Wind chimes tinkle through the crisp Upcountry air. Fountains trickle among the hydrangeas, proteas, and birds of paradise blooming in the gardens. Buddha statues, sculptures, and white picket fences contribute elements of art and grace to the delicately arranged spaces. Lavender fields spread in every direction, luring visitors with soft purple hues and soothing fragrances.
Ali'i Kula Lavender is not your typical Hawai'i attraction. At 4,000 feet up the slope of Haleakala in the quaint agricultural town of Kula, this 10-acre farm is far removed from Maui's popular beaches, luaus, and snorkel cruises. Instead, Ali'i Kula Lavender offers visitors opportunities to get in touch with the land, to meet its caretakers, and to experience a different kind of island serenity.
"This is not an ordinary farm," says Lani Weigert, Ali'i Kula Lavender's director of marketing and president of the Hawai'i Agritourism Association. "Everything has presentation. We keep everything in upscale conditions."
Weigert says she and her business partner, horticulturist and artist Ali'i Chang, strive to "romanticize" the farm experience for their guests, and their success can be observed from the pristinely kept gardens and grounds to the elegantly designed gift shop. Inside, visitors are welcome to smell, taste, and sample more than 75 lavender products ranging from spritzers, lotions, and oils to chocolates, salad dressings, and jams. The farm also offers crafting workshops, luncheons, tea services, wedding services, walking tours, and cart tours led personally by Chang.
This particular type of business that incorporates both farming and tourism has recently gained a name in Hawai'i: agtourism (or agritourism). Mainland examples include East Coast apple orchards that welcome visitors to pick their own fruit and Napa Valley wineries that offer tours and tastings. In Hawai'i, where tropical conditions allow for an abundant range of crops and tourism remains one of the top-grossing industries, agtourism is becoming increasingly recognized as a new type of visitor attraction and as a means for farmers to diversify their incomes and increase profitability.
"Agtourism offers the visitor a whole different experience," Weigert says. "Today, both local and mainland visitors are very interested in knowing who grows their food, how they grow it, and what to do with it. Not to say that people are tired of going on snorkel trips and to luaus; it's just that the visitor now is looking for a new type of educational experience that is also enjoyable."
On the Big Island's slope of Mauna Kea in the rainforest town of Pauuilo, Jim and Tracy Reddekopp are harvesting a similar agtourism business. The couple launched Hawaiian Vanilla Company in 1998 after deciding they wanted to raise their children in the country. Today, their five home-schooled children — ages ranging from 7 to 15 — help run the business, which accommodates 6,000 guests yearly and consists of a vanilla kitchen and restaurant, a vanilla gallery and gift shop, 14 acres of organic food production, and an acre of vanilla orchids from which they produce 40 vanilla-based products. Hawaiian Vanilla Company is the first and only commercial vanilla farm in the country.
"We're always thinking of new things to offer guests," Jim says. 'We like providing the 'wow' factor every time they come." The farm hosts tea brunches, tastings, special events, wedding receptions, tours, dinners, and luncheons. The luncheon features four courses of sweet and savory dishes created by Tracy and served by the children. The experience also includes a vanilla presentation and a tour of the vanillery.
"People who come here are looking for a different kind of experience," Jim says. "When they come to our place, they become part of our story. When they leave, they take a part of the story with them. That's tourism in a nutshell. It's a beautiful thing."
On the North Shore in Oahu, fourth generation farmer Kylie Matsuda commands the development of agtourism for her family's 300-acre farm. Since 1986, when third generation farmers Clyde Fukuyama and Melvin Matsuda merged their farms, Matsuda Fukuyama Farms has been growing apple bananas, papayas, eggplant, and taro leaves commercially under the Kahuku Brand. After graduating from the University of Hawai'i in 2001 with a degree in travel industry management, Kylie decided she wanted to return to the farm to work full time, and eventually found "a niche and a passion" in agtourism.
"People's experiences with food are very limited," says Kylie, managing director for the farm's agtourism sector, Kahuku Farms. "For most, food starts in the store and ends in the tummy. I think people want to be more informed about the food they're eating and how it's grown. People want to connect with the land and meet the farmers."
Currently, Kahuku Farms produces bath and body and culinary products including lilikoi jelly, mango tea, and mango papaya soap that are sold online and at farmers markets, festivals, and events. Kylie plans to offer farm tours and to open a country store on the property for selling value-added products and refreshments.
"A lot of people have been calling and emailing us wanting to come out to the farm," says Kylie, who anticipates launching the farm's new ventures during fall 2009. "We're hoping to attract a good mixture of both locals and visitors. For some people who live here on Oahu, driving to the North Shore is like going to another country," she jokes. In addition to providing unique visitor experiences, agtourism can also boost farmers' incomes and help them to survive economically.
"It will be really nice to have a diversified income," Kylie says. "We have low yields in the winter, but we can sell our value-added products and give tours year round."
"Farms are closing at alarming rates," Weigert says. "But there's a lot of power in the next generation of farmers. They are opinionated, educated, technologically savvy, and idealistic. The marketing and business side of agtourism is attractive to the new generation. Agriculture has never been viewed as sexy, but it could be."
Although Weigert emphasizes that agtourism is not suitable for all farmers, she says Ali'i Kula Lavender is thriving as an agtourism business, with 85 percent of sales in value-added products and 14 percent in tours. She says the company collects six to eight times more from value-added products than from selling the raw crop. By purchasing Ali'i Kula Lavender products, visitors are also supporting other local businesses, which produce more than 25 of the company's products.
"The key here on an island is collaboration," Weigert says. "A competitive philosophy will not allow us to survive. It goes back to the ancient ways of Hawaiians. Rather than competing, we include." Kauai Kookie Kompany produces the delectable lavender shortbread cookies, Big Island Candies produces the decadent lavender brownies and chocolate truffles, and a woman who lives "right down the street" from the farm bakes the famous lavender scones.
"We provide them with our lavender and they make our lavender products. In most cases we are able to sell more for them than they would be able to sell for themselves. As a result, we have a very high quality, locally made product for our customers," Weigert explains.
Jim says that all of Hawaiian Vanilla Company's culinary products are produced on site, adding a personal touch to their product line.
"People can come here and taste whatever's cooking and then buy the products to take home," he says. "There's an element of human interaction in agtourism that I have never seen before. People truly connect with a place. That's magic because it's people meeting people. The crop only enhances the experience."