Considering that Hawaii imports an astonishing 90% of its food, those not in the know may be surprised to learn that the islands have a rich, even remarkable agricultural scene, from niche farms that specialize in cabbage to the Big Island’s 20,000-acre Parker Ranch. Think of it as history repeating itself: This is a place that shot to international aggie acclaim during the 1800s when sugarcane took to the volcanic soil like kudzu to Georgian trees. And who doesn’t immediately associate pineapples with the warmth and wonder that is the Aloha State?
While sugarcane and pineapple have seen a rapid decline in recent years—with the largest pineapple grower shutting down in 2009 and Maui’s own Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. closing its iconic doors in 2016—a number of visionary farms are breathing new life into Hawaii’s landscape.
One such farm is found on Maui’s equally iconic Hana Highway. Laulima Farm, a certified organic sanctuary in Kipahulu Valley, was started in 1996, rendering it somewhere between established and fresh—and 100% spectacular.
Tucked into the mauka side a mile past ‘Ohe’o Gulch, the farm is helmed by Josh Stearn, the nephew of the land’s owners, Matthew and Terces Engelhart (who are also the brains behind Be Love Farm and California’s Café Gratitude restaurants). Operating as the farm’s manager, Stearn has seen the orchard transform from a grange of guava and cane grass to what it is today: 13 lush acres brimming with organic fruits, vegetables, coffee, and herbs, including arugula, bananas, turmeric, cacao, and coconut.
The name Laulima translates to “many hands together,” which epitomizes the organization’s past and present. The farm is a true labor of love, tilled in part by apprentices who work the land in exchange for living in one of the most splendid and special places on the planet. Besides the beautiful environs these fortunate interns get to call home, they’re also given a taste of Hawaii’s resourceful past. Power is provided from wind, solar panels, or a back-up generator that operates on vegetable oil; motorized equipment—like their coffee roaster and popcorn popper—are run on the same. Water is sourced in part from local streams. And, prior to a crackdown in 2011, patrons could rejuvenate with an ice cold smoothie—but only if they peddled a bike to power the farm’s now-classic (and much missed) blender.
Despite the changes Maui has undergone in the last twenty years, Laulima maintains its original commitment to green living. To that end, the farm—which falls under a United Nations biosphere reserve—performs permaculture plantings that reduce energy use and maximize nature’s wonders. Peanut plants provide ground cover and, in return, saturate the soil with oh-so-essential nitrogen. Stearn uses recycled materials and local hardwoods to create furniture, and the farm makes Echinacea and burdock tinctures and herbal remedies, including a wild yam concoction that’s touted as a boon for balancing hormones. And while those who live and work off the farm are blessed to eat off its vines, Laulima is also one of two farms to supply produce to nearby Travaasa Hana Experiential Resort.
While years ago Laulima Farms offered baked goods—and those luscious smoothies—today the tropical fruit mecca functions primarily as an ag stand that’s open seven days a week from 9 am to 5 pm. With a bright, cheery sign that’s nearly impossible to miss, this roadside wonder offers reprieve and refreshments in equal measure. The well-maintained lot leads visitors up to a cozy kiosk, where crates of apple bananas and strawberry guavas gleam in the sun. Just inside, farm-made goodies abound, from detoxifying body scrubs to exquisite crafts by local artisans. Farm workers are quick to assist the moment you step in—and just as quick to spoil you. Platters of cool, fresh fruit are served—think: giant papayas cut into mouthwatering squares and jars of just-pickled mango—while shade-grown, freshly brewed coffee with coconut cream awaits. Organic, farm-cultivated popcorn is also available; much of the fun is found in popping it yourself. And once you have your snacks and hot coffee, you’re welcome—if not encouraged—to meander outside, where gorgeous garden seating is situated inside a copse of bamboo.
But the real beauty of Laulima Farm teems outside. Bees buzz around, pollinating brilliantly-colored flowers and plants that range from awapuhi to starfruit. Butterflies sunbathe in the sultry jungle weather and birds provide a harmonious soundtrack. This is fertile country, where the same volcanic soil that nourished those first sweet stalks of sugarcane now fosters gems like lilikoi, lettuce, avocado, taro, breadfruit, and chocolate. Organized farm tours are available for those who are interested, while casual visitors are urged to take a brief hike on a trail that curves around the farm stand. Here, the sun-dappled plants shine with vitality, while overhead the eastern hinterland of Haleakala slopes towards the water.
Thank the area itself for the incredible bounty. Kipahulu—which means “fetch from exhausted gardens”—has long had a solid place in Maui’s agricultural history: It housed sugarcane and taro, served as a port of call for the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company, and supported hundreds of farm sites and agricultural terraces. While now the town is more sparsely populated than it was during its heyday—many residents moved to the west side during the whaling boom—it maintains its reputation as a bastion for both sustainable living and creative inspiration: Georgia O’Keefe was known to paint plein air portraits of the region’s surreal beauty, while Charles Lindbergh—himself a Hana resident—is buried nearby.
Had O’Keefe been alive during Laulima’s operation, chances are she would have painted the jewel-toned fruits that dangle from the jackfruit tree at the stand’s entrance. Whether you stop in front of it to take a picture or to eat the flesh of a coconut, know that any time you spend at this lovely farm is well worth it. After all, Laulima comprises part of that 10% of locally available food—and reminds us what an unspoiled paradise looks like.
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