"There is a great curiosity to become more connected to our food; to see where it's grown, eat locally grown produce, and know your farmer," says organic farming activist Annie Suite. To bridge the modern-day gap between food production and consumption, Suite and Pamela Boyar launched Oahu-Agri Tours, the island's first tour company bringing awareness and support to local farmers.
Suite, a self proclaimed fan of all-organic food, and Boyar, who has 30 years of farming experience, enjoy finding new ways to support Hawai'i's small farmers. Their latest endeavor is a natural progression from the success of their brainchild, Hale'iwa Farmers' Market, where over 3,000 shoppers are connected with local food vendors each Sunday.
The farm tour departs from Honolulu five-days a week. A 24-seat E Noa tour bus ferries guests to several North Shore farms over the course of the day. Each of the farms on the tour is organic, under eight-acres, and owned by relatively new farmers. The schedule of stops varies by day, though generally, participants can expect three stops on a tour.
Spending a day with Oahu Agri-Tours is a sustainable move in itself. Agritourism supports each participating farmer by offering proceeds from the tours to each farmer on a per-guest basis. For farmers like Mark Hamamoto, owner of Mohala Farms, the additional income can be substantial. "We've accepted a few grants, but we don't want to take many because we want to show kids and other people that you can actually make a living as a farmer today," says Hamamoto. When Hamamoto is not farming, he guides visitors through a seemingly endless sea of organic leafy greens and veggies, inspects mounds of homemade compost, and offers a peak into the worm bin. In place of pesticides, the produce grows with complimentary herbs to ward off harmful insects.
Suite and Boyar deal with the business end of the tours, while farmers maintain a visitable condition for their property and provide samples of their products. The farmers lead guests around while sharing tips, struggles and other inside information. "Increasing revenue streams through Agritourism is a very creative way to utilize the assets of the farm without depleting them," says Suite.
At wetland taro farm Na Mea Kupono, guests are treated to a holistic account of taro farming. Ku'uipo and Steven Bolosan plant, maintain, harvest, and process several kalo lo'i entirely on their own. Near a potable freshwater spring and native fruit trees, the couple serves up a healthy, local style lunch to guests, as a Hawaiian crafts and culture presentation and a poi pounding demonstration.
Around the corner at the Waialua Sugar Mill guests get a behind the scenes look at the processing of two common daily indulgences: chocolate and coffee. Of course, they get a generous amount to sample, too. The Waialua Estate cacao orchard gives Suite and Boyar hope for another profitable commodity for the islands, as Hawai'i is the only US state with an environment suitable for cacao cultivation.
At Poamoho Organic Produce, guests stroll through 300 fruit trees above the lush Poamoho Gulch, led by owner Al Santoro, a former naval intelligence officer. Just seven years ago, Santoro and his wife began the transformation of former guinea grass laden sugar land into a flourishing farm. Santoro shares his methods for implementing permaculture farm practices using a poly-culture of multiple plant and animal species, contributing to an overall natural and harmonious growing environment.
The tour also takes a stop at Tin Roof Ranch, the North Shore's source for organic chicken and eggs, where Luann Casey and Gary Gunder share insight on becoming ranchers. Just a few years ago they simply wanted to learn where their food came from, a curiosity that led them to raise both eating and egg laying chickens. Today they process their organic chickens by hand and are making a foray into other sustainable ventures.
Locally grown eggplant — Photo courtesy of Annie Suite
Although agritours provide farms with financial help, it offers something perhaps more important for Hawai'i's journey towards a sustainable future. Each farm experience whittles away at the part in consumers that takes the ease with which we acquire food for granted.
Casey's admission of learning to adapt to processing chickens by hand enhances appreciation for the prepped meats on store shelves. Hamamoto, in his red-dirt stained work clothes, inspires folks to bypass imported organic greens and buy local. Watching Bolosan break a sweat pounding poi is an eye opener to what farmers endure to bring food to dinner tables. Tasting cacao in the orchard before the finished product, well, it just make chocolate taste even better.
Agritourism is about cultivating consumers' appreciation for farmers and inspiring them to buy local. Perhaps the most important thing is creating a consciousness of the importance of successful local farms on an island that imports 80 percent of its food.
Local mangoes — Photo courtesy of Annie Suite
"A growing number of people see the benefits of eating close to the source," says Suite. "With these changes comes the curiosity to explore the farms and learn about farming practices. We would love to see a significant increase in local food production, consumption and in the number of farms with organic growing practices."