Maui might bring to mind sultry sunsets and palm trees, but the island offers far more than postcard-perfect beaches. From papaya and pineapple to coffee and cattle, the Valley Isle is home to an abundant array of agriculture, boasting some of the finest farms in the Western hemisphere.
On April 2nd, islanders toasted its homegrown bounty at the 9th annual Maui County Agricultural Festival. Deemed the premiere celebration for ranchers, farmers, entrepreneurs, and chefs, the day-long fête was held at Maui Tropical Plantation in Waikapu. Guests ranging from off-island visitors to aspiring aggies were offered a taste of Maui County's choicest products from a variety of vendors, including Maui Fresh Streatery, the Andaz’s acclaimed Ka’ana Kitchen and OF COURSE The Mill House Restaurant.
The Legacy Farmers Pancake Breakfast debuted this year with an early morning buffet honoring three esteemed farmers with deep island roots: Hanaka Hashimoto of Kula’s Hashimoto Persimmon Farm, C. Pardee Erdman of Ulupalakua Ranch, and David “Buddy” Nobriga of Maui Soda & Ice Works and Nobriga’s Cattle—a Kahakuloa ranch known for beef that’s “born and grazed” in Hawaii. Executive Director of the Maui County Farm Bureau Warren Watanabe praised the three men and their families for their “huge contributions” to Maui Nui, adding that he was thrilled to honor them in “some small way.” Breakfast bingo and a raffle provided old-timey vibes, with several lucky award winners heading home with some fabulous swag—from a two-night stay at Ka’anapali Beach Hotel to a dinner for four at Roy’s on the West Side.
Hosted by the Maui County Farm Bureau in association with the Office of Economic Development, the Saturday festivities gave local farmers and restaurateurs the chance to showcase their specialties. Yee’s Orchard—a Kihei mainstay that’s been supplying the South Side with fresh produce from their roadside stand for decades—presented their renowned Golden Glow mangoes, while upcountry’s Surfing Goat Dairy offered samples of their signature, oh-so-creamy goat cheese. Other notables this year included Waipoli Hydroponic Farm and Noho’ana Farm, a Waikupu plantation that grows 46 varieties of sustainably-grown kalo. In conjunction with Mark Ellman of Wailea’s Mala, Molokai’s L & R Farm also made an impressive appearance, enlightening audiences with a demonstration on the power of “canoe crops”—plants, such as mountain apples and taro, that were brought on board by ancient Polynesian settlers and introduced to the Hawaiian Islands.
Live entertainment was also presented throughout the day, with Maui's own Willie K taking the stage.
Held each April to highlight the fundamental role agriculture plays on our island, this year’s event carried a poignant edge with the recent closure of the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Co.—an outfit that had been in business for over 130 years and served as the last sugar plantation in the state. To mitigate some of the economic loss, Maui is bouncing back with a renewed concentration on its coffee industry. A tent at the fest was dedicated to the daily drip, serving as a testament to the island’s strength and pioneering spirit while also giving guests a fine-roasted flavor of what's to come in the years ahead.
For the naturally-caffeinated crowd (read: kids), the festival offered a flurry of fun activities at the Keiki Zone. Sponsored by Maui Thing, youngsters were treated to a painting booth, pony rides, a petting zoo, barnyard games, and an Easter egg hunt on the plantation’s gorgeous luau grounds. Children curious about culinary creations were also offered cooking classes and information on island crops, while Kihei’s Fat Daddy's Smokehouse furnished kids with family-friendly grub.
The more discerning diner was indulged with a range of savory tastes, from sweet samples of Maui Gold’s world-famous pineapple to poi mochi, Hana-harvested tomatoes, and Roselani ice cream. Food booths abounded across the grounds, featuring localicious eats from a variety of vendors, including Hana Ranch Provisions, Shaka Pops, Poi by the Pound, and the brand new Fork and Salad—a locally-sourced café created by the masterminds behind Three’s Bar and Grill.
The spring day brought blazing temperatures—and just the right beverages to cool off from the heat: Ali’i Kula Lavender Farm’s Lemonade—a refreshing blend of Olinda Meyer lemons, fresh lavender, and organic honey—was served alongside spicy Chais from Kula Country Farm. Ocean Vodka, Hali'imaile Distillery, MauiWine, and Maui Brew Co.—the brilliance behind Hawaii’s beloved Bikini Blonde—poured luscious libations at the no-host Liquid Garden.
Mid-day, foodies and fans of Iron Chef and Top Chef were treated to a Live Chef’s Challenge—a widely-watched event in which twelve culinary maestros from Maui’s most celebrated restaurants, including our own Chef Jeff Scheer, had to depend on their kitchen skills and quick wit to come up with spontaneous bites based on homegrown ingredients.
But the real star of the show was the much-anticipated Grand Taste: 12 “tastings” by 12 eminent island chefs, including Top Chef alum Sheldon Simeon of MIGRANT Wailea, Ryan Luckey of Leilani’s on the Beach, and The Mill House’s executive chef and ‘Aipono's 2015 Chef of the Year Jeff Scheer. Farm-fresh fare with an island flair wowed the crowd, from the Fairmont Kea Lani’s Tylun Pang’s seared Maui Cattle Co. skirt steak with Kula strawberries, sweet onion, and shaved jalapeno, to Charlie Owen of Hula Grill's kiawe-roasted pork with Maui onion gastrique.
Indeed, ticket holders to the closing event made a mean mixed plate with a range of tastes that paid tribute to Maui’s multicultural heritage. Joey Macadangdang of Lahaina's Joey’s Kitchen’s prepared karekare (a Filipino stew with kalabasa and okra) while the Grand Wailea’s Michael Lofaro offered hee—or octopus—with lime shiso and smoked ponzu. Those with a less adventurous palate were just as pleased: Chris Schobel of Fat Daddy’s Smokehouse dished out barbequed fish, while Luckey offered corn fritters with a smashing herb pesto. The desserts were equally undeniable, with Japengo's Gevin S. Utrillo turning out Moringa shortbread with lilikoi butter and vanilla-bean gelato.
Happened to miss out on Maui’s most mouthwatering and ag-enlightening event? Don’t despair: Next year’s festivities are already in the works, with the event most likely landing on April Fool’s Day, 2017.
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