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A mushroom ready for sauteing at Hamakua Mushrooms on the Hamakua Coast. Agricultural tours on the Big Island of Hawaii, Dec. 1-6, 2013.


Winter is on its way to Oregon, which must mean it’s time to plan a trip to Hawaii.

Little tops boarding an airplane in Portland and landing five hours later in the Islands.

Watch out, though, because that Hawaiian sun can be brutal to someone escaping cabin fever on the Mainland. To mix it up a bit, following are some indoor diversions offered by farms and other types of living product producers on the Island of Hawaii, also known as the Big Island.

The island’s western Kona and Kohala coasts are the sunniest locations in the 50th state, so it’s nice to have places to go indoors, where you can meet people who raise unusual products and also to taste those products.  Because of its tropical location, the Big Island is the only place in the United States where some commodities grow, among them chocolate (from the cacao bean) and vanilla.

Here are some agricultural tours to enjoy while visiting the Big Island:

Big Island Abalone

The tasting sample alone is worth the visit to Big Island Abalone. At the end of a tour (available for $12 at noon Monday, Wednesday and Friday), samples are usually waiting.

One taste and you realize why many consider abalone to be the best of the shellfish. It stays tender even when cooked, unlike most clams.

The abalone factory is part of the Hawaii Natural Energy Lab, just north of Kailua-Kona. The lab didn’t live up to its name, but did spawn a number of interesting businesses. (The lab itself also offers a tour, where you will learn that wine grapes can be grown with cold seawater: it’s in pipes and causes freshwater condensation, but that’s another story.)

The farm’s 700,000 abalone (which come from a brood stock of 4 million larvae) won’t eat just any seaweed. The Hawaii stuff is not to their liking (due to the warm water), so their diet is imported from Puget Sound. The water the abalone grow in is cold, the temperature needed for abalone, because it is pumped from deep out in the nearby Pacific Ocean.

The abalone sit in a nursery for seven months, then get transferred to tanks where they attach to shelves and grow in rows. It takes another six to seven months to reach three inches, or nearly two years to max out at four inches. The brood stock comes from Japan.

Live abalone is flown by FedEx on ice to many mainland restaurants. It is also served in 50 Hawaiian restaurants after it is processed. Look for it at Huggo’s on the Rocks, a well-known oceanfront institution in downtown Kailua-Kona, or take some home in a can.

Big Island Abalone, Hawaii Natural Energy Lab, 73-357 Makako Drive, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii; 808-334-0034 (call for visiting information),

Hamakua Mushrooms

It’s amazing what good non-native eucalyptus trees can be put to in Hawaii. Chop them down, grind them into sawdust and you can grow the best mushrooms you will ever taste.

At least that’s what the Hamakua Mushroom company does, on its farm with an ocean view on the northeast side of the Big Island. The farm also mixes wheat bran and ground corn cob into the sawdust, before they fill jars and plant mushroom spores.

They grow four kinds of mushrooms, but don’t look for the exact same thing in the wild. The process was invented in Japan and is used with a proprietary license on the Big Island. If you can’t take the mushroom tour, ask for them by name (Hamakua) at local grocery stores, fine restaurants or the island Costco.

Tours cost $20 and are available at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. But call and make a reservation, because one bus load of island visitors can take up all the space.

And they come by the bus load to taste these mushrooms: pioppini, ali’i, abalone and oyster. Chop them up and add them to pizza, or as a side dish to a steak. You can buy them as flavoring in potato chips, peanut butter or lattes at the farm store.

These mushrooms grow so cleanly that they don’t need to be washed. Eight days after a couple of teaspoons of spore are added to the jar (which is kept in a dark refrigerated room), the mushrooms start to grow. Before long they are growing out the top of the jar and are ready for harvesting _ and eating.

Hamakua Mushrooms, Hamakua Coast, 36-221 Manowaiopae Homestead Road, Laupahoehoe, Hawaii; 808-962-0017 (call for visiting information),

Hawaiian Vanilla Company

You’ll never look at ice cream the same way again after visiting the Hawaiian Vanilla Co. on the Hamakua Coast, which is on the northeast side of the Big Island near the mushroom farm.

According to tour guide Ian Reddekopp, son of the farm founder, most grocery store brands of vanilla ice cream aren’t flavored with vanilla at all. Rather, the flavoring is the creation by chemistry to mimic the qualities of vanilla.

True vanilla is too expensive to use in mass produced products, though you do get it in the ice cream sold on the farm. Reddekopp says vanilla is the world’s second most expensive legally grown commercial crop, behind only saffron. At least it is expensive when it is processed in the best way, which is air dried (as in Madagascar), not oven dried (as in Indonesia), or chemically dried (as in Mexico).

The Hawaii farm air dries its vanilla because that process makes it the best it can be, with 900 flavor compounds. The farm started as a hobby in the late 1980s, went commercial in 1998 and has since spawned a few other vanilla growers on the Big Island, the only place in the United States with suitable climate.

Vanilla is an air feeder, taking the nutrients it needs out of the humidity. It’s roots are in redwood bark and coconut husks and it grows vertically up a metal pole. When it reaches maturity, it produces a bloom that lasts only four hours (if you’re asleep, you miss it), then produces the long beans that contain the flavorful seeds.

A tremendous amount of hand labor goes into producing the bloom and the subsequent beans. Tours are available, around lunch or tea, in the Vanilla Shoppe.

Hawaiian Vanilla Co., Hamakua Coast, P.O. Box 383, Paauilo, Hawaii; 808-776-1771 (call for visiting information),


More to follow in a future blog.  Information for this post taken from Terry Richard – The Oregonian Real Estate Section

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