COURTESY VANILLA KITCHEN
The Hamakua Alive festival is geared toward showcasing the agricultural richness and the potential of Agri-tourism on the Big Island.
Farmers set the table at Hamakua Alive
Three Hamakua Coast farmers and their wives gathered for dinner at the Hawaiian Vanilla Co. in Paauilo nine months ago, and their conversation was as tantalizing as the gourmet dishes made from Hamakua-grown crops that were served.
Place: Paauilo School grounds
Time: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct. 27
Call: (808) 776-1771
Notes: Tax-deductible donations to the Tom Kadooka Foundation would be gratefully accepted. Checks can be made out to the foundation and mailed to P.O. Box 383, Paauilo, HI 96776.
Jim Reddekopp Jr., founder of the Hawaiian Vanilla Co., recalled, "We discussed sustainability, and each of us had very different thoughts about that. We shared stories about how our businesses got started and how they had grown, and again they were all different. But when talk turned to the direction Hamakua was going, we all envisioned the same thing."
Along this stretch of the Big Island, the dominant landscape features are eucalyptus trees and grazing cattle. But hidden down back roads in the foothills of Mauna Kea are farms producing everything from hydroponic tomatoes to hearts of palm, from goat cheese to gourmet mushrooms. Most are boutique family-run operations less than 15 acres in size.
"A renaissance of agriculture is taking place here that's like no other place in the islands," said Reddekopp. "We see Hamakua as an agriculture and culinary destination where people can spend the day traveling from one farm to the next. They would meet the purveyors, walk through their fields, learn about what they're growing and sit down for a wonderful meal made from those crops."
Ten dinners followed, attended not only by farmers, but also chefs, food writers, Hamakua Coast Community Association members and representatives of Hawaii county's Department of Research and Development and Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate, which leases land to many Hamakua farms.
Slowly, plans began to gel. On Oct. 27 the inaugural Hamakua Alive festival will chronicle the area's transition from a sugar plantation-based economy to one revolving around diversified agriculture.
"There's the potential to grow just about anything in Hamakua," said Reddekopp, the event's coordinator. "Hamakua Alive will help fledgling farmers bring their ideas to fruition."
Part of the proceeds will benefit the nonprofit Tom Kadooka Foundation, which Reddekopp established this year in honor of his late mentor, who grew vanilla in Kainaliu for decades. The foundation will pay for one-on-one consulting services for new entrepreneurs seeking to launch innovative agricultural ventures.
"In two hours I can share information about my failures and successes that I know would benefit someone who's not quite sure how to go about turning his or her dream into reality," said Reddekopp. "The foundation's other consultants also are experienced farmers who have a lot of knowledge and insights to share. They will be able to look at newcomers' business plans and say, 'Those are great ideas, but I think you should do this, this and this before you do that.'"
HELD IN conjunction with Paauilo School's annual Blue & White fundraising fair, Hamakua Alive will offer games, live music and a contest spotlighting entrants' best recipes for cakes, pies, jams and jellies.
Farms will set up booths at which attendees can chat with purveyors, view displays and sample and purchase products.
In addition to Reddekopp's Hawaiian Vanilla Co., participants include Hamakua Springs (tomatoes, lettuce, bananas and Japanese cucumbers), Hawaii Island Goat Dairy (herb-flavored goat cheese), Wailea Agricultural Group (hearts of palm), Volcano Island Honey Co. (organic white honey), Hamakua Macadamia Nut Co., Hamakua Heritage Mushrooms, Big Island Beef Producers, Long Ears Hawaiian Coffee and Onomea Tea Co.
Each company will be paired with a notable Big Island chef such as Will Queja of Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, James Babian of the Fairmont Orchid and Josh Ketner of Hilo Bay Café, to create dishes from their products. Prices for samplings will range between $1 and $3.
Hamakua Alive is Hawaii's latest achievement in agri-tourism, a unique hybrid of agriculture and tourism that provides visitors with close-up looks at farm operations.
"When you eat a salad, you have new appreciation for everything in it because you learned firsthand from the growers what it took to cultivate those ingredients," said Reddekopp. "Agritourism connects you to nature. It stimulates your senses as you breathe fresh air, smell the soil and pluck something off a tree or a shrub that bursts with flavor."
REDDEKOPP GAVE UP an executive position at a large tour company to start Hawaiian Vanilla Co. in sleepy Paauilo. It's a family affair, with his wife, Tracy, and their five children pitching in to care for 15,000 vanilla plants, lead tours and prepare and serve the teas, tastings and four-course luncheons that feature Tracy's delectable vanilla dishes.
"Agritourism is a way for farms to survive, but of course we want to tread lightly when we bring in visitors," said Reddekopp. "My family and neighbors farm because we love it and we see the magic that happens when people spend time with us. Hamakua Alive will help spread the word about the exciting things that are happening here. It'll introduce more people to our thriving agricultural community and the lifestyle we truly love."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.