii comes from a plantation-farming background, but there aren't any more in the state. Now the focus is on sustainability. This all happened at the same time that it was becoming relevant and cool, with the popularity of farm-to-table and the slow food movement."
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Several farms on the Islands grow a variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs and either offer meals at the farm, are tied to a restaurant nearby or both.
There are also numerous specialty farms that offer a glimpse at cultivating lesser-known crops.
The Hawaii Agritourism Association assisted Hamakua Mushrooms, which produces 5,000 pounds of specialty mushrooms each week and serves 200 hotels and restaurants across the state, in developing their tour and program.
"The owners, Bob and Janice Stanga, were bombarded by people popping in and wanting to check it out, but growing mushrooms is kind of a sensitive process," Hamakua tour guide Kenta Nemoto said.
They put in windows so visitors can observe parts of the growing process, added a gift shop and partnered with a Hilo company to create products using their mushrooms. The tour has been a success, and now Hamakua is working on a partnership with a nearby restaurant to offer a mushroom-focused meal.
"A lot of folks come here looking for something new," Nemoto said. "Agritourism is a new category on its own, but those people interested in it are always looking for something new to do."
Hamakua Mushrooms established a tour after people kept popping in to check out the farm.
Many of the farms started similar to Hamakua, establishing tours once the flow of unannounced visitors became too much to handle. Now the industry is becoming more formalized, and partnerships between farms, restaurants, bars and others have made farm experiences more inviting than ever.
Greenwell Farms, which produces Kona coffee and dates back to 1850, welcomes 70,000 visitors every year for its tour and coffee tasting.
"Although our farm is four generations strong, we've been welcoming visitors since the early 1990s when walk-in visitors discovered our farm. Looking back, that really signaled the start of agritourism," said Tom Greenwell, president of Greenwell Farms. "Fast forward and today our guides welcome a full farm load of visitors every day eager to learn about the tradition of high-quality Kona coffee."
Other Hawaiian agritourism experiences include:
• O'o Farm, Maui: This 8.5-acre farm, focused on sustainability, grows a plethora of goods, including coffee, cabbage, beans, asparagus, tomatoes, corn, Kaffir limes, lemons, mint, plums, cherries and avocados. In addition to a food tour and farm luncheon, O'o offers a coffee tour and supplies its Lahaina restaurants Pacific'o and the Feast at Lele, as well as the Aina Gourmet Market.
• Kohana Rum, Oahu: The distillery is a little out of the way but "well worth the trip," according to Weigert. The "farm-to-bottle, small-batch" rum is made with native Hawaiian sugar cane. Tastings and tours are available Tuesdays through Saturdays.
• OK Farms, Island of Hawaii: What's better than a farm tour? A farm tour with a waterfall. This 1,000-acre farm grows macadamia nuts, citrus, cacao, coffee and hearts of palms. Tours and educational programs pass by citrus groves and multiple cascades.
• Steelgrass Chocolate Farm, Kauai: This farm has diversified over the years to offer a botanical garden, lunch tours and even a recording studio. Tours take guests all the way through the process of making chocolate, from the cocoa pod to processed bars.
• Big Island Bees, Island of Hawaii: This family's beekeeping dates to the 1970s and today boasts 3,800 hives housing 190 million bees. Tours are offered Mondays through Saturdays, and you can also sample their organic honey and peruse their museum.