Did you know Hawaii imports 85-90% of its food? As the local food movement has taught us, eating food grown in our own communities is important for the economy, the environment, our health, and our ability to brag about our localganic diets. Snarking aside, one of the highlights of my trip to The Big Island in 2012 was learning about the island’s lively agricultural scene, which I thought at the time was a distinctive feature of that particular isle. So I was particularly intrigued to find that boutique farming is alive and well on Maui too, and set off to spend a day exploring three of Upcounty’s many unique farms with my partners-in-crime Chris and Tawny.
Ali’i Kula Lavender Farm
Ali’i Kula Lavender‘s motto is “bringing sustainable aloha to the world.” What a beautiful sentiment for an absolutely stunning property. The lavender farm was just downhill from the meeting point for our paragliding adventure, making it the perfect place for a post-adrenaline cool-down stroll. While our visit didn’t align with one of the farm’s five thirty minute walking tours per day ($12 for walk ins, $10 for advance reservations), we had a ball just wandering the grounds and going camera crazy on the scenic tableaus. We also may or may not have enthusiastically participated in the Lavender Treasure Hunt most certainly intended for children under the age of ten.
The gift shop was an impressive demonstration of exactly how many products can be lavender infused, while a darling cafe offered flavored tea, scones, and lemonade. One of my favorite nods to sustainability? Free tee or coffee for anyone carrying there own cup. As someone who compulsively carries my own acrylic tumbler around New York, it was a touch I loved.
From meandering through the gardens to learning about the surprising health benefits of lavender, I left Ali’i Kula thoroughly impressed by our short visit. Whether you come for a full tour or pay the bargain $3 for a self-guided entry (free for all you paragliders!) you won’t regret the beautiful trip up the slopes of Haleakala.
Organic Ocean Vodka
Wineries are nice and all but when I saw Maui was home to a brand new organic vodka farm and distillery, I really got excited. Opened in 2005, Ocean Vodka is dedicated to organic and sustainable farming practices, from using 100% solar power to bottling their product exclusively in recycled glass and everything green inbetween.
When we arrived at Ocean Vodka we found we had just missed the tour start time. While $10 tours run every half hour we were on a tight schedule and when the staff realized we wouldn’t be able to wait for the next one, they enthusiastically ran us a private tour on the spot (having no idea, by the way, that we were working with the Maui Visitor’s Bureau). That’s the aloha that I love.
I warmed to our guide immediately as he launched into an upbeat explanation of the distillery process while we munched on raw sugarcane. Interesting as the science-y bits were, I was equally interested in the unique work dynamics at Ocean Vodka. With just 20 employees, many of them biologically related, the team really does function as a family, with our guide going as far as to call the bosses “mom” and “dad.” When he moved to Hawaii specifically to join the team at Ocean, they gifted him with a surf board upon arrival.
Ocean Vodka is sugar cane based, and they cultivate a number of indigenous varieties. One of my favorite parts of the tour was learning how local Hawaiians often come by with stalks of sugarcane in their pickups, having heard what they are doing at the farm and being excited to be a part of bringing responsible agriculture back to Maui.
Wait, did I say something else was my favorite part? Because clearly that was the tasting. As soon as we got to the bottling room I knew I’d seen the brand before and soon learned why — Ocean Vodka has been the exclusive vodka on Hawaiian Airlines since 2007. Heading out to the Martini Garden, where guests are free to pick fresh, local ingredients such as Kula lavender, local citrus, passion fruit, pineapple and strawberries for their drinks, we were finally treated to a taste of the smooth vodka.
All tour guests are gifted a shot glass upon departure which I quickly supplemented with all kinds of souvenirs from the gift shop. I left Ocean Vodka inspired by the passion of the employees, the dedication to community and sustainable living, and the hardcore aloha we felt all around.
Want more about Ocean Vodka? Check out Chris and Tawny’s hilarious Alco-HAUL episode featuring it!
Surfing Goat Dairy
Literally right next door to Ocean Vodka sits the biggest draw of all the farms in Upcountry: Surfing Goat Dairy (there could be some seriously tipsy goats running around if they ever got out of their pens.) Started in 1999 by a German couple with roots in the surfing community, Surfing Goat Dairy produces award-winning gourmet cheeses and truffles. Surfing Goat cheese is ubiquitous in Maui — not only was it used in our welcome reception at the Grand Wailea, but it was also served at Obama’s inauguration ball! Which are more or less comparative events, obviously.
Surfing Goat offers an extensive menu of tours, from twenty minute casual tours run throughout the day to a more extensive hour-long evening chores tour every afternoon to BBQs and private tours by the owner upon request. But from the briefest to the biggest tours, all give a taste of what Surfing Goat Dairy is all about — cute goats, humane and sustainable farming, and delicious cheese.
The highlight for me was of course meeting the little guys. I was amazed by how much personality they had — they reminded me of my dog Tucker the way they came running when our tour guide called out to them! Of course they went pretty wild when they saw we had hay, which must be like the McFlurries of goatsville or something.
There are usually around 200 goats at Surfing Dairy, and the guide assured us that the owners know each and every adult goat by name. That’s love.
The biggest laugh of the day came when I heard Tawny asking, “Do they bite?,” cut off by a sharp “OW!” They might not mean to, but these little guys can get a bit overexcited when treats are involved. I understand, goaties, I do.
When our guide managed to drag us away from the spacious goat fields, we made our way to the barn for a little behind-the-scenes action. Interesting as that was, my stomach suspected that the cheese tasting bit would be coming up next, which admittedly made it somewhat hard to focus.
It was worth the wait. While we snacked and sampled, the three of us agreed — the best part about this cheese was all the love that went into it.
Other Upcountry Farms
I didn’t get a chance to visit the following upcountry farms on this particular visit, but I’m looking forward to checking them out on my next visit. All these Upcountry farms are doing important, commendable work and spending a day visiting them is the kind of travel you can feel good about.
Do you ever take part in agro-tourism? I have to say, it’s growing on me (and my stomach!)
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Many thanks to the Maui Visitors Bureau and the Surfing Goat Dairy for hosting me and showing me so much aloha. As always, you receive my honest opinions regardless of who is footing the bill.