Explore Hawaii

In Hawaii, the Hilo Farmers Market Keeps Food Local

Locavores, shoppers and travelers find an authentic Big Island Hawaiian experience, but only if you get up at dawn and explore the Hilo Farmers Market

A shaft of yellow begins to illuminate the inky black sky as dawn hovers over the Big Island of Hawai‘i. Early, but already the small empty lot on the corner of Mamo Street and Kamehameha Avenue in downtown Hilo buzzes with activity.

Weather beaten, mud covered pickup trucks back in and battered wooden crates, overflowing with sun-kissed red strawberries from Waimea, vivid green fern shoots from Waipi‘o, golden tasseled ears of sweet corn from Pāhoa and a host of other local produce are whisked out of the rumbling trucks with lightening speed. Blood red anthuriums, standing straight as soldiers in 5-gallon buckets, are carefully arranged. Just-picked Hawaiian sweet potatoes, some with dirt still clinging to their hastily scrubbed exteriors, are carefully stacked.

The sweet smell of just-baked bread wafts through the air and mixes with the pungent fragrance of recently harvested Thai basil. Peels of laughter come from the vendors as they set up their produce, baked goods and specialty items for another day at the Hilo Farmers Market.

A small, but growing, crowd gathers as the early rays of dawn paint the sky in muted shades of pastel colors. The crowd stands politely for the vendors to be ready. Several clutch a cloth or woven bag, each hoping to fill it with Hawai‘i’s freshest vegetables, fruit and flowers. Their eyes roam over the stalls, pausing, then moving on. These are the “regulars,” who know to come early for the best produce, the best deals.

Sprinkled amongst the “regulars” are visitors, clutching their steaming Styrofoam cups in one hand and camera in the other. A few visitors talk with the regulars, asking: What’s in season? What should they buy? And which stalls are the best? Most regulars smile and raise their chin to point out the vendors not to miss.

The early morning atmosphere is laced with excitement and gaiety, like Christmas. When the sun has moved high enough off the Pacific Ocean that it is light enough to read a newspaper, or about 6 a.m. The vendors are ready and the festivities begin.

Some 200 farmers from across the Big Island make the trek to the most famous Farmers Market in Hawai‘i. The Hilo Farmers Market is the end result of the island’s diversity of terrain, climate and rich soil, mixed with the blend of cultures, culminating in a selection of produce, fruit, flowers and baked goods that are a treat for your senses.

To local residents, it seems like the Hilo Farmers Market has been going on forever, but the market actually started in 1988 when Richard “Mike” Rankin pulled together four farmers who sold their produce out of the back of their trucks.

It was, to coin a phrase: “An idea whose time had come.”

Nearly a quarter of a decade later, a couple hundred vendors now assemble daily in downtown Hilo to bring their just-picked vegetables and fruit to the well-known market.

At first only produce and vegetables were available. No one thought that Hilo residents would buy flowers. But slowly flowers showed up: a bunch of extra large anthuriums or especially rare orchids. They sold out immediately. Next came exotic protea in sunset colors and incredibly creative bonsai plants. A new niche market was created.

A while later, the smell of just-baked breads began filling the open-air market. Customers began coming earlier and earlier to be able to get the baked goods, which was followed by ethnic foods, coconut pastries and jellies. Next dried seafood appeared and disappeared as customers clamored for more.

Next, a few craftspeople appeared with T-shirts, jewelry and hand-crafted wooden works, again selling out.

By this time, the word was out: Hilo Farmers Market was not just for local residents but a “must-do” experience for visitors. A trip to the Farmers Market isn’t just a great place to cast your gaze over the range of local produce or a chance to stand in wonder at the exotic fruits and vegetables. It’s not just delightful smells, but one of the few opportunities to really experience Hawai‘i. Most vendors are very friendly and proud of their products. Many will cut a slice of their avocado so you can see, smell and taste how superior their product is. The guy selling the alien-looking rambutan, not only will offer you free samples, he’ll show you how to eat it. Frequently, the coconut seller has a machete standing by to lop off the end of his fruit and will hand you a straw so you can sip the delicious liquid as you peruse the market.

This is your chance to know the Big Island by tasting the products of the volcanic-rich soil, blessed by the rain and nurtured by the tropical sun. Don’t miss the rare opportunity to talk with local farmers, watch their eyes light up when they explain how they grew their products, shaking their heads as they detail all the hardship Mother Nature gave them with no rain or little sun. Don’t be surprised if your trip to the Hilo Farmers Market is the most memorable experience you take home with you, something that lingers with you longer after your Hawai‘i tan fades. The market is open every day, but the best days to go are Wednesdays and Saturdays, when it seems like the best vendors are there and the best products line the shelves.

Get there:
The Hilo Farmers Market opens at 6 am on Wednesday and Saturday (the days with the most vendors and farmers), and 7 am every other day of the week.  Aim to get there early — it’s open, as the saying goes, from “dawn till gone.”