We’re Nuts about Hamakua Nut Factory’s Tour

mac1We have driven by the sign pointing up the hill in Kawaihae, Hawaii, many times. Hamakua Nut Factory Tour is just one block off of the main highway from Kailua-Kona to Hawi on the Big Island of Hawaii. Having a guest with us, we were looking for a macadamia nut factory tour and the time was right to finally check it out.


Hamakua is a district on the northeast of the island, but Hamakua Nut Factory is in Kohala, the northwest district, over an hour’s drive from the mac nut orchards of Hamakua. The factory’s owner located in Kohala because it is a dryer part of the island facilitating more rapid drying of the nuts for processing. Also, the factory is less than a mile from the Kawaihae harbor that container ships use, the least expensive way to export products from the island.


macnut5We entered the Visitor Center and immediately were greeted by staff inviting us to try their varied flavors of mac nuts, mac nut brittle and mac nut kettle corns. They invited us to wash down the samples with a variety of Ka’u and Kona coffees made available for tasting. The food sampling display was exceptional and I even tried the spam-flavored mac nuts; not my favorite but not unpleasant. The coffee was excellent and demonstrated that good coffee comes from Ka’u District as well as Kona.


Down the hall from the reception area is a self-guided tour that begins with one of the best videos of an ag-industrial process I’ve seen. In less than five minutes, it told the processing story from collecting nuts to drying, cracking and on to the Hamakua Nut Factory kitchens and packaging plants. When the video was over, we turned around to walk along the windows looking into the kitchens where workers wearing protective clothing prepared the nuts in a variety of ways. They made batches of flavored and candied nuts from the raw product and packed the product into attractive sales bags or boxes. Similar ones were displayed along the hallway where the tour took place. Returning to the reception area of the macnut4Visitor Center, we had picked up more than a few items to purchase. The friendly sales staff rang up our purchases (with a kama’aina/local person’s discount) and then it was time to get out on the road to visit Hawi and Kapa’au, with just one more quick visit to the sampling table on the way out the door.


The charm of this self-guided tour was as appealing as the guided tour at Mountain Thunder I wrote about last week, in a different way. The tour invites visitors to stroll through at their own speed and ask questions of staff. It was just the right level of attention from well-trained staff, who were helpful without being intrusive. A visit could take five minutes or two hours, as desired. We have seen mac nut tours with viewing windows in other places, but not with the tour, tasting macnut3room and sales area under one roof. This approach tied the process, products and sales together very neatly. Mac nut ice cream and specialized coffee drinks were also available in the Visitor Center.


Interpretation of ag-industrial processes certainly makes sense from an economic perspective. They sell products to almost everyone who stops to look and taste. Ag tourism or agriturismo, as it is called in Italy, can transform a hard working agricultural district into one with literally hundreds of ag businesses that sell products and also deliver engaging experiences. Tuscany in Italy has more than 400 agriturismo businesses in that one province. They help visitors learn about farming practices, wine and cheese making, and local culture and provide charming places to stay with wonderful food.


The Bergdahl family enjoyed the humorous postcard photo opportunity.

The Bergdahl family from California enjoyed the humorous postcard photo opportunity.

I grew up in agricultural country in Illinois and saw few tours or experience-based ag businesses. Many farms sold their apples or peaches from roadside stands but few ever made the effort to tell their story in a way that engaged visitors more deeply. Engaged guests stay longer, buy more and tell their friends. Kids on ag tours learn that nuts, fruit, vegetables and fiber come from important processes after growing and harvest of ag products. At a time when many of a child’s experiences with the world are virtual, these real experiences have great attention getting and holding power.


We enjoy the agricultural ambiance of the Big Island. And we’re loving the sophistication of some of the agricultural tour opportunities we’ve seen. I guess it’s fair to say that we’re nuts about these macadamia factory tours.


-Tim Merriman



Mountain Thunder Coffee Tour

I have been hearing about the Mountain Thunder Coffee story from various friends since we moved to the Big Island of Hawaii. This morning we took a trip up Kaloko Drive to the main coffee mill located at 3,000 feet elevation in the cloud forests on Hualalai Volcano. As you leave the main highway at 1,500 feet elevation you immediately notice the change from coffee farms, banana trees and macnut groves to grassy horse farms and then into ohia lehua trees and tree ferns at higher elevation. It is a gorgeous drive and we missed the tiny sign to turn right onto Hao Street, so we saw more of the beautiful estates and landscapes than expected until we came to the dead-end on the road.


mt4I usually enjoy industrial interpretive tours and love Kona coffee so I was looking forward to the experience. We were 10 minutes late for the free tour that starts each hour but one staff member invited us to join the tour with Mary Ellen Legay that was in progress. She encouraged us to try a sample of the Private Reserve and/or Black and Tan coffees in the thermos dispensers. I liked both and loved the black and tan, a mix of American roast and French roast, a bit toastier than the usual light roast coffee dubbed American. Oddly the lighter roast coffees have more caffeine because prolonged roasting times and temperature required for dark roast break down the eye-opening caffeine in coffee.


mt1I missed the introduction but Mary Ellen was great about bringing new arrivals up to speed quickly. She was explaining how coffee cherries are transformed into coffee beans by fermenting off the cherries, drying, dehusking and grading in preparation for roasting. She walked us through the warehouse where very noisy equipment overpowered our ability to hear, but she picked up a battery powered amplification unit and continued so all could follow the process. I usually don’t like to hear guides using amplifiers, but this was absolutely the right timing and appropriate for the environment. She went back to a more conversational unamplified approach when we left the grading equipment room for the roasting room. She had small children, adults and some older folks in her group and was careful to be sure all could see and hear at each move on the tour.


mt2Our original group of ten or so had swelled to twenty or more people by the time we reached the end of the tour in the gift shop. Mary Ellen invited us to try coffee cherry tea as we entered the small shop and then explained how each of the grades of coffee are packaged and sold through the shop. She asked for a team effort to answer a question related to the tour content and rewarded the entire group with chocolate covered coffee beans before inviting us to browse the rest of the shop and ask questions. She stayed as long as anyone had something to ask and then headed back out to the plaza for the next group. An hour had flown by and we were happy to participate in the flurry of sales as almost everyone in the group found coffee, macnut treats, t-shirts and other appropriate souvenirs of the visit. From discreetly observing the sales, we estimated the shop took in somewhere around $1,000 plus in sales as a direct result of the quality of the “free” tour.


mt3Mary Ellen found the right balance of information about the coffee process and the appeal that high quality coffee has in Kona District. At $30 to $50 a pound, organic Kona coffees are some of the most highly valued coffees in the world. The Mountain Thunder story on their website explains that Trent Bateman, an “oil-well doctor” and machine shop owner, sold his businesses twenty years ago and bought a 20-acre coffee farm on Kona. His family-owned business now includes a dry-milling operation for their own farms and other small coffee farms in the area and multiple retail outlets and tours (some free, some for a fee). US Dept. of Agriculture certifies their coffee as organic and makes regular inspections.


As trainers of guides, we like to visit commercial operators such as beer breweries, tea factories or coffee mills that interpret unique human stories blended with the agricultural or industrial processes involved. Mountain Thunder produces a very high quality product, shares their unique story well and adds a wonderful attraction to the Kona tourism experience. If you get to the Big Island, check out their cloud forest coffee mill on Hualalai. And enjoy their award-winning coffee during your visit. Once you see what it takes behind the scenes to bring you your daily dose of caffeine, you’ll never look at a cup of coffee the same way again.


– Tim Merriman



The Markets Game – A Mixer, Icebreaker and More

Created at Wordle.net.

Created at Wordle.net.

If you are training, putting on a conference or bringing people together who do not know each other for a meeting, the markets game can be a good start. It brings people together to chat about who they are (demographics), where they are from (geographics), and what they enjoy and care about (psychographics). I first saw it at a storytellers gathering, used as a mixer for new members, and we have since adapted it to the many varied settings in which we work. We have used it with as few as ten people and as many as 200. It can be done in as little as five minutes or as long as you wish, but planning fifteen to twenty minutes usually allows plenty of time.


Here’s how it works. You invite everyone in your group to stand in a large space that allows folks to spread out a bit, indoors or outdoors. The instructions are simple. Ask questions and let people move to your left or right in response to each question. After they move, invite them to gather in groups of two or three and spend a minute getting acquainted. Each question will split them up differently so they will meet new people very quickly and learn a little about them. I prefer to start with demographic questions, and then move into geographic questions and then psychographics. Question examples:


Question 1 – If you remember where you were on the day of the Kennedy assassination, stand to the left. If you don’t remember it, stand on the right. This generally puts those over 60 years old in the “remember” group and under 60 on the other. It’s a way of asking age without asking people to identify their specific age. You can also use the 1986 Challenger accident because most folks will remember it well, even if they were children when it occurred. This would put those over 35 in one group and under 35 in the other. Any significant national or world event that occurred during the age range of your group would work.


Question 2 – If you own a car, move to the left. If you rely on public transportation or your bicycle to get where you’re going, move to the right. Some questions will put almost all of the group in one location and few or none on the other side. It tells you something about the economic background of the group.


Watching this activity you can get a sense of your group’s ages and living circumstances. I avoid questions that might make people uncomfortable such as “if you make more than $50,000 annually . . . or if you have college debt . . . or have ever been divorced?”




Question 3 – If you were born and raised west of the Mississippi River over to the left, east of the Mississippi to the right. Obviously this is a U.S. oriented landmark. If you work with an international group, you might divide the group into east/west or north/south hemispheres instead. We live in Hawaii so I might ask here if my participants were born and raised in the islands or moved here.


Question 4 – If you live in a city or suburban area, move to the left. If you live on a farm or in a small town of 5,000 or fewer, move to the right. I might also ask if they grew up in the country or in the city or went to college at a western school or an eastern school.


Psychographics – I spend most of my time on these for they help me learn the most about the group’s current interests and preferences. These questions can be tailored to reflect activities common in the local area or relevant to your setting.


Question 5 – If you would rather read a good book than see a good movie, move to the left. If you prefer to see a movie over reading a book – move to the right.


Question 6 – If you prefer hiking over bicycling, to the left, bicycling over hiking to the right.


Working with interpreters and guides, I usually end with asking extroverts to move to the left and introverts to the right. Contrary to my expectations, I almost always end up with about two-thirds in the introvert group. People who are passionate about protecting the Earth learn to guide, present and overcome shyness to interpret what they value.


The Markets Game used with a large group gets people a bit acquainted and finding out what they have in common with others present. It starts conversations and breaks the ice of being in a new place with strangers. With a small group it helps you see that we segment markets differently using psychographics than with demographics and geographics. The questions can be framed a lot of different ways and some folks will go to the middle and ask if that’s okay (it is).


This activity gives the facilitator insights into who the group is and what they prefer. Most importantly it gets folks out of their chairs, moving around and chatting. The game gets people engaged and wanting to know more about each other and that’s a great start at any conference, workshop or social gathering.


  • Tim Merriman

What’s in a battery?

It is an exciting time in the energy innovations business. And I am wishing I had paid more attention in high school during physics class. It was my worst subject. I just did not know how to relate it to the real world. After a lifetime of applied physics lessons, I am actually learning how electricity works. Battery design and use has become my most recent study. Since we are building an off-grid solar house, batteries are required. Battery research has led me down many rabbit trails.


Right away I learned that lead-acid batteries have a limited life. They require regular inspection and addition of distilled water. They should not be drawn down too often or too far in stored energy. They must be recycled to keep the lead in them from being a hazard after they are no longer useful. Some innovative folks have been working on other, more environmentally-friendly options.


Nonagenarian Earl Bakken, inventor of the pacemaker, is converting his 17,000 square foot house to off-grid solar on the Big Island and getting away from diesel generators. His 176 kilowatt solar panel array will charge into a new battery type based on saltwater, not lead-acid. RES, our solar contractor is also working on his project and has taken on distribution of the new line of Aquion batteries to do his project and others. Our modest 1180 SF house will use their new S-20 batteries designed for small projects.


m100-ls81-homeThe Aquion story is innovation at its best and Dr. Jay Whitacre tells the story well in his 2012 TED talk. He worked for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) as a post-doc after earning a Ph.D. in physics from Oberlin College. He became a senior staff scientist involved with the Mars Science Laboratory development team. His research into energy storage led him into experimentation with batteries based on using the most common elements on Earth. He invented the Aquion battery when he left JPL for a professor position at Carnegie Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh in 2007.


Eight years later the battery is in production and distribution with Hawaii being an important demonstration location due to the Bakken project, a microgrid-sized application. Aquion has attracted major investors in the past two years including Bill Gates of Microsoft fame. In 2011 Gates posted a blog article entitled “We Need an Energy Miracle.” He explained in that blog the need for a low-cost energy storage system to make solar and wind technologies more useful in diverse settings. Aquion is one of several approaches that show great promise so he invested.


Aquion makes a battery with no Haz-Mat implications. It requires no maintenance such as adding water. It lasts for 10 to 20 years and can be cycled up and down thousands of times. It is more expensive than a lead-acid battery system at the start, but should not be over the total cycle of 20 years. And it will be less expensive to buy each year as sales volumes increase and production costs are reduced.


In the early 1980s I was a nature center director employing solar hot water, composting toilets and a solar greenhouse to demonstrate new technologies. Many new trends we thought would endure did not, but nature centers are a great place to demonstrate and explore new technologies that show hope for a more sustainable future for the planet. New technologies offer a good opportunity for grants funding because they are one-time purchases with a sustainability value in support of the nature center, zoo or aquarium.


Batteries never looked exciting to me before, but they do now. And I am learning some of the basic physics principles I missed in high school. If you operate a facility or home in a sunny location, take a look at the options to go off-grid and start learning more about batteries. It really is an exciting time in the energy innovations business.


-Tim Merriman