Hilo, Hawaii — CHERIMOYA, calamansi, rainbow papaya. Puna ricotta, poha berries, lilikoi. Lava salsa, dinosaur kale, Hamakua mushrooms. This is the exotic-food litany on the lips of pilgrims who go to the Hilo Farmers Market, held twice a week on the lush eastern side of the Big Island.
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On a Saturday in mid-December I was in the greedy throng, caressing a cluster of longan, or “dragon eye” fruit; sampling a fresh, made-to-order green papaya salad; sidling up for a whiff of ripe, fragrant mango.
The Big Island, a k a Hawaii, is the biggest agricultural producer in the state. But its farming history is one of immigrant fruit — produce that is itself a pilgrim. Virtually everything that is grown in the Hawaiian islands today is an exotic, brought in from somewhere else by sailors, merchants and contract laborers; pineapple, long seen as Hawaii’s signature fruit, was introduced to the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1813 by Don Francisco de Paula y Marin, a Spanish adviser to King Kamehameha I.
On my December visit I set off in search of unusual agritourism experiences from a recent wave of Big Island farms. Though agricultural production has been geared largely toward industrial export and plantation-scale production over the last century and a half — entire crops of bananas, pineapple, macadamia nuts and sugar cane were shipped overseas, while almost everything else had to be flown in from the mainland — that mindset is shifting.
Almost two decades ago 12 local chefs, including Alan Wong and Peter Merriman, became the founding fathers of the Hawaii regional cuisine movement, which focuses on getting the state’s producers to grow what local chefs need. Today, crops are more diverse all across the state, but especially on the Big Island, as farmers have rediscovered heritage breeds and branched out to grow ever more varieties.
My agriventure began at the Hilo Coffee Mill, which is at the epicenter of a rebirth of coffee production in the tropical forests on the island’s east side, where — little-known fact — the 20 miles from Hilo to Volcano once produced more coffee than the entire state of Hawaii does today.
A full-service coffee farm that not only grows and processes its own coffee but also does custom processing for other farms, the Hilo Coffee Mill was founded in 2001 by Kathy Patton and Jeanette Baysa, who wanted to revive coffee-growing in East Hawaii with artisanal small-batch production. I first discovered their smooth, fragrant roasts on a 2003 visit to the Big Island; today, Hilo Coffee Mill is situated on 24 acres in Mountain View.
A tour begins in the roasting room, where the aroma of roasting beans is dizzying and delicious, and continues with a loop around the grounds and a tutorial on coffee from bean to brew. As we meandered among rows of coffee trees heavy with bright-red fruit — which are hand-picked — Ms. Patton plucked a coffee cherry from a branch and popped it into her mouth.
“I like to tell visitors to try this, because it mimics the coffee process itself,” she said. “When you chew the outside of the cherry, you’re pulping the fruit. When you suck on the bean, you’re fermenting.”
I obliged. The flavor of the fruit skin was tart, the soft pulp around the bean sweet and mellow.
Tours conclude with a tasting and lunch at the cafe. There’s also a well-chosen collection of culinary and coffee-themed goods for sale like cold-brew coffee makers for connoisseurs, and seriously addictive chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. And, of course, there’s the coffee.
“Everybody knows Kona coffee,” Ms. Baysa said. “The farms on that side of the island have been very organized and created a huge marketing push to get their coffee out there. So people assume that coffee can’t grow in a wetter climate.”
But she points out that in the late 1800’s nearly 6,000 acres of premium coffee flourished in East Hawaii until sugar, a k a King Cane, took over as the more profitable crop. The decline of sugar in recent years has made it possible for small coffee farms on the Big Island’s east side to make a comeback.
“Like wine it comes down to the farm and the care in processing and roasting the product,” Ms. Baysa said. “When you taste the coffee, it’s that speck of earth you’re tasting.”
The next morning I drove two hours west across the island on dramatic, winding Saddle Road, which takes visitors from dense lowland greenery to a high plains landscape dotted with cows and sheep-crossing signs, and on up to a lava-field landscape bookended by two massive volcanoes, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. With a neck sore from craning to take in the view, I finally dropped down toward the Pacific and the arid Kona Coast.
Not far from Kona International Airport I found myself examining tiny abalone, turquoise-blue in their infancy and as bright as gems in nursery tanks at the Big Island Abalone Corporation. Perched on the ocean at the National Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, which pumps pristine deep-sea water to the tanks, this farm specializes in Kona Coast abalone, a premium stock of ezo, or Japanese northern abalone. They are a delicacy long prized in Japan, and the demand from Hawaiian chefs has been skyrocketing.
Big Island Abalone began visitor tours in 2008. To observe all the stages from spawn to shipment, I followed Jay Booth, the farm’s production director, around the hatchery, nursery and 32 grow-out tanks. The farm also has an algae lab to grow a patented strain of seaweed to feed its meaty mollusks.
“Abalone have an amazing sensitivity to environment, even in captivity,” Mr. Booth told me as we stood over the grow-out tanks, holding rack after rack of iridescent, silvery shells, about two million of the mollusks at any one time. Caring for abalone is labor-intensive; it takes two and a half years for them to reach market size, three inches long and weighing three ounces.
“They like it dark,” Mr. Booth said, “and they like something to cling to. They can sense when there’s an earthquake, or a storm, or other major weather event, and it triggers them to spawn.”
Originally from Montana, Mr. Booth began his farming career in livestock 29 years ago and has a background in microbiology. “As far as animal husbandry goes, it’s pretty much the same,” he said. “You manage the stocking density and the quality control of the environment, whether it’s water or land.”
At the end of the visit I sampled fresh, tender abalone off the grill prepared by Kayo Arai, the wife of the company’s chief executive, Hiroshi Arai. Fresh abalone sells for $10 apiece at the farm’s gate, and it is also found in local farmers’ markets, groceries and high-end restaurants.
After my taste it was down the Kona Coast to a tropical-fruit test garden that is experimenting with growing ultra-exotics for big-name chefs all over the state. The garden and a farmers’ co-op are on the grounds of an old coffee mill in the town of Captain Cook, along the picturesque road to Kealakekua Bay, a tranquil expanse of protected water that is visited by spinner dolphins, pufferfish and the occasional whale.
The garden is part of the 12 Trees Project, which began with a list of 12 tree fruits that the chefs said they wanted for cooking; the farmers planted the varietals to see if they would flower there. The original 12 — the tree tomato, poha, loquat and Rangpur lime among them — have since been joined by countless other plants. A walk around the garden is a lesson in the diversity of things that can thrive in this climate: tiny turkey figs, knobby atemoya, towering banana trees. (More than 100 types of bananas are grown in Hawaii.)
Ken Love, the executive director of Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers, a nonprofit group that helped start the test garden, is passionate about merging the interests of farmers and chefs to create a more direct relationship.
“It might have started 20 years ago with Hawaii regional cuisine, but now it’s the next step,” he said. “They’re getting involved with the growing and the science here on the Big Island. It makes sense, because this island is the breadbasket of the state.”
IF YOU GO
Hilo Coffee Mill 17-995 Highway 11, Mountain View; 808-968-1333; hilocoffeemill.com. Farm tour and coffee tasting, $10 (with lunch, $15).
Hilo Farmers Market Mamo Street and Kamehameha Avenue, Hilo; 808-933-1000; hilofarmersmarket.com. Wednesday and Saturday, “from dawn till it’s gone.”
The Big Island Abalone Corporation 73-4460 Queen Kaahumanu Highway, Suite 115 Kailua-Kona; 808-334-0034; bigislandabalone.com. Farm tours and abalone tastings on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday at noon, $10 (reservations required).
Kona Pacific Farmers Cooperative and Tropical Fruit Garden (the 12 Trees Project) 82-5810 Napo’opo’o Road, Captain Cook; 808-328-2411. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
WHERE TO STAY
The Old Hawaiian B&B (1492 Wailuku Drive, Hilo; 877-961-2816, thebigislandvacation.com) doubles from $80) has three quiet rooms (ask for the bright and airy Sunrise Room) in the hills above downtown Hilo.
The Sheraton Keauhou Bay (808-930-4900; sheratonkeauhou.com; doubles from $159) has excellent ocean views and is convenient to the Kona Coast farms, markets and coffee belt.