Sowing the seeds of agritourism on Oahu

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Kahuku Farms is now selling its own acai bowls to go along with Kahuku brand chocolate, which debuted last year.
Kahuku Farms is now selling its own acai bowls to go along with Kahuku brand chocolate, which debuted last year.
Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

After college Kylie Matsuda-Lum wanted to return to the farm she grew up on and contribute to the family business, but her parents weren't having it.

"They said it was too risky, and I should go into something else," Matsuda-Lum recalled.

Now, after six years of welcoming visitors to Oahu's Kahuku Farms through tourist and educational programs established by Matsuda-Lum, her sister and husband, the older generation is ready to admit the young ones had some good ideas.

Projects set in motion years ago are coming to fruition. The farm is now selling its own chocolate and just recently unveiled its own acai berry production.

Matsuda-Lum grew up on Kahuku Farms, which is the collaboration of two longtime Hawaii farming families. During the 1960s the Fukuyama and Matsuda farms were friendly neighbors, both run by Japanese emigres. That first generation's children, Melvin Matsuda and Clyde Fukuyama, became good friends and often collaborated on agricultural projects. In 1986 they officially merged, and created the Kahuku brand.

While the older generations felt the children should find other professions, Matsuda-Lum felt a strong connection to the farm and wanted to find a way to use her degree in travel and leisure management. She had studied hospitality in school and was determined to think of a project she could sell to her parents and uncle.

"In Hawaii, agritourism is still behind. I remember going to California as a child and doing the u-pick at roadside stands," Matsuda-Lum said. "They would have pumpkin festivals in October and all these family activities at farms. In Hawaii, the rules and regulations are tougher, and those things aren't as common."

Kahuku Farms opened its gates to visitors in 2010, and the property now features a sustainability cafe and a variety of programs. It took years of planning to get things ready and secure the necessary permits.

"We're the fourth generation, and traditionally farmers close their gates to the public to stop theft and vandalism. It was a new concept to open the gates and let people come in and see what you're doing," said Matsuda-Lum. "Most of our parents thought we were crazy. It was tough to convince them in the beginning, but my dad was one of the ones who believed in the project."

Seven years ago, noticing the growing popularity of acai bowls and smoothies, they decided to plant some acai seeds. Acai, which is most common in Brazil and other parts of South America, grows as a tall palm. For years the tree produced nothing, but it finally started showing berries in year six. The next year, they had enough to experiment with. The berry has a large, hard seed and a thin layer of pulp.

Instead of paying $7,000 for a machine to do the job, Matsuda-Lum's husband, Judah Lum, fashioned his own system, which they are keeping secret for now, using equipment they already had in the kitchen.

This spring Kahuku Farms started selling its own acai bowl, the first commercial use of Hawaii-grown acai berries that they are aware of. The farm put its own spin on the acai bowl found throughout Southern California and in health-minded cafes and smoothies shops. Instead of honey they use their own lilikoi butter, a spread made from the tangy fruit, and haupia, a coconut sauce made with their own vanilla beans. From there they add bananas, other berries, granola, and a macadamia graham crumble.

In addition to the new experiments with cacao and acai trees, Kahuku Farms offers two different tours for visitors and welcomes school children for educational programs. There is a 30-minute "smoothie tour" that includes a wagon ride and information on the farm's papayas and bananas, all topped off with a fresh smoothie made from the farm's fruit. The one-hour "grand tour" also includes a wagon ride, in addition to taking a deeper dive into the history of the family farm and Hawaiian agriculture.

"Everybody now sees the value of the project, and without their support we never would've been able to do it on our own," Matsuda-Lum said. "[The older generation] is always looking for ways to perpetuate the business for the next generation. Once we got it going they saw how it could help sustain us."

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