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Hilo Grown Tours

HATA-HSCF-Tomatoesintrays2-beefsteaks4XTray of tomatoes packed and ready for shipping from Hamakua Springs.Earlier this month I was fortunate to be able to participate in a "preview" of an agricultural adventure tour on the Hilo side of Hawai'i Island. The Hilo Grown Tours, which start in June, are supported by the Hawai'i AgriTourism Association (HATA), the County of Hawai'i and the Hawai'i Tourism Authority.

Our group met in the lobby of the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel where we were greeted by Lani Weigert, HATA Executive Director, and Benson Medina, who served as our guides for the day.

After first visiting Green Point Nursery, a three-generation family operation in the Pana'ewa area of Hilo (and the largest anthurium farm in the state), we next stopped at the KTA Super Store on Pua'inako Street.

Why visit a supermarket during a farm tour? I'm so glad you asked! KTA has been a big supporter of local small farmers for many years. Many products are grown or made especially for KTA and sold under the store's Mountain Apple brand. You can find Mountain Apple labels in the bakery, deli, meat and fish counters, frozen foods, dairy department and of course, the produce department as well as in many value-added products.

HATA-KTA-HawaiiIsland-GrassFedBeefHawai'i Island grass-fed beef sold at KTA.Jeff Ikeda, Meat Department manager served as our in-store tour guide, introducing us first to Bakery Department manager Charlene Wakumoto who took us around and pointed out all the products in her department that were made on Hawai'i Island, as well as other products made and imported from our neighbor islands.

Everything in the bakery cases are made daily, many from recipes shared by employees and their families, so the ethnic authenticity and variety of products are very representative of our local cultures. Here the store also features freshly made island coffee -- the two specialties of the day of our visit were from Kea'au and Ka'u.

In the dairy case, all Mountain Apple brand products are locally produced on this island.

In the meat department, one large section of the refrigerated case is dedicated to locally-raised grass-fed beef, which represents 45% of all the beef sold in the store. There is also a section for locally raised pork.

The poke is made daily and depends on the fresh fish brought in that morning and other fresh products such as ogo (a type of seaweed), garden onions, chile peppers and Hawaiian sea salt. Recipes for the different types of poke are also contributed by store employees and vary everyday.

In the Produce Department we met manager Lance Kaneshiro. He pointed out that about 97% of all of their leaf vegetables and 100% of all bananas, papaya and pineapples are locally grown, while 30% of the locally grown produce is labeled organic.

Recently KTA has started placing labels in both Hawaiian and English on the shelves identifying the different products, and also where on the island they are grown. In addition, KTA is trying to label whether a product is grown organically, locally, within the state, or imported.

Next time you visit KTA, please ask for their brochure featuring a two page list of their local 'omiyage' (goodies). According to the brochure, not all products are available in all of their stores.

Our next stop was the 'Imiloa Astronomy Center at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo, where a brief tour inside the planetarium demonstrated the importance of agriculture to the early Polynesians through the plants and animals they found here, they brought with them, and by their fish pond systems. We visited an award-winning garden featuring endemic and indigenous plants, along with the "canoe plants" introduced by the Polynesian settlers. Our tour guide called it the Wind, Waves and Wings garden, since so much of the early vegetation found on the island arrived by all three methods.

After leaving 'Imiloa we headed up the coast to the outskirts of Pepe'ekeo and the Hamakua Springs Country Farm. We were welcomed and taken on our tour of the facilities by Tracy Pa, a third-generation member of the Ha family.

HATA-HSCF-bananasbeingprocessed1Banana washing station at Hamakua Springs Country Farm.The Ha family started out as banana farmers in the Puna district some 40 years ago. After moving the farm to property they owned in Pepe'ekeo, the family started concentrating on growing tomatoes hydroponically. Today, besides bananas and several varieties of tomatoes, the farm also grows red leaf, green leaf, Manoa and romaine lettuce, onions, watercress and cucumbers. These last are grown mainly for selling ffrom their regular stall at the Saturday morning Kino'ole Farmer's Market in Hilo.

The Pepe'ekeo location has proved to be a boon due to natural springs and an old sugarcane flume recently found on the property. The farm is on the verge of becoming energy self-sustainable by generating its own hydro-electric power.

Several of the farm's 70 employees also own small farms of their own; some growing sweet potato, zucchini, taro, string bean, eggplant, Japanese cucumber and other crops. Hamakua Springs Country Farm acts as a distributor for their employees' produce to help them with the marketing.

The property consists of 600 acres with 200 of these in cultivation and 20 acres under roof (packing houses, offices, employee's lunch area, and a few small structures).

The crops are grown hydroponically in covered but open-sided greenhouses in special flat bags filled with coconut fiber. When water is added, the bags expand as the fibers get wet and they 'pop up'. Seeds are planted individually in this wet medium, which is maintained moist through a system of tubes which provide the right amount of water and fertilizer at preset times, managed with timers.

The water used for this system comes from the water reservoir which is gravity fed from the natural springs found on the property through a system of water tanks in which the farm is also raising tilapia fish. Due to the tilapia, no algae collect in the reservoir

The Ha family believes in sustainability at every level and understands that their employees are a big part of the whole operation. As a way to thank them, produce, and tilapia when available, is shared with the employees.

Hilo Grown Tours are conducted on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturdays form 8:30 am to 4 pm. To book a tour, visit the Hawai'i AgriTourism Association's website: http://www.hiagtourism.org/hg_tour.shtml 

Sonia R. Martinez, the Hawai'i Homegrown Food Network regular farmers market reporter, is a cookbook author and freelance food writer for several publications in Hawai'i, including The Hamakua Times of Honoka'a. She is a regular contributor to Ke Ola Magazine; and has her own food & garden blog at Sonia Tastes Hawaii.

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