Tasting Hawaii
Meet the entrepreneurs behind the Aloha State's budding industry, agritourism, and bring an appetite!
By Julie Sloane/Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

(FORTUNE Small Business) – I WAS NEVER MUCH INTERESTED in Hawaii. To me, the mere mention of it evoked images of umbrella drinks, honeymooners, and plastic grass skirts. If there was anything authentic about America's 50th state, I figured, it was the kitsch. But when an airport layover left me in Honolulu for a day, I realized I had shortchanged the Aloha State. Yes, there is kitsch aplenty, but Hawaii's natural beauty washed over me like a Waikiki wave. Azure water, majestic volcanic slopes, lush tropical vegetation. I just had to see more. So when I got the chance to return, I set out to explore the beauty of this state from the inside out, as an agritourist.

Agriculture is Hawaii's third-largest industry, albeit a distant third behind the military and tourism. Indeed, farming has become increasingly difficult in Hawaii, which has high costs for land, labor, and shipping. To stay in business, a small but growing number of farmers are jumping into agritourism, bringing visitors to their farms for tours, tastings, and shopping. In Italy agriturismo supports hundreds of family farms. There, hosts invite tourists to stay or even work on the farm. Crops you help grow become precious souvenirs.

According to the only reports done on the topic, agritourism in Hawaii grew 48% from 2000 to 2003, and professor and extension economist Kent Fleming from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who studies agritourism, says it has probably increased another 50% since. In 2003, the last official count, 187 Hawaiian farms participated in agritourism, with their visitors spending $34 million a year statewide.

ROUGHLY HALF OF HAWAII'S FARMS ARE ON the Big Island (which is officially named—though seldom referred to as—"Hawaii"), so with my boyfriend, Noah, I began my tour with a 45-minute flight from Honolulu to Kailua-Kona, the island's center of commerce on the western coast. Kona coffee is the island's best-known crop, renowned for its $20- to $30-a-pound pricetag, but when I realized what else grows there—cacao, tropical fruit, tea—I planned a road trip that would expose us to the full range of small farms on the Big Island.

It isn't far to the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory (originalhawaiianchocolatefactory.com). In our rented car, we drive 15 minutes from Kailua-Kona up the slopes of Hualalai Mountain—an active volcano that last erupted in 1801—to Bob and Pam Cooper's six-acre farm, where they do everything from growing cacao beans to wrapping their finished chocolate bars. Cacao grows only within 20 degrees of the equator—the majority of the world's cacao is grown in Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Indonesia—making the Coopers' product the only American chocolate grown and processed in one location.

The Coopers moved to Hawaii in 1997 from Raleigh, where he managed a country club and she worked in a jewelry store. Both 50, they decided to buy a home overlooking the Kona coast and find work in Hawaii. The property's previous owner had planted cacao, but just as a hobby. Because Hawaii had no chocolate-processing facility, cacao beans had to be shipped to the mainland, making it an unprofitable crop. "Nobody was growing cacao commercially in Hawaii because there was no market," says Bob. With his tiny jury-rigged processing facility, he has changed that. Since they started the business in 2000, the Coopers have sold cacao trees to other Big Island growers, of whom ten to 15 now sell back their harvest.

Tours weren't part of the original plan, but after seeing other farms' success with agritourism, the couple began offering visits by appointment for $10 a person from Wednesday through Friday at 9:30 A.M. Pam started us out with a taste of the finished chocolate. I'm a dark-chocolate fan, and the Coopers' has a less bitter, sweeter, more fruity taste than most. Next Bob walked us out to the backyard, where our chocolate began. Three wild turkeys gobble and strut around mounds of cacao beans drying in the sun. "There's a peacock somewhere around here too," Bob casually mentions.

Ducking under the canopy of the Coopers' 1,350 cacao trees reveals a quiet carnival of colors. Ridged, oval-shaped red, yellow, and green cacao pods hang down from the branches and range in length from the tip of my pinky to some nine inches long and six inches wide.

Bob used a cleaver to open each cacao pod and extract its 30 to 40 beans. As he sliced, lime-green geckos scurried across the wooden table to feast on the detritus. The beans will ferment for a week before drying in the sun. The Coopers will age the beans for two years to allow the flavor to fully develop before the chocolate-making process begins.

The Coopers believe their chocolate-processing plant, at 1,152 square feet, is the world's smallest. To fit that size—and the Coopers' largely self-funded budget—the production line is improvised. Bob Cooper cleans his beans with a rigged-up treadmill he bought used for $100. He cooks them in a coffee roaster and breaks the nibs from their shells with a homemade contraption built in part from a five-gallon bucket, plastic vacuum hoses, and a liberal smattering of duct tape. From there, his beans enter a $45,000 machine imported from Barcelona that, for 15 hours, churns the cacao into liquid and mixes it with cocoa butter, sugar, lecithin, vanilla, and—for some batches—milk powder.

And the $10 pricetag on a three-ounce bar? I'd raise an eyebrow, but after seeing what goes into the product, I'm happy to support the operation, which for six years, as Bob puts it in a deadpan Southern twang, "has not been in danger of making money." This year he hopes for a small profit on his annual production of 6,000 to 8,000 pounds.

He also hopes that cacao might be the next major crop for Hawaiian agriculture —a dream far from being realized but not unrealistic. By most accounts, agriculture in the state is at a crossroads. Sugar cane production has fallen 75% in the past 20 years. From 2001 to 2005, pineapple cultivation statewide dropped from 20,000 acres to 14,000 acres; Del Monte recently announced its intention to close its Hawaiian pineapple operation in 2008. But while developers have bought much of that vacated farmland, other parcels have become small, diversified farms.

LEAVING KAILUA-KONA, WE make the two-hour drive across cattle-grazing land—cattle constitute a $16 million industry in Hawaii—to the rural Hamakua coast, a former hub for sugar cane. After a night in the lush city of Hilo—it rains 280 days of the year here—we are off to the town of Volcano in the morning. Our ultimate destination is Tea Hawaii (teahawaii.com), which grows tea and offers tours and tastings. The directions to owner Eva Lee's farm instruct us to turn onto a one-lane road and drive several miles through rain forest, ignoring the NO OUTLET AND DEAD END signs. A clay pot and a red stone driveway are the indications that we've arrived. Introduced to Hawaii roughly eight years ago, tea is grown by 12 farmers on the Big Island. They also hope it may become a major new crop for the state. For two years Lee has been giving tea tours out of her home by appointment and through Hawaii Community College. They are an important part of both her current income and her business's planned growth as a farm.

Nestled between lush forest and a bamboo-framed koi pond, Lee's home is a stunning blend of Chinese, Japanese, and New England architecture. Designed by herself and ceramicist husband Chiu Leong, the home features an 875-square-foot central room with 22-foot ceilings and doors that slide open to the yard. There she serves visitors Hawaiian-grown tea in a traditional Chinese ceremony.

Lee's father was from Yunnan province in China, widely described as the birthplace of tea, and Leong has been studying the more meditation-based Japanese tea ceremony of Chanoyu for 17 years. When a local research horticulturist at the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center of the USDA announced he was releasing tea plants to the public, Lee volunteered to help organize their distribution. In her great room Lee, who is also the president of the 100-member Hawaii Tea Society (hawaiiteasociety.org), serves us macadamia nut cookies and prepares the tea. In a clay pot, she briefly runs hot water through the tea leaves—"it allows the tea to have a moment and sigh"—which literally washes the tea, but in the Chinese ceremony, it symbolizes the need to pause and reflect before embarking on a task. Lee then refills the pot and steeps the leaves. She starts with green tea and decants the yellow-auburn tea into a clear glass vessel. She then pours it into our small aroma cups, which we in turn pour into a larger sip cup. Lee directs us to inhale the lingering scent from our aroma cups. The scent and taste are a surprise, a kind of fruity, grassy, fresh smell. We also try a black oolong tea with an earthy, milder taste.

The 60-minute experience costs us $25 each, and Lee has tea for sale at eight grams for $10 or one ounce for $30. We leave instead with one of Leong's porcelain jars—and a better appreciation of tea.

The next morning we drive to Wailea Agricultural Group (waileaag.com) in the small rural town of Wailea, an hour's drive from Volcano. Co-owner Michael Crowell bounds up to our car with an issue of FSB in hand and compares me to a recent photo in our Editor's Notes. "Looks like you!" he exclaims. His partner in business and life, Lesley Hill, follows him out. They've been farming for 35 years, 12 of them on this 110-acre property, where they specialize in hearts of palm but also grow several hundred species of fruit and flowers.

THEY USHER US TO A PAIR of John Deere four-wheel-drive Gators, and we take off to see the farm. As we cruise, Hill waves over at different clusters of trees as she ticks off the various crops: mangoes, avocados, seedless limes, Meyer lemons, tangerines, and lots of tropical fruit you would be forgiven for not knowing, including mango-steens, pulusan, soursop, and litchis. "Anything that doesn't do as well, we replace. Pull it out, stick something else in," Hill says jovially. Lately the pair have been interested in spices, planting cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice, among others. Hill and Crowell, both 56, estimate they've spent 20% of their life together trawling Southeast Asia seeking seeds for their farm, which they legally import through the USDA.

The farm is profitable because of its diversity of crops and customers. It sells directly to chefs, through specialty distributors and wholesalers, and at farmers' markets. Hill also owns a garden store in Hilo that sells plants and imported Indonesian crafts and furniture. The couple are proud of their farm but shy about becoming a major tourist destination. "We're a working farm," Hill says apologetically. Your best bet is to go through Hawaii Agventures (hawaiiagventures.com), a marketing initiative from Big Island Farm Bureau, which schedules tours by appointment.

We sit down at a picnic table to talk and hear the couple's stories of high jinks in rural Indonesia and shipping mishaps with their notoriously stinky durian fruit packed onto commercial flights. (The passengers above the cargo hold were none too pleased.) That's when it comes to me that the fun of agritourism is equal parts land and people. I mention to Crowell that I enjoy meeting the farmers as much as seeing their crops, and he smiles. "We're an eclectic group of fruits and nuts."

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Read about other farms the author visited, which produce coffee, vanilla, and unusual wine.


When does ag pay? How do farmers turn tourism into profit?


Additional farm photos from Hawaii.