TIM WRIGHT / ASSOCIATED PRESS
Shoppers look over the large selection of fresh produce at the Hilo Farmers Market.
Outdoor market is
a Hilo landmark
HILO >> In a place that boasts the world's most active volcano, one of the nation's largest cattle ranches and some of Hawaii's most spectacular resorts, it is a modest farmers' market that attracts both visitors and residents to the Big Island's largest city.
The Hilo Farmers Market offers a large variety of fresh tropical fruits, vegetables, flowers and craft and gift items from an unimposing location on a vacant lot across from Hilo Bay.
The open-air market recalls the old plantation days of early Hilo.
"When the (pineapple and sugar) plantations shut down, a lot of people were displaced," said Keith De La Cruz, 38, the owner who prefers to call himself the market master. "It was a natural step to get into another form of agriculture."
Some of the plantation workers moved onto small agriculture parcels carved out of the former plantations and now are among the vendors, said De La Cruz, a University of Hawaii graduate who moved to the Big Island in 1998 after working in real estate in Honolulu.
"We are seeing some new farmers and new products," he said.
The market offers such fresh produce as lettuce, spinach, corn, eggplant, pineapple, papaya, mango and strawberries; and tropical flowers including orchids, anthuriums and protea -- all grown in Hawaii, mostly on the Big Island. There also are a few certified organic products and ethnic fruits, vegetables and specialty food items such as coconut pastries, Portuguese bread and local seafood delicacies.
The Hilo Farmers Market was the first open market in the nation to be federally approved to accept food stamps with an Electronic Benefits Transfer card, according to De La Cruz.
Shoppers use the state-issued card to buy scrip to make their purchases, he said. The scrip can be used only for food.
"This helps people on assistance buy fresh produce at good prices," he said.
The market also attracts passengers from Norwegian Cruise Line's new cruise ship, the Pride of Aloha, which makes a weekly Wednesday stop in Hilo, coinciding with one of the two days the market operates.
The market's Web site (www.hilofarmersmarket.com) offers online shopping for a few selected items -- currently just fresh tropical flowers and T-shirts -- along with discount coupons.
The market started in 1988 with four farmers selling their goods from their parked cars and trucks. De La Cruz acquired it in 1999 after it had been established on a street corner across from the Hilo bay front, and expanded it to include arts and crafts.
Now it now has 175 vendors at its outings every Wednesday and Saturday year-round. About a dozen vendors operate daily. Vendors pay $10 on Wednesday and $15 on Saturday to operate their stalls.
"We want to keep it (the fee) low, so people can work," De La Cruz said.
He doesn't know how much money the vendors take in because he doesn't take a cut. But he estimates it is anywhere from a couple hundred dollars a day to several thousand dollars.
De La Cruz is awaiting county government approval for a roof over the market, because of the frequent rains in Hilo. "We want to keep it weather-friendly. When it rains, water gets all over the place and it gets a little muddy."
The renovation will include a concrete floor, which will make the market more accessible to the disabled, he said.
The new roof is one of the first building projects on the Hilo bay front in a decade, he said. "It will be a prominent landmark."
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