Kona coffee

Hawaii Sustainable Agriculture Documentary

Hundreds of years ago, Hawaii’s natural resources from the land to the sea sustained a population of over one million ancient Hawaiians. An ancient system known as the ahu’pua’a provided resources for all by giving daily contribution tasks to everyone who lived in the communities. Centuries later, Hawaii’s natural resources no longer provide enough to sustain the vastly growing population of the islands; in fact, the islands only produce 10-15% of the foods consumed by the local population. Most consumable foods and goods are imported from the mainland United States as well as from international countries. As a result, most modern people do not spend any time physically cultivating their own food and may not even know where the food they eat even comes from.

Wow tomato farms Big Island Hawaii
Wow tomato farms Big Island Hawaii

In October 2013, two teachers and five students from Kapolei High School on Oahu spent five days on the Big Island of Hawaii to visit 13 local businesses promoting local farming and ranching. The goal was to produce a 20-minute multimedia documentary that explores how local farmers are helping Hawaii become an agriculturally sustainable state where more locally grown food is produced. During the five days on the Big Island, students and teachers enjoyed not only seeing where food was coming from but also experiencing it in local restaurants. We sampled pancakes and locally made coconut syrup, goat cheese salad, grass-fed all beef burgers, freshly caught island fish, Kona coffee, and fresh fruit salads.

Throughout the experience, it was that there are many challenges and roadblocks to agricultural sustainability in Hawaii, but there are also lots of people who rise to the challenge each day. Here are some of those people.

12 Sustainable Agricultural Programs in Hawaii

Sustainability Profile: Aikane Plantation Coffee Company

Kona coffee reigns supreme as Hawaii's most popular coffee. But (arguably) superior to Kona coffee is that which comes from the neighboring area of Ka'u. Valued for its smooth and delicate flavor and low acidity, Ka'u coffee is considered on the top coffees of the world and is even available as a Starbucks Reserve brew. One talented Hawaii coffee farm known for its Ka'u coffee is Aikane Coffee Plantation. You'll know their brand once you see their iconic purple packaging.

Located in the Ka'u region of Hawaii (bordering Kona), Aikane Coffee Plantation's first coffee trees were planted by owner Meryl Becker's great-grandfather in 1894 when he settled in the area to work in the sugar industry. In fact, many of the plantation’s current coffee trees are descendants of those first trees. Located far away from other coffee farms, there is little chance of cross-pollination. As a result, Aikane coffee remains a truly authentic old Hawaiian coffee.

Aikane Coffee Plantation Hawaii
Aikane Coffee Plantation Hawaii

By the Numbers

  • 1894 - Year when Aikane's first coffee tree was planted. 

  • 2 How many seeds are in one coffee berry. 

  • 8% Amount of coffee berries that have only 1 seed (peaberries). 

  • 70+ How many countries produce coffee. 

  • 15th Century - when coffee was first introduced. 

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The coffee cherries are handpicked, washed, and dried on site. They are roasted and packaged in eye-catching royal purple bags as whole beans or as ground coffee. A brewed cup of Aikane coffee is smooth and rich, lacking a strong acidic aftertaste. The coffee production process is truly green. No pesticides or chemicals are ever used, macadamia nut shells and coffee pulp are used as mulch, grazing sheep are used to keep the grass growth down, a catchment system catches rainwater, and electric solar panels supply all of the energy. The farm is also home to horses and donkeys and it is a visitation destination for tour groups. Aikane Plantation coffee is a premium product in the Japanese market, but it can be found in high-end restaurants in Hawaii as well as Shirokiya, Bishop Museum, Blue Hawaii Lifestyles, military commissaries, and select farmer’s markets.

*This is a multi-part installment as part of the Hawaii Sustainable Agriculture Project. Learn more about the project and the 12 participants here

Where to Eat on the Big Island of Hawaii

There is certainly no shortage of delicious food to eat in Hawaii. Many of the restaurants on Oahu get the most fame, but the Big Island is also full of gems, given all of the lush farms around Hilo and Honokaa and bountiful cattle in Waimea. Being less familiar with the food and restaurant scene on the Big Island, I sought advice from my mother, who in turn wrote two pages full of recommendations on places to stay, shop, and of course, EAT. We took her advice from the very start upon our landing in Hilo, seeking out the place she says she "dreams of."

Cafe Pesto

An award-winning family restaurant, Cafe Pesto is considered an innovator in locally-sourced Hawaii cuisine. In one word, the food can best be described as fresh. From the lilikoi (passion fruit) juice to the crispy crab cakes and crunchy green salad, I couldn't believe how much flavor was bursting in my mouth during my first meal at Cafe Pesto in Hilo. During our week-long visit to the Big Island, we dined at Cafe Pesto four times, once driving all the way to Kawaihae from Waimea just for another taste. Having eaten the crab cake salad, mahi mahi sandwich, and sundried tomato pizza to name a few, each dish was equally as enchanting as the last. My mother was right--I officially dream of eating at this place.

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Kava, or Hawaiian 'awa

No trip to Hawaii is complete without sampling the local kava. In each major city of the Big Island, we had no trouble finding a kava bar and congregating among locals and travelers while sipping bowls. What is kava? Also known as 'awa, it is a tropical plant whose Latin name means "intoxicating pepper." It does indeed have a bit of an intoxicating effect when consumed, but nowhere near the effects of say alcohol. To consume kava, the roots of the kava plant are dried, powdered, and mixed with water. When consumed, the active ingredient in kava (kavalactone) has a soothing, relaxing effect on the mind and body. Kava may also cause numbness or tingling in the mouth, but nothing is permanent or severe. Here are a few notable kava bars we stopped at numerous times throughout our stay.

Hawaiian awa or kava
Hawaiian awa or kava

TEX Drive In

After a morning of horseback riding in the Waipio Valley, we asked our hosts where we could grab a bite to eat. The answer was overwhelmingly TEX Drive In, which reminded me that it had also been suggested by my mother. Located in the nearby town of Honoka'a, we grabbed lunch at TEX two days in a row, enthralled by their purely local Hawaiian menu. The menu focused on their famous burgers, but also listed local plate lunch favorites such as chicken katsu and Korean fried chicken.

By far their most famous tasty treats are the malasadas. Balls of yeast dough that are deep fried and coated with sugar, malasadas are the Portuguese donut and a favorite among Hawaii locals. Newer versions of the malasada now sell them filled with cremes, jams, and jellies, but in my opinion, the plain malasada or haupia (coconut creme) filled ones are hands down the best. TEX's malasadas certainly did not disappoint!

Malasada from Punalu'u Bake Shop
Malasada from Punalu'u Bake Shop

Punalu'u Bake Shop

Speaking of malasada, we would be remiss to not mention our stop at the Punalu'u Bake Shop. A 4-acre tropical estate, Punalu'u Bake Shop is conveniently located right between Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Kailua-Kona. It made for a nice snack stop during our drive to Kona. The bake shop is renowned for its Hawaiian sweet bread, but this stop was for malasadas only. I ordered a taro malasada, expecting it to be filled with taro creme. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the bread had taro flavoring, making it lighter, yet tasty all the same.

Waimea-Paniolo
Waimea-Paniolo

Village Burger

In the mountainous Big Island town of Waimea (or Kamuela), it's hard to navigate the town without seeing the influence of the Parker family. Its biggest form of influence in the Parker Ranch, one of the oldest ranches in the United States. Today, it is a working cattle ranch full of paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys) producing lots of locally raised beef. The question that was on my mind was where can I taste some of this fresh beef? It wasn't until we were leaving Waimea at around dinner time that we happened to stop by Village Burger. Located in the Parker Ranch strip mall by Starbucks, I initially had my doubts until I dug into the delicious, juicy morsels. We shared the Kahua Ranch wagyu beef burger and the Hamakua mushroom burger, savoring every last bite.

Hawaii-aholehole at Seaside Restaurant in Hilo
Hawaii-aholehole at Seaside Restaurant in Hilo

Seaside Restaurant

For those who fancy seafood, a stop at Colin Nakagawa's Seaside Restaurant in Hilo is a must. The restaurant is located at the edge of 30 acres of natural fishponds, which is where Nakagawa raises 7 kinds of fish: mullet, aholehole, catfish, golden tilapia, rainbow trout, carp, and papio. When a fish is ordered in the restaurant, it is freshly caught from the "backyard" of sorts, and brought in to be prepared. You can't get fish much fresher than that. During my visit, I was curious about aholehole, a fish I hadn't heard of. Upon looking it up on my phone, I read that aholehole was a bony fish that resembled the freshwater sunfishes. Out of curiosity, I ordered it and received two whole medium-sized fish. They were lightly battered and deep fried, but overall the seasoning was very minimal, which wasn't quite to my tasting, although the flavor of the fish was nice and very distinct. I also wasn't a fan of the multitude of tiny bones within this fish. Still, a fantastic little restaurant with a great view and lots to be learned.

Aikane Coffee Plantation Big Island Hawaii
Aikane Coffee Plantation Big Island Hawaii

Cafe Kona de Pele

As Seattleites, it should come as no surprise that one of our primary objectives while in Kona was to drink LOTS of Kona coffee. It wasn't any trouble finding a place that served it, but we fell particularly in love with Cafe Kona de Pele. Located in the newer strip mall surrounded by corporate restaurants. The nice cafe serves not only coffee, but desserts, which are what initially attracted us to fill our coconut ice cream cravings. The coffee also proved to be tasty, coming from the Kona de Pele coffee farm in the Captain Cook region.

Are we missing any notable restaurants? Let us know if the comments below!