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Tuesday, September 30, 2014         

UNDER THE SUN


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Turning local produce into a tourist magnet

By Cynthia Oi

POSTED:



Unable to sustain itself on agriculture, the small Japanese town of Inakadate grows rice for visual consumption.

Every spring, residents plant various types of the grain that when fully developed form multicolored images called paddy art, large pictures that stretch across several fields.

Although paddy art draws the community together and attracts thousands of visitors, donations generate only about $70,000. That's enough to cover expenses, but not enough to make much of a dent in the village's $106 million debt, according to The New York Times.

Inakadate's heavy financial obligation goes back to an earlier venture to profit from its designation as one of the Japan's oldest rice-growing regions, a theme park that has since been squeezed by the nation's poor economy.

With little else to go on and with other towns starting to play copycat, the village has plans to expand the number of art paddies, create an identity through a mascot and add facilities where visitors might spend more money.

Inakadate's agri-tourism novelty could set a small village's financial affairs to right where conventional agriculture -- growing a grain that is a staple for much of the world -- has failed.

Like the village, Hawaii hasn't been able to support itself on agriculture alone. Tourism is and always will be the islands' cash crop despite all aspirations to widen the economic base.

That doesn't mean efforts to produce as much as can be homegrown shouldn't be pursued, and if linking agriculture to tourism can strengthen that, then fine. But balancing agriculture and tourism is tricky.

A few weeks ago, I found a letter to the City Council taped to a shower tree at Kapiolani Community College, where the Hawaii Farm Bureau's popular farmers market is held.

"In the beginning, the farmers market noise and traffic in our neighborhood wasn't too bad," the letter says.

But as word about the market -- which didn't have tourism on its original blueprint -- spread to tour operators and other visitor businesses, it has been inundated by hundreds of tourists. Buses, limousines, mini vans and rental cars routinely unload curious visitors.

Few of them buy fresh vegetables or unprocessed fruits because hotel rooms don't have kitchens. And though they marvel at the array of produce that appears exotic to them, and a good number will line up patiently for a container of fried green tomatoes, they overwhelm shoppers who dodge among them trying to buy weekly supplies of romaine lettuce and papayas.

The letter writers have a valid complaint about noise and traffic, but short of shutting down the market, there's no way to get around it.

The KCC market and others that have multiplied across the state have greatly benefited local residents and farm businesses.

They have shown that locally grown food is in big demand and have spread recognition of the importance of agriculture for the economy. So much of Hawaii is shared with visitors, like the beleaguered letter writers have been forced to share their neighborhood, but the markets clearly illustrate that agriculture can be more than a tourist-tinted novelty.

That's the good part.

Cynthia Oi can be reached at coi@staradvertiser.com.






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