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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Farms invite tourists into fields

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

Janelle and Vidal Sheen, from St. Louis, Mo., savored the flavor of a freshly-cut pineapple that Maui Pineapple Plantation Tour manager Wes Nohara took from the field. Like other farms in the predominantly rural Neighbor Islands, Maui Pineapple is finding that its forays into agritourism are providing a much needed source of revenue.

Christie Wilson • The Honolulu Advertiser

On the last day of their Maui vacation, Vidal and Janelle Sheen of St. Louis, Mo., could have been at the beach working on their tans or squeezing in a round of golf. Instead, they were tramping through pineapple fields in the red hills above Lahaina.

"When we go places we look for things to do that are different," said Janelle, a pharmacist.

For $29 per person, the Maui Pineapple Plantation Tour takes visitors into the fields to observe harvesting operations. Pineapples are plucked fresh off the plant and sliced for tasting. Guests then select their own fruit to take home.

Farm tours such as the one offered by Maui Pineapple Co. and its sister company, Kapalua Land Co., are just one component of "agritourism" — a growing niche in Hawai'i's visitor industry, particularly on the Neighbor Islands. Others include retail sales of farm-grown products, farm-related bed-and-breakfast accommodations, living history farms and agricultural fairs.

The pineapple tours are conducted on a small scale and do not figure into Maui Pine's bottom line, but they are a marketing tool and educate visitors about the industry, said Plantation Manager Wes Nohara, who led the Sheens' tour group last week.

"When they go home and go to the store, maybe they'll look for 100 percent Hawaiian pineapple," Nohara said.

For many smaller farmers, agritourism is about survival.

"It's the difference between keeping your farm and not," said Charlene Cowan of the eight-acre Macadamia Meadows Farm, Bed & Breakfast in Ka'u. Cowan is head of the newly formed Hawai'i Agricultural Tourism Association.

Income from direct retail sales to farm visitors and other activities allows farmers to diversify and reduce their risk from crop failures and the whims of the wholesale market, said Kent Fleming, a Kona-based farm economist with the University of Hawai'i's College of Tropical Agriculture & Human Resources.

Agritourism also enhances the visitor industry by satisfying the demand for new experiences, Fleming said. "Travelers increasingly are looking for something more than the traditional tropical beach resort vacation. They want to learn about and experience regional characteristics that make a place unique," he said.

Large interests such as Dole's pineapple operations on O'ahu and Parker Ranch on the Big Island were among the first to incorporate visitor attractions, but generally the potential of agritourism has not yet been fully realized, Fleming said.

Statewide, 126 farms reported agritourism-related income totalling $26 million in 2000, and 84 others were either planning to start agritourism activities or intend to in the future, according to a survey by the Hawai'i Agricultural Statistics Service.

More than half of the 5,500 farms in the state are on the Big Island, where 60 farms were engaged in agritourism, the survey said. Thirty-one of Maui's 800 farms offered agritourism activities, as did 16 of Kaua'i's 500 farms.

On O'ahu, where there are 900 farms, only 19 are involved in agritourism.

About 60 percent of the Hawai'i farms involved in agritourism began offering activities only within the past five years, the survey said.

Agritourism is well-established in parts of Europe and the U.S. Mainland. In Hawai'i, farmers in the Big Island's "Kona Coffee Belt" — an area stretching about 30 miles from Holualoa south through Honaunau — have taken the lead in agritourism efforts aimed at building the region's reputation into something comparable to Napa Valley's wine country in Northern California.

A number of coffee operations conduct farm tours and tastings, and a regional map was developed showing the location of farms that welcome visitors. The growers also established events that appeal to tourists, such as this month's Kona Coffee Cultural Festival and the Spring Blossom Festival.

Fleming said coffee growers have found it increasingly difficult to make it in the wholesale market. Two years ago the wholesale price for coffee cherries averaged $1.40 per pound, well above the break-even cost of production. The wholesale price then plunged to 50 cents per pound before recovering somewhat. During that same period, there was little change in retail coffee prices, he said.

By offering free farm tours, growers can market direct to visitors at retail prices, and sell T-shirts, mugs and other items in the bargain. "They don't intend to buy anything but they get excited about it and it's like it's their discovery," Fleming said.

Many times, the farms establish long-term relationships with guests through subsequent Internet and mail orders and repeat visits.

The 11-acre Love Family Farms in South Kona devised its own wrinkle by "renting" coffee trees to Japanese visitors for $1,200 a year. In return, the tree is marked with a plaque and the renters receive 50 bags of coffee a year under their own personalized label.

"Anybody who is a full-time farmer has to look at alternatives such as ag tourism," said farm owner Ken Love.

Visitors love to drop by and pick coffee, he said, and some of his Japanese clients have made five or six trips to the farm, even helping with some of the chores. Love has 5,000 coffee trees, 300 mac nut trees and a number of exotic fruit trees.

"They enjoy getting dirty and working the land," he said. "They like the personal interaction and associating with local people, not just the tour bus drivers and what they can get at the hotel. The demographics have changed a lot. They're looking for something beyond packaged tours."

Agritourism accounts for about 10 percent of revenues at Maui's Ono Farms, a pioneer in organically grown exotic fruit. Chuck and Lilly Boerner, who started the farm 30 years ago, offer "tasting tours" twice a week at a cost of $25 per adult. Visitors are led on a guided stroll through the 33 acres of fruit trees in Hana and then are invited to sample fruit and coffee. A small shop sells the farm's jellies, T-shirts and fresh fruit.

Lilly Boerner said guests like the personal touch, particularly at the end of the tour when they sit around and sip coffee. She's calls it a "fruit cocktail party."

And now that the farm owners are in their late 50s, "we'd like to find other revenue besides digging holes," Boerner said. They have turned over the farm operation to their son and are having fun with the agritourism end of the business. The Boerners plan to increase the frequency of the tasting tours and are exploring the possibility of opening their land to hiking and other activities.

Their experience points out another benefit to agritourism: It provides employment to family members and can keep children involved in the business, even when they don't want to toil in the fields.

Four of Big Island rancher Herbert "Monty" Richards Jr.'s children are involved in Kahua Ranch in the Kohala mountains, which opened to agritourism in earnest about two years ago.

With 4,000 head of cattle and 2,000 sheep, Kahua Ranch is still very much a working ranch, but income from agritourism accounts for about 20 percent of revenues, Richards said.

The 8,500-acre ranch runs a B&B at a restored three-bedroom cottage, offers horseback riding, hiking, all-terrain vehicle tours, an indoor shooting range, a ranch logo store and market, and has a meeting room available for private functions up to 150 people that is booked an average of two to three nights a week.

"It helps keep us alive. Ranching is very tough, especially after four years of drought," Richards said. "(Agritourism) keeps the cash flow going. When you ship calves to the mainland, you get a payday only four times a year, and you've got to have something in between."

Haleakala and 'Ulupalakua ranches on Maui also have small agritourism components while continuing to focus primarily on cattle.

"It's up to the management of ranches to look at if they want to participate. You have to be a little bit of an entrepreneur," Richards said.

Agritourism is not for everyone, not even for most farmers, Fleming said. There are inevitable disruptions in production; added costs for labor, restrooms and other facilities, keeping the grounds safe and tidy; and worries about insurance and liability.

Fleming also said county ordinances need updating to help agritourism grow. For example, the Big Island and Maui County have been grappling with regulation of B&B, which previously were illegal in most instances and unable to advertise widely.

But according to Fleming, the biggest factor in the success of an agritourism enterprise is the farmer's personality and enthusiasm for what he or she is doing, and the desire and patience to educate visitors.

Gus and Cynthia Brocksen of Pele Plantations in Honaunau personally escort weekly tours of their eight-acre coffee and macadamia nut farm and coffee wet-mill and roasting room. They also have a "farm pantry" where guests can pick up coffee and mac nuts, T-shirts and other souvenirs.

"It's fun to meet people, and because we do spend so much time with them on the tours, they almost turn into your friends. We get a lot of letters and Christmas cards," from tourists who have visited the farm, Gus Brocksen said.

Reach Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 244-4880.