Hilo, Hawaii — CHERIMOYA, calamansi, rainbow papaya. Puna ricotta, poha berries, lilikoi. Lava salsa, dinosaur kale, Hamakua mushrooms. This is the exotic-food litany on the lips of pilgrims who go to the Hilo Farmers Market, held twice a week on the lush eastern side of the Big Island.
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The New York Times
On a Saturday in mid-December I was in the greedy throng, caressing a cluster of longan, or “dragon eye” fruit; sampling a fresh, made-to-order green papaya salad; sidling up for a whiff of ripe, fragrant mango.
The Big Island, a k a Hawaii, is the biggest agricultural producer in the state. But its farming history is one of immigrant fruit — produce that is itself a pilgrim. Virtually everything that is grown in the Hawaiian islands today is an exotic, brought in from somewhere else by sailors, merchants and contract laborers; pineapple, long seen as Hawaii’s signature fruit, was introduced to the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1813 by Don Francisco de Paula y Marin, a Spanish adviser to King Kamehameha I.
On my December visit I set off in search of unusual agritourism experiences from a recent wave of Big Island farms. Though agricultural production has been geared largely toward industrial export and plantation-scale production over the last century and a half — entire crops of bananas, pineapple, macadamia nuts and sugar cane were shipped overseas, while almost everything else had to be flown in from the mainland — that mindset is shifting.
Almost two decades ago 12 local chefs, including Alan Wong and Peter Merriman, became the founding fathers of the Hawaii regional cuisine movement, which focuses on getting the state’s producers to grow what local chefs need. Today, crops are more diverse all across the state, but especially on the Big Island, as farmers have rediscovered heritage breeds and branched out to grow ever more varieties.
My agriventure began at the Hilo Coffee Mill, which is at the epicenter of a rebirth of coffee production in the tropical forests on the island’s east side, where — little-known fact — the 20 miles from Hilo to Volcano once produced more coffee than the entire state of Hawaii does today.
A full-service coffee farm that not only grows and processes its own coffee but also does custom processing for other farms, the Hilo Coffee Mill was founded in 2001 by Kathy Patton and Jeanette Baysa, who wanted to revive coffee-growing in East Hawaii with artisanal small-batch production. I first discovered their smooth, fragrant roasts on a 2003 visit to the Big Island; today, Hilo Coffee Mill is situated on 24 acres in Mountain View.
A tour begins in the roasting room, where the aroma of roasting beans is dizzying and delicious, and continues with a loop around the grounds and a tutorial on coffee from bean to brew. As we meandered among rows of coffee trees heavy with bright-red fruit — which are hand-picked — Ms. Patton plucked a coffee cherry from a branch and popped it into her mouth.
“I like to tell visitors to try this, because it mimics the coffee process itself,” she said. “When you chew the outside of the cherry, you’re pulping the fruit. When you suck on the bean, you’re fermenting.”
I obliged. The flavor of the fruit skin was tart, the soft pulp around the bean sweet and mellow.
Tours conclude with a tasting and lunch at the cafe. There’s also a well-chosen collection of culinary and coffee-themed goods for sale like cold-brew coffee makers for connoisseurs, and seriously addictive chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. And, of course, there’s the coffee.
“Everybody knows Kona coffee,” Ms. Baysa said. “The farms on that side of the island have been very organized and created a huge marketing push to get their coffee out there. So people assume that coffee can’t grow in a wetter climate.”
But she points out that in the late 1800’s nearly 6,000 acres of premium coffee flourished in East Hawaii until sugar, a k a King Cane, took over as the more profitable crop. The decline of sugar in recent years has made it possible for small coffee farms on the Big Island’s east side to make a comeback.
“Like wine it comes down to the farm and the care in processing and roasting the product,” Ms. Baysa said. “When you taste the coffee, it’s that speck of earth you’re tasting.”