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Chef John King of the Westin Maui Resort & Spa adds an edible flower to a guest's salad. Interest in agritourism has prompted the Kaanapali resort to offer tours to local farms.
Hawaii’s visitor and agricultural industries to team up on agritourism
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What is today called agritourism has gone on at some level since the plantation era, but tourism officials and executives have decided the time has come to place new emphasis on this aspect of agriculture.
A new organization, called the Hawaii AgriTourism Association (HATA), will hold its first meetings Jan. 15-16 on Oahu in a bid to create a more formal link between Hawaii's farms and the state's visitor industry.
By banding together, Hawaii's agricultural establishments can help each other create a sideline that provides supplemental income. The state's tourism industry also will see a boost, as visitors are engaged by aspects of Hawaii's culture both educational and enjoyable.
The Westin Maui Resort and Spa in Kaanapali has picked up on this trend by offering guest tours to regional farms and the opportunity to sample farm products at their hotel table or in the spa. They've even brought farmers to the resort to sell their wares and give free guest lectures.
The Westin Maui is far from alone; the trend is also spreading to the more urban of Hawaii's resort propperties.
What is an AgriTourism venue?
"An enterprise at a working farm, ranch or agricultural plant conducted for the enjoyment of visitors that generates income for the owner. Agricultural tourism refers to the act of visiting a working farm or any horticultural or agricultural operation for the purpose of enjoyment, education, or active involvement in the activities at the farm or operation that also adds to the economic viability of the site."
Source: American Farm Bureau
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Ali'i Chang started his lavender farm with a single lavender plant that a friend had given him to try in his garden.
But it wasn't long before that number ballooned to 55,000. Now, Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm covers more than 10.5 acres and is a destination for kamaaina and visitors from both the neighboring islands and the world. The farm products are even marketed nationwide.
"We worked hard to get people up here," said Pomai Weigert, whose mother Lani is one of the farm's investors. "We couldn't have foreseen how it would take off. I mean who ever heard of a lavender farm in Hawaii."
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Ali‘i Kula Lavender Farm founder Ali‘i Chang and investor Pomai Weigert take a break on the farm grounds.
As it turned out, not only did the lavender flourish well in the dry, elevated atmosphere of Haleakala but the regions natural beauty provided the perfect environment to grow the trade, too.
"We started by inviting local senior citizens and word spread," Weigert said. Soon, we had tourist groups coming for our tours, teas and lunches. We've even had some weddings here,"
The lavender farm is one of a growing number of agricultural tourism spots in Hawaii that the state's visitor industry hopes will begin cultivating a cash crop of tourists.
A new organization, called the Hawaii AgriTourism Association (HATA), has formed and will hold its first meetings Jan. 15-16 on Oahu to create a link between Hawaii's farms and the state's visitor industry.
Agritourism is fast becoming a significant industry segment in Hawaii, said Lani Weigert, president of the group. In recent years, fruit, flower, vegetable and livestock farms have drawn visitors of their own, helping to create jobs and boost the overall economy, she said in a news release about the formation of the organization.
"Agritourism is the merging of Hawaii's top two industries together to create something that is truly sustainable," she said.
While what is now called agritourism actually dates to back the plantation era, tourism officials and executives are placing new emphasis on this aspect of the visitor industry, Weigert said.
By banding together, Hawaii's agricultural companies can help create a niche market, said State Tourism Director Marsha Wienert.
"It allows our agricultural producers to have another source of income -- and we all know they need it," she said.
Agritourism allows farmers to take their traditional agricultural practices and apply them in some nontraditional ways, engaging the visitor with something that is both educational and enjoyable, Weigert said.
Locally grown tomatoes, watercress and basil, at the Westin Maui.
The Westin Maui Resort and Spa
in Kaanapali, for example, is offering guest tours to local farms and the opportunity to sample farm products at hotel tables or in the spa.
But even more urban hotels are getting on board to some extent. Providers like Aqua Hotels and Resorts offer made-in-Hawaii amenities, and Outrigger Hotels and Resorts has brought in lecturers on agricultural topics.
At Westin, the Heavenly Spa uses locally-grown lavender from upcountry Maui in many of its treatments. The Heavenly Body Wrap uses a rich lavender and ginger moisturizer, while the Sunburn Relief Massage cools and indulges the skin with marble stones and a lavender-aloe treatment.
Westin chefs are using farm produce from local farmers and even have their own organic garden to help complement their SuperFoodsRx menu, an initiative that the company rolled out last year as part of its focus on personal renewal, said Craig Levy, the director of food and beverage at the Westin Maui Resort & Spa.
"The whole theory is about leaving guests feeling much better than they came, and we've incorporated that into our menu as well," Levy said.
Westin chefs prepare foods with organic produce from Upcountry Maui and from a garden that they keep on the hotel grounds. They also use Kula berries, Kamuela tomatoes, Hamakua mushrooms and fresh goat cheese from the nearby Surfing Goat Dairy. Locally grown fruits such as mangoes, guava, lychee, pineapple and rambutan are also given top billing on hotel menus as is the fresh locally caught fish. In some cases, even the hotel spices are locally grown.
Likewise, Hilton Hawaiian Village's Executive Chef Daniel LaGarde makes heavy use of local agriculture in the Village restaurants, he said.
"People have an urge to taste the cuisine of Hawaii," LaGarde said, adding that regional produce is spotlighted on the tasting menus at Bali by the Sea and on the menu at other village restaurants.
Everything from the Kona Kampachi fish at Bali by the Sea, to Hamakua mushrooms, tomatoes, lettuce from Hirabara Farms, sea asparagus and fruits such as dragon fruit and breadfruit can be found on Hilton's menus, LaGarde said.
In addition, Hilton frequently offers cooking demonstrations so that guests can try Hawaii products and recipes, he said.
There's always been a link between what's on Hawaii's plates and what's at island farms and gardens, said renowned Pacific Rim chef Sam Choy.
Almost a decade ago, Choy was working with the state Department of Agriculture to take national media and convention groups out to farms on the North Shore. Sam Choy's "See Food from the Farm to Your Plate" tours would include visits to small unmarked watercress, taro, limu, shrimp, yellow watermelon farms and DoleFoods' pineapple and diversified crops such as asparagus and coffee sites. After visiting farms, an alfresco lunch would be served.
"These tours really reflected true island cuisine," Choy said. "It all goes back to the history of the islands. What happened is that all the ethnic groups along with their culture they brought their food. We kind of came out of a plantation environment. There were a lot of homes with backyard gardens. Every one that grew up in that kind of environment like us grew stuff that we were going to put on the table."
Choy attributes his cooking success to his close linkage with Hawaii's farmers.
"As I became a chef, I never changed my cooking style," Choy said. "I gathered things from Hawaii farmers. I cooked the same way that my parents did. When I go other places, they are fascinated by how we cook in Hawaii."
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Michael Schenk, a Kula farmer, discusses Hawaii vanilla with Peter Garland, a visiting Beverly Hills restaurant owner, and his children, 5-year-old Liam and 8-year-old Jade.
The appeal of Hawaii's unique agricultural industry has allowed Michael Schenk of Tropical Plants and Flowers
, who has an orchid farm in Kula, Maui, where he also produces vanilla beans and specialty pineapples, to become a sought-after lecturer. Schenk has been giving talks to Westin guests on Hawaii agriculture for some 15 years, and recently began lecturing at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
"Everyone loves fresh products from Hawaii -- there's a mystique," Schenk said.
Branching out into hotel and museum lectures provides a way for Schenk to diversify his business, he said. Conventioneers also have caught on to Schenk and make up the bulk of his vanilla agricultural trade. He personalizes the tubes that hold his vanilla pods and recipes with company logos and sells them for $5.
Peter Garland, who owns the Porta Via restaurant in Beverly Hills, was among the Westin guests who stopped to talk with Schenk during a recent stay.
"It piqued my interest. I'm always interested in new, fresh products," Garland said, adding that he thinks cooking shows have made even amateur cooks more conscious of quality products.
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Even urban resorts, like the Aqua Palms and Spa in Waikiki, offer amenities made from Hawaii agricultural products. Above, Chaly Agacid, left, a room service staff member, holds some toiletries, while marketing executive Elizabeth Churchill holds bottled water and cookies made in Hawaii.
In some cases, visitors to Hawaii may not even realize the extent that Hawaii's agriculture has added to their stay, said Mike Paulin, the chief executive officer of Aqua Hotels and Resorts, which owns and manages 10 properties with 1,300 hotel rooms in Hawaii.
"We've made a commitment to buy locally and we do," Paulin said, adding that guests at Aqua hotels are greeted with artesian water from Hawaii and that their rooms are stocked with bath amenities made from Hawaii farm products.
"Every guest that comes to Hawaii is looking to take home a little piece of that experience," said Beth Churchill, vice president of marketing for Aqua Hotels and Resorts.
In fact, Aqua's exclusive Noni Papaya Pineapple bath fragrance proved so popular with guests that it blew the hotel's amenity budget, Paulin said.
"Guests were using them up and taking them home," Paulin said. "It significantly increased our amenity budget but it's been worth it because we want satisfied guests. If they like the experience, they'll come back."
State officials and other interested parties have seconded Paulin's thoughts.
"Agritourism has the ability to diversify our tourism product to our guests and give them unique experiences that they will only have in the islands," Wienert said. "If you look around, is everywhere, but there is still plenty of room for it to grow."
Choy said he hopes the formation of a Hawaii AgriTourism Association will help propel the industry forward similar to the way that achieving critical mass boosted Hawaii's music industry.
"I think our Hawaiian music kind of followed the same pattern, but they are finally coming of age," he said. "With the Hawaiian Grammy category established, our musicians have started to get recognized. I'd like to see that kind of recognition come for the stars of our agritourism industry."
Members of the Hawaii AgriTourism Association are invited to attend the group's first meeting.
» Event: Strategic Planning Meeting for members of the Hawaii AgriTourism Association
» Dates: Jan. 15 -16
» Location: Plant Quarantine Branch, 1849 Auiki Street, near the Honolulu airport.
» Time: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day
» More information: Visit www.hiagtourism.org, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (808) 430-3594.
What the newly formed Hawaii AgriTourism Association wants to do
» Zoning protection
» Create a united voice representing all islands.
» Act as a resource for members for legal, economic and social issues.
» Establish standards in the industry in Hawaii.
» Collaborate with agricultural producers and tourism affiliates to offer a high quality, low impact experience to visitors, promote local communities by promoting a farm experience and promote Hawaii as a destination.
» Bring local residents and visitors back to the land.
» Protect valuable open space, agricultural land and keep Hawaii green
Source: Lani Weigert, president, Hawaii AgriTourism Association