Hawaii's Big Island bounty

On the island of Hawaii, a unique collection of farmers are following their dreams ― and growing some of the best food in the world

Big Island bounty
Photo: Minh & Wass

Covered in golden grasslands, lava flows, and a forest of kiawe trees, the Kohala Coast on the Big Island of Hawaii is arid savanna, not tropical jungle. Less than 10 inches of rain fall per year, compared with the island's eastern side, where spots can get soaked with 300 inches of rain annually.

This coastline seems ill-suited for farming. But the kiawe, a mesquite originally from South America, loves it here. The trees' roots reach down through a layer of silt and then between the lava crags to tap into water trapped beneath. The trees grow huge, and three or four times a year they blossom with brilliant clouds of dangling yellow flowers ― the source for Volcano Island Honey, considered by many to be the finest in the world.

It takes countless numbers of flowers to make one pound of honey; it takes one bee a whole lifetime to make one tablespoon. The result is purity in a jar: white, with an elemental richness, a concentrated blast of the Earth's sweet essence.

"Bees historically have been looked at as a connection to the spiritual," says Richard Spiegel, the company's owner. "The Earth grows the tree, the tree grows the flowers, and the bees gather the nectar. But the bees also help me remember what's real. If I move too fast, they'll sting me."

Volcano Island Honey Co. is one player in the revolution that has transformed Big Island agriculture. The demise of the sugarcane industry and a growing demand for gourmet items have created a cadre of entrepreneurial small farmers who produce an endless array of specialty crops and products: vanilla, hearts of palm, mushrooms, and chocolate.

The Big Island is a remarkably fertile place, where 200 kinds of avocados and 100 varieties of bananas thrive.

"More types of fruit grow here than just about any place in the world," says Ken Love, a South Kona fruit grower. "Ships bound for Asia or Europe stopped here in the 1800s with what they had picked up in South America or the tropics. They came here, threw out their garbage, and it all began to grow."

Ranging from sea level to nearly 14,000 feet in elevation, the Big Island is almost planetary in its geographic diversity. Less than a million years old, it's one of the youngest places on Earth ― and thanks to the lava flows from the Kilauea volcano that continue to add new land, the Big Island is getting younger all the time.

Next: Brave new world


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