Saturday | April 25, 2015
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ISLAND GROWN: Hilo tour offers chance to learn on the farm

County measure aims to promote Big Island agritourism

Hawaii County Council will soon evaluate a measure aimed at promoting agricultural tourism on the Big Island.

Bill 25, last heard in September, will create an agritourism classification for small farmers interested in providing tours to visitors, a practice already in effect for larger commercial farms.

The bill was met with some opposition from small farmers and groups such as the Hawaii Sierra Club last year, who expressed concerns about the overall impact of having tours in rural areas.

"Traffic is a problem because the operations are in rural areas that can barely handle the passenger cars and it would put a lot of wear and tear on the road and it’s like, who is going to fix it?" said Corey Harden, volunteer for the Hawaii Sierra Club.

Harden submitted testimony last year suggesting the bill include limitations for tours in "sensitive special places like Waipio Valley and 4-wheel-drive areas," and restrict the use of the tours for a wide-range of services including "weddings, parties, restaurants, schools, catered events, overnight accommodations, dances, mechanical amusement rides, dirt bikes, all-terrain vehicles and other off-road motorized vehicles."

"I think we need sensible resolutions that work for everyone," she said. "They promote a more commercial-oriented approach than I would like, and I don’t feel like they’re addressing a lot of our concern without making promotion of agriculture the main thing."

Puna Councilman Zendo Kern introduced the bill. A representative from Kern’s office made the following statement about the latest version of the measure:

"Since it was postponed in August, we’ve been working on amendments to the bill with the Hawaii Tourism Association. We were looking at concerns raised in September. Concerns were raised on when the agriculture tourism would end. If there were tours, they’d have to end at a specific time and lower the number of visitors allowed in a specific day."

The amended draft is expected to be heard by Council in April or May.

Lani Medina Weigert, Hawaii AgriTourism Association executive director, said the bill is critical to sustaining and supporting the agriculture industry on the Big Island.

"My response to it is if we don’t pass this bill, farmers won’t be able to stay up," she said. "This bill is largely an economic development bill and allows farmers to diversify if it makes sense to do so to create supplemental income."

She also said the tours are used for educational purposes for visiting farmers looking to learn about Big Island farming methods and unique produce.

"We’re not creating a Disney Land in rural areas," she said

The Hawaii AgriTourism Association started in 2007 in Kona. According to a 2006 study by the Department of Agriculture, the industry is worth $338.8 million in Hawaii.

A scenic view of Rainbow Falls, the story of KTA Super Stores’ local-first mentality and a visit to ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center is nothing new to Hilo residents.

But to visiting farmers and families, Hilo’s first agriculture tour is a chance to learn about the area’s unique history and diverse agricultural industry.

The Hilo Grown Tour, funded through a grant from the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Hawaii County Product Enrichment Program, has been in existence for almost a year.

The tour, which starts at the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel and takes visitors to Green Point Nursery, KTA Super Stores, ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center and OK Farms, teaches attendees about KTA’s Mountain Apple Brand, Hawaiian culture and natural and modern farming practices while exposing them to the island’s unique products and produce.

Lani Medina Weigert, Hawaii AgriTourism Association executive director, said it’s a way to teach newcomers about the roots of the agriculture industry on the Big Isle while supporting local farms, local people, and increasing farmers’ profits by selling directly to the consumer.

“Their primary income will come from farming, but ag tourism allows them to stay in it,” she said. “They work hard in growing crops and can’t make additional margins anywhere, but farmers can make money on the value-added products.”

Weigert, cofounder of Maui-based Ali`i Kula Lavender, a farm that brings in more than 100,000 visitors annually, said she became a Big Island ag tour advocate because of the potential to expose people to the island’s diverse agricultural landscape.

“The Big Island has the most agriculture because of the share of land space that’s so diverse with regard to the crop offerings,” she said.

She also thinks the tours will help sustain local family farms.

“Ag tourism is perfect for multigenerational families,” she said. “The kids are already trained in the business and can continue the legacy of their farms.”

Weigert said she’d like to see ag tours implemented for Hamakua and Ka’u.

Hilo Grown Tours operate 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. For a full schedule visit www.hawaiiagtours.com or call 808-930-0086.

As a member of the local media, Tribune-Herald staff writer Megan Moseley was invited to attend the tour. Email her at mmoseley@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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