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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, May 3, 2010

Backing local agriculture is good for all

By Luella Costales

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The Kapi'olani Community College's weekly farmer's market draws tourists and locals every Saturday.

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The Hawaii Farm Bureau Farmers' Market at Kapi'olani Community College not only is a great gathering place for local residents but has evolved into a major visitor destination as well.

A survey conducted March 27 by SMS Research found that 7,425 people attended the market from 7:30 to 11:30 a.m. Of those, 2,826 were Japanese visitors, making up roughly 38 percent of the traffic.

The majority were residents, along with a smaller percentage of North American visitors. This is an enormous amount of activity for an event that lasts only four hours.

Ninety-two percent of North American visitors and 93 percent of Japanese visitors say they are "very likely" to recommend the farmers' market to others, continuing the positive word-of–mouth exposure. In addition, 92 percent of North American and 87 percent of Japanese visitors said they are "very likely" to return to the market in the future.

Visitors like to go where locals go, and nowhere else can they mingle with farmers and this many residents on a weekly basis. Visitors also like the fact that they're shopping and contributing directly to the local community. They come on city buses, tour companies' vehicles and in rental cars.

This once-deserted parking lot on Saturdays is now a festive place of commerce. It's providing our tourism industry with a fresh and much needed visitor experience as we look toward economic recovery.

The socially-driven local food movement is generating a surge of interest in farmers' markets across the country. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farmers' markets more than tripled between 1994 and 2009.

Buying local or getting our food closer to home has become the mantra for a growing number of people. This is not just an American trend; Japanese are also concerned about "food miles" or how far the food had to travel to the plate.

Chefs had a huge influence in this trend by featuring and promoting locally grown products on their menus. The National Restaurant Association surveyed more than 1,800 chefs and the top two trends of 2010 are sourcing local produce followed by locally sourced meats and fish.

Resorts and freestanding restaurants that are engaged in this practice are positioned to take advantage of this growing trend.

Restaurants buying local products are not new to the Islands. Hawai'i's chefs have been buying local produce, meats and fish for nearly two decades and it fueled a food movement of its own. It all started when 12 chefs formally banded together under the Hawai'i Regional Cuisine banner back in 1991.

The chefs were driven to create the best dining experience possible and at the core of the experience were fresh local ingredients. Through it all, Hawai'i has gained a reputation as a world-class dining destination with a cuisine that is unique. We can attribute much of that success to our farmers, ranchers and fishermen who answered the call.

With food being a universal language, Hawai'i's year-round bounty presents many opportunities to tell our unique food stories to the world. The Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau has marketed our dining destination for years with farm-to-table stories in national and international media. They're targeting the gourmet travelers who are generally less price-sensitive, a wise investment in an up-and-down economy.

HVCB has also had great success in bringing TV shows to Hawai'i such as "Top Chef," "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations" and "Gourmet's Diary of a Foodie," just to name a few. There have been countless other food stories published and broadcast about Hawai'i cuisine, unsolicited and at no expense to local businesses.

Hawai'i's agricultural industry is intrinsically linked to our visitor industry, and it's essential that we develop innovative partnerships. Hawai'i needs a thriving agricultural community to stay at the forefront of the world's dining destinations and to sustain our farmers' markets for all to enjoy.

So whether your income is directly or indirectly related to tourism, you have a stake in agriculture. Buy local whenever possible and be an advocate for agriculture. When you buy local you're helping to increase our food self-sufficiency, minimize the carbon footprint and you're supporting our local economy.

Agriculture also provides open spaces and scenic resources that you can't put a price tag on. It's a critical part of the visitors' experience and to our own quality of life.

Luella Costales is the executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation. She wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.