Driven by home cooks' increasingly sophisticated palates and restaurateurs' needs for the freshest ingredients, Big Island farmers are finding the demand for their bounty of fresh produce and herbs is on the rise. With a diverse range of climates and growing conditions, combined with an abundance of land, the Big Island provides a cornucopia of vegetables and herbs.

Farms are located in the highlands of cool Waimea at the north end of the island, all the way south to sunny Kau, from dry West Hawaii to moisture-laden Hilo. Crops, therefore, run the gamut, from cool weather lettuces to tomatoes that require plenty of sun. All the products have a few characteristics in common: they are grown on the Big Island and are revered for quality, taste and freshness.

A look back...

Agricultural farming has changed greatly in recent years to keep up with demands from both home cooks and resort restaurant chefs for experimental and gourmet vegetables and herbs. It's not surprising that Big Island farmers adapt so well to changing conditions and trends. They've done so for more than 100 years.

With its large expanse of land, the Big Island has always supported agriculture. For many years, sugar was the major crop. In addition to sugar, farmers often grew more stable small-scale vegetable crops that could be traded for needed supplies when exported sugar prices dwindled. Thus, truck farming, a term that referred to the system of bartering goods rather than the actual use of trucks, was a mainstay on the Big Island.

The large burst of growth for the vegetable farming industry came in World War II, when locally-grown produce was purchased by the U.S. government to feed the soldiers who were stationed in Hawaii. At that time, production farming really took off.

A look forward

Now, the industry once again is feeling growth in the form of competition and challenges in the marketplace. With an excess of land and labor from the closing of sugar fields, and the demand increasing for fresh-grown ingredients and gourmet products, Big Island growers are adapting to market changes, diversifying their production and meeting marketplace challenges.

As is true with many facets of the Big Island's culture, an international array of vegetables grace Big Island farms. As numerous immigrant and missionary groups settled here, the island developed a diverse culinary culture requiring a boutique of vegetables and herbs.

Cabbage Family

Cabbage varieties include the common green head cabbage in both green and purple, Chinese cabbage, bak choy, kai choy, broccoli and cauliflower. Cabbage is one of the largest crop groups grown on the island.

Chinese cabbage is grown in abundance on the Big Island and is well adapted to the Waimea region with cool mountain climate conditions. Currently, it is being promoted under a "Kamuela Grown" logo (promotion for the products grown in the region for quality conscious markets).

Corn

Sweet hybrids of this popular vegetable have been developed especially for Hawaii. They grow well in Hawaii's conditions and are resistant to tropical pests and diseases. Hawaii's corn is unusually sweet and crisp in texture.

Cucumber

Native to Asia, cucumbers grown on the Big Island primarily are American slicing and oriental burpless types. Most cucumbers are field grown with some greenhouse production.

Daikon

Popular in Asia, daikon is the largest and mildest form of radish. Resembling a large white tree root, it can be peeled and eaten raw like a carrot, stir-fried, grilled or pickled.

Ginger

Hawaii is the only state in the nation where ginger is grown commercially, and it is in high demand because of its quality. This reed-like herb, native to Southern Asia, is grown for its pungent, spicy underground stems or rhizomes. Ginger is used in many forms: fresh, dried, pickled or candied.

Greens

An entire salad of greens and lettuces are grown on the Big Island, including iceberg, bib, leaf and romaine lettuces and arugula. Most are from the island's highland regions such as Waimea and Volcano, where cool nights meet the growing requirements of the greens. Hydroponic lettuce-grown without the use of soil-also is making waves in the vegetable industry.

Sweet potato

Originally from Southern Mexico and Central America, the sweet potato was a staple of early Hawaiians. Several varieties are grown in Hawaii, planted and harvested year-round. The Okinawan purple sweet potato is one of the most popular varieties, grown mainly on the Hilo coast.

Taro

Approximately 100 taro farms are located throughout the Big Island, producing more than 1 million pounds of taro each year. Taro is a starchy root vegetable that has been a staple of the Hawaiian diet for hundreds of years. Two different taro-growing irrigation systems are used on the Big Island: wetland and dryland. Wetland taro is generally suited for making poi. Dryland or upland taro is grown without paddy irrigation, generally under rainfed conditions, and the most popular variety is the Chinese taro. Chinese taro is used fresh and for making taro chips.

Tomato

The tomato is one of the most popular and market valuable vegetable crops on the Big Island. Native to Central and South America, several varieties grow well here year-round due to the island's temperate climate and continual sunshine. Vine-ripe, gourmet tomatoes also are grown in greenhouses.

Numerous other vegetables-some common, some unique-are grown throughout the Big Island, including asparagus, artichoke, beans, beets, burdock, carrot, celery, eggplant, onion, pepper, pumpkin, radish, watercress, zucchini and more. Low-growing vine crops, including melons and strawberries, are also plentiful and often grouped in the vegetable category.

Herbs

An entire pantry of exotic herbs and spices is grown on the Big Island to spice up kitchens and restaurants, including basil, chives, cilantro, cocoa, dill, hot chili pepper, lemongrass, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage and vanilla.

From herbal teas to —Okolehao, from beer to wine and coffee, Hawaii and Hawaii Island in particular are becoming well-known in the beverage business worldwide. Much of the activity in our State is taking place on more than 3,400 farms of just 10 acres or less. In the U.S. only eight percent of farms are less than 10 acres but in Hawaii, 64 percent fall in this category.

In ancient Hawaii, beverages made from awa (kava) and the noni tree seemed to solve an array of medical problems faced by Hawaiians. Today, people are rediscovering the value of these and other Hawaiian herbal teas and juices.

The Traditional Hawaiian Herbal Tea Company near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has packaged teas for nearly 20 years. Among their offerings are teas from the mamaki tree, Liko Lehua from the Ohia tree, ginger, olena (a member of the ginger family) and noni. Mamaki is a —pure native“ and is found no where else in the world. This multi-purposed plant has leaves that can be eaten raw, cooked, or brewed into tea. Its bark was once used for tapa, its small white berries as a laxative. On the long list of benefits claimed by many herbal teas, though not endorsed by the Food & Drug Administration, these Hawaiian teas have been known to help with digestive problems, anxiety, respiratory problems and more.

Looking for something with a little more kick? Sandwich Islands Distilling Company (SIDC) on Maui is about to begin production of —Okolehao. Once prized by King Kalakaua and produced as moonshine in Waipio Valley during Prohibition, SIDC“s —Okolehao comes from a cherished family recipe company president Steve Thompson got on Molokai in 1966 and held on to for more than 30 years. True —Okolehao is a perfect blend of mash from the ti root, rice and cane sugar.

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