Get in touch with your inner farmer on Big Island

There's more to Hawaii than sun, surf, posh hotels, and gorgeous scenery. Hawaii is opening up its heartland to travelers who want to delve deeper into the local cultures. On the Big Island, especially, agricultural tourism is a growing emphasis.

With the demise of the sugar cane economy in the past two decades, innovative farmers search for new crops and work with tour companies to attract visitors to their new ventures.

Who would think of visiting a pig farm? A real one, not the home of fashionable Miss Piggy. Yet the pig is a cultural icon of the entire South Seas population. Kahlua pig, barbecued pig in a pit, lau lau wrapped in taro leaves and served with poi all are traditional luau or event dishes.

Recently I donned my boots (although they proved unnecessary) and drove up a narrow country road to visit the Ahualoa Hog Farm on the slopes of Mauna Kea near Honokaa. The driveway, which was edged by flowering shrubs, led to 20 acres of open space, a modern farmhouse, fenced pastures, and a cluster of buildings.

I was greeted by Daphne McKeehan. "We started out with three female [pigs] and one boar," she explained about the operation.

After they added 10 more females, "you wouldn't believe it, but they cleared this 20 acres of land of an overgrown guava thicket, roots and all," she said. "Local agricultural people were so impressed that we were asked to give slide shows about it. Clearing land this way is natural, it aerates the soil, and fertilizes it."

Mrs. McKeehan and her husband, Ronald, now have about 250 pigs and boars that weigh from 25 to 300 pounds each. Boars are a bit scary-looking; they have tusks, and a few can reach 500 pounds. Unlike wild boars, though, which are unpredictable, the farm animals don't attack their handlers. The couple grow a variety of breeds - Landrace, Yorkshire, Duroc, and Hampshire.

The animals are fed on a gourmet diet of leftovers from nearby resort restaurants that are collected daily and boiled for a full day before use.

The brood facilities are spotless. The three-pound piglets are clean, pink, and appealing, warmed by an overhead light while they suckle and sleep. Market pigs roam the pastures or cluster into pens to feed and jostle each other noisily.

It's a glimpse into another world for city folks.

Vanilla from orchids

A new crop being grown in the same area is vanilla. Because vanilla can be made into an intoxicating liquor, growing it was historically banned. Today a handful of Hawaiian farmers are growing the vanilla orchid again.

Under a huge shade house at Pauillo, Tom Reddekopp's company grows three varieties of orchids from which vanilla beans are harvested. Production is a lengthy and labor-intensive process. The flowers must be hand-pollinated, the beans take seven to nine months to reach maturity, and then curing them takes another 50 months.

Currently, Mr. Reddekopp has to send the beans to St. Louis for processing, since the local crop isn't large enough to warrant a processor in Hawaii.

It's all in the geography

Both vanilla and cocoa grow in the same narrow latitude of 15 to 20 degrees on either side of the equator, and the Hawaiian Islands - especially Big Island - meet that criteria. So chocolate is joining vanilla as a Hawaiian crop.

In the past, several growers attempted to cultivate cacao trees (which produce cocoa beans) and manufacture chocolate. But they failed or lost interest.

Recently, though, cocoa has again begun to be a cash crop on Big Island. In 1997, Bob and Pam Cooper left behind the bustle of mainland life and bought a rural, wooded property above Keauhou in Kona.

In a barn they found sacks of mildewed cacao beans; that was the first the Coopers knew that the property was an old cacao farm.

Intrigued, Mr. Cooper spent two years consulting with experts and studying everything he could find about chocolate and cacao, while nurturing the cacao trees on the property.

After he sent the beans to be analyzed for quality and taste - and the verdict was excellent - the Coopers acquired the machinery to manufacture chocolate. Only then did they discover that for the small quantities they would produce, the big machines used by large producers were totally impractical.

So Mr. Cooper became creative - he adapted a coffee roaster for for the cocoa beans and made a special winnowing device.

Today the Coopers' Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory turns out a half-ton of gourmet chocolate monthly, which is marketed to upscale stores as pure Hawaiian chocolate (meaning that it isn't mixed with chocolate grown elsewhere). Pure Hawaiian had not been attempted before.

It's interesting to see where a chocolate bar comes from. The 6- to 14-inch pods grow on the trunk of the cacao tree and, when ripe, are picked by hand.

As I watched, Bob Cooper split open a pod to expose a bean encased in a gelatinous substance. The first processing step is to ferment the beans to remove this coating.

After this eight-day process, the beans are spread on screens to dry in the sun. Cooper uses a moisture analyzer to ascertain when the beans are ready for the next phases: roasting, winnowing (removing the hulls), and conching (pressing the bean so it releases a chocolate liquid).

Partway through conching, he adds certain flavoring powders. The syrupy chocolate product then goes through a duct directly into a holding tank and is "tempered" for texture, sheen, etc., before being placed in molds. The resulting bars or blocks are held in a controlled atmosphere until they go to market.

The Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory makes two types of chocolate, bittersweet and milk chocolate, which cost $8 to $12 for a four-ounce bar (wrapped elegantly) or $40 a pound for blocks used by chefs and companies such as Ghirardelli to make truffles and other confections. The bittersweet is most popular in Asia and Europe; the milk chocolate in the US.

Another crop, Kona coffee, grows in the same area of the Big Island. One or two Hawaiian coffee manufacturers have long been well known but, with the growth of the gourmet coffee market in recent years, coffee farming and production have surged.

A peek into the past

Kona Historical Society volunteers operate an educational facility just off Highway 11 near the town of Captain Cook. It's an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute.

The tour begins with a walk through coffee trees. Then it moves through buildings almost a century old that give the visitor a glimpse into the life of a typical plantation worker - in this case a Japanese immigrant named Uchida, who lived with three generations of his family, including five children. Their home in the coffee grove was a wooden building that also housed a Buddhist altar. The kitchen was partly outdoors. Rice sacks were used for clothing and curtains.

The Uchida children worked on the plantation with their parents and had vacations from school in the fall instead of the summer so they could help with the coffee bean harvest.

Today, visitors can see the special swivel ladders the workers developed to reach the higher branches, the baskets used for picking, the wide hats they wore, and the old grinding mill. A pair of donkeys nuzzles visitors for treats; in the old days they helped the workers.

The agricultural tours I took are just a sample; there are many more. Big Islanders grow exotic fruits such as therambutan, a bright red, soft-spined fruit that originated in Malaysia; carambola or star fruit, which is now sent to many mainland markets; litchi nuts; and the more familiar macadamia nuts, mango, papaya, lilikoi or passion fruit; and others. Goats are raised to provide feta or chèvre cheese. Flower producers grow orchids, anthuriums, protea, and more. Most of the farms welcome visitors after an advance phone call. Brochures giving information and locations are available at visitors' bureaus.

As I drove back through teeming traffic to my hotel, it was with a greater appreciation of what the Hawaiians and Hawaiian immigrants had accomplished over the years, wresting a living from the land.

I also felt that I understood the land and the people better as I explored the island's hidden agricultural past - and promising future - not far from the sun, sand, and glitzy tourist attractions.

If you go:

Hualoa Hog Farm, 46-3723 Kapuna Road, Ahualoa. PO Box 1585, Hokokaa, HI 96727. (866) 248-2562. E-mail: mck@aloha.net.

Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory, 78-6772 Makenawai St., Kailua-Kona, HI 96740. (888) 447-2626. Also, see the website: www.OriginalHawaiian ChocolateFactory.com.

Kona Coffee Living History Farm, off Highway 11 north of mile marker 110, PO Box 398, Captain Cook, HI. (808) 323-2006. Website: www.konahistorical.org.

Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, Nov. 5 to 14, 2004. www.konacoffeefest.com.

Vanilla farms: Check with local visitors' bureau for possible vanilla tours and for numerous other coffee and other agricultural tours.

Big Island Visitors Bureau. (800) 648-2441. www.bigisland.org.

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