Where did that pineapple I ate on the beach in Waikiki beach come from? What about bananas I picked up at the grocery store in Hilo?
The answer might surprise you. Today, a full 85% of Hawaii’s food is imported. This is a shocking statistic, considering the islands used to independently feed a population estimated to be the same size as one living there today. Depending on the outside world for food is dangerous, as it puts the islands in an environmentally threatening and economically dangerous situation. Thankfully, there is a growing group of farmers on The Big Island who are passionate about promoting food sovereignty in Hawaii.
While I’m not much of a foodie, I am passionate about sustainability and the environment. Curious to find out more about the Big Island’s burgeoning agro-tourism scene, and I set off to explore four different Big Island farms.
Volcano Island Honey
Without question, the highlight of our farm-touring through the Big Island — and one of the high points of my entire trip — was our stop at Volcano Island Honey Company. It was the simple combination of discovering the greatest honey I have ever tasted with the truly mind-opening presentation given by owner Richard Spiegal, a man who describes himself as having “retired from being a hippie in order to be a businessman.”
The Volcano Island Honey Company is known as much for their gourmet honey as they are for their socially and environmentally responsible business practices. As we settled into the learning center where Richard presents to students, tourists, environmental groups and more, he encouraged us to ask ourselves, who is growing the food we eat, and how and why? When Richard asked himself that same question years ago, he did not like the answer.
He found food in America to be plagued by pollution, synthetics, toxins and bottom-line based big corporations. He wondered, can agriculture can be based on values? Can a business can be based on principles, rather than the bottom line? Can people and nature come first, and profit later? Today, the Volcano Island Honey Company is an inspirational yes! to all of the above. Today this award-winning honey is sold in upscale retailers like Whole Foods and Dean & Deluca, and their business model is an example to sustainable entrepreneurs everywhere.
At the heart of Volcano Island Honey’s principles is recognizing this: the earth does not charge for its resources. What a simple and powerful statement! As those words flashed on the screen my mind opened in a way I never imagined possible. Imagine what our world would look like if all businesses saw the Earth not as property to be pillaged, but as an altruistic power that freely and generously provides us with all we need to live. I am so passionate about this idea, and so surprised that something so simple had never occurred to me before. I want to jump up and down and spread this message far and wide!
As former hippie Richard pointed out, there is a peace sign hidden in the geometry of every bee hive. Photos by
Funny enough, I didn’t consider myself much of a honey fan before walking into this tour. I’m fairly sure I had only ever tried the amber-hued variety that comes in a plastic bear bottle. So when Richard proffered a jar of pearlescent white honey with a butter-like consistency, I gingerly took a very small spoonful. Moments later, I was attacking the jar with all the elegance of a rabid animal. It was as if I had been eating Wonderbread my entire life, and someone handed me a warm, homemade baguette.
The enticing combination of smooth texture, rich flavor and pure color comes from the rarity of a single-flower honey. The flowers grow on local Kiawe trees, in a small forest on the West Coast of the Big Island that Richard has fought tirelessly to protect from developers. They harvest only sur honey stored by the bees, leaving the bees enough honey for their needs, so that they never have to be fed sugar as a substitute. They also shun toxic materials at ever point in the husbandry, harvest and production processes. But Richard believes there may be something more ethereal at work as well — happy bees, and happy beekeepers. “I used to force — now I only encourage — my staff to meditate in the fields,” he mused, while trying to describe what makes Volcano Island Honey such a delicacy.
The impact my visit to the Volcano Island Honey Company made on me will last far beyond the stash of Organic White Honey that I’ve been trying my hardest to ration. Who would have guessed that I’d be a closeted honey-lover, and find a new fascination in the female-dominated bee society? But more so, I am always thrilled to meet people who are practicing their passion, making a positive impact on the world, and embracing an alternative path. “Make your life an example,” Richard told us. With people like Richard and companies like Volcano Island Honey Company leading the way, we will have plenty of inspiration to draw on.
Bee Farm Tours costs $35 per adult with a four person minimum. Tours are generally available Monday-Thursday but depend on farm work schedules. The Bee Hive Tour, in which you can actually put on a bee suit(!), is $350 per group, with a five person maximum. The small gift shop (call ahead) sells all varieties of honey — even in airline friendly 3oz. jar sample packs — as well as beesewax candles and organic wax.
46-4013 Puaono Road, Honoka’a • 808.775.1000 •
Hawaiian Vanilla Company
Hawaiian Vanilla Company, also located in the burgeoning Honoka’a district, has the distinction of being the only vanilla farm in America. Like many farms the Big Island, Hawaiian Vanilla Company is a family-run establishment, and you’ll likely meet one or more of owners Jim & Tracy Reddekop’s children helping run the show if you stop in for a visit.
Vanilla, one of the costliest spices in the world, is harvested from a notoriously-hard-to-cultivate orchid. The planifolia orchid blooms just one day out of each year, for just four hours at a time. In that window, it must be hand-pollinated by a careful farmer. Nine months later, a bean is ready to be cultivated. This time and labor intensive process results in a pure, rare flavor.
The Vanilla Company has discovered that the best way to win people over to their delicious vanilla is to let them taste it. Their popular Vanilla Infused Luncheon experience features gourmet dishes like citrus-vanilla bourbon marinated chicken and salad made from farm-fresh organic greens with Vanilla-Raspberry Vinaigrette, feta cheese and Vanilla-Honey-Peppered Pecans, all served in their tropical rain-forest surrounded dining room. They also offer Upcountry Tea service, where guests indulge in house-blends like Mauna Kea Sunset, a black tea infused with vanilla and cinnamon.
Even if you’re just passing through, make sure to stop by at the gift shop, where you can buy everything from dried vanilla bean stalks to vanilla-infused lip balm. There are also tons of delicious treats on offer, like the homemade vanilla ice cream with lilikoi sauce that we indulged in. Be warned — you’ll leave with your wallet emptier and your stomach much fuller.
The Vanilla Luncheon is offered Monday-Friday with seating at 12:15, costing $39 for adults and $15 for children. Upcountry Tea is held on Saturdays at 11am and costs $29 per person. Vanilla Tastings are offered at Monday-Friday at 10:30am and cost $25 per person. Vanillery Tours start daily at 11:30am & 1:00 pm and cost $25 adults at $10 children. Reservations required. Gift shop open 10am-5pm.
43-2007 Paauilo Mauka Road, Pa’auilo • 808.776.1771 •
Mountain Thunder Kona Coffee
A winding, lush road up into the mountains brought us to Mountain Thunder Coffee, an award-winning organic farm just fifteen minutes and worlds away from the resort town of Kona. Here, factors like lack of wind and high elevation (at 3,200 feet, Mountain Thunder is the highest farm on the island), as well as conscious decisions to avoid herbicides by hand picking weeds and hand picking beans for cultivation at peak ripeness combine to make a gourmet cup that people request around the globe.
We arrived just in time for one of the farm’s free hourly tours. Though only about half an hour long, the tour went into extreme detail about the cultivation of organic coffee and what goes into running a farm that goes above and beyond “certified organic.” Our tour started huddled around a Kona Coffe Tree with a chicken running underfoot and flock of resident geese honking in agreement with our guide’s assessments, and continued as we made our way though the dry milling room, the color sorting area, the roasting machines, and even the bagging and packaging process. And of course, there was a tasting — the highlight of any farm tour. Though I’m more of a coffee-aroma-enjoyer myself, Heather confirmed that Kona deserves its reputation as one of the premier coffee regions in the world.
Twenty minute free tours start every hour on the hour from 10am-4pm. VIP tours, in which you can go as far as roasting your own 5lb. bag of coffee, run from $65-199.
Update: Sadly, Mountain Thunder has for good.
I knew I would like the Volcano Winery when I called them in a panic, rushing late as usual. Their posted closing time was 5:30, and I asked in full flustered mode what the latest time we could arrive for a tasting was. “Wellll,” the voice on the other end of the line drawled, “If you’re in the gate by 5:30 we won’t turn ya’ll away.”
The laid-back aloha spirit continued as we began our tasting with a friendly guide explaining the winery’s selection of traditional grape wines, exotic fruit wines, and local honey wines. Tropical fruits like yellow guava and locally-grown Brazilian jaboticaba berries are blended with traditional wine grapes to create distinctive island flavors.
This being my first ever wine-tasting, I got the ropes pretty quickly — but not before throwing back the first glass as if it were a tequila shot, then staring at the ceiling awkwardly while everyone else sniffed and swirled and sipped. The standard tasting menu includes seven different wines — three whites, two reds, a blush and a dessert wine. The premium tasting menu includes trying out the winery’s infusion blend, which combines their popular Macadamia Nut Honey wine with local tea. As a bonus, tasting fees are applied to any bottles you purchase, reasonably priced at $16-24. It’s a genius business model if you think about it — get people tipsy and then sell them delicious things! If you’re anything like me you’ll soon find yourself scrambling to accommodate the several pounds worth of booze into your luggage allowance.
A standard tasting of seven wines is $5, while a premium tasting of seven wines an infusion is $7. Tasting fees are applied to any bottles purchased. Tastings offered any time between 10am-5:30pm.
35 Pi’i Mauna Dr, Volcano Town • 808.967.7772 •
Is it important to you to eat and buy locally? Would you visit a farms on your travels?