Hawaii’s farm future: Fertile fields?

Introduction

In 2008, a report from the University of Hawaii-Manoa and the state Department of Agriculture estimated that between 85 percent and 90 percent of the state’s food was imported every year and concluded that there wasn’t much anyone could do to change the situation.

” … Even though Hawaii can conceivably grow anything that we consume, the quest to achieve 100% food self-sufficiency is impractical, unattainable and perhaps impossible, as it imposes too high a cost for society,” the researchers said.

Hawaii’s relatively small farms could never match the output or efficiency of the vast mechanized farms on the mainland, the report said. Island products would always be more expensive to grow and buy.

Still, the report was more a call to arms than a dark prophecy.

Pointing out that Hawaii’s geographic isolation left its food supply vulnerable to disruptions caused by forces and events beyond control, such as fuel costs, shipping strikes and farm production fluctuations, the report said it was of vital importance that the state not overlook the value of a small but thriving home-grown market.

A healthy agricultural base not only serves as a buffer against outside forces, it provides residents with fresher, tastier, healthier food and could put millions of dollars back into the island economy, the report said.

“I think we are at the crossroads,” says Dr. Matthew Loke, administrator of the state’s Agricultural Development Division and a co-author of the 2008 report with Dr. PingSun Leung of UH-Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. “Whether we can seize those opportunities or not, that’s our challenge.”

“Sustainability” drives today’s farmers

They came from around the state: ranchers and farmers gathering to hear about the latest techniques and technology, to show their products and to network at last week’s Hawaii Agricultural Conference at the Ihilani Resort in Ko Olina.

They listened to speakers such as Kyle Datta, a founding partner with Pierre and Pam Omidyar’s Ulupono Initiative, which will be investing in sustainable agricultural projects; learned how M&H Kaneshiro Farm on Kauai speeds composting by using green waste as bedding in its pig pens; and munched on a “Gourmet Locavore Lunch” based on Kanu Hawaii’s Eat Local Challenge.

This was the new face of agriculture in Hawaii: smarter, more streamlined and focused.

“Agriculture’s not dead here, it’s just different,” says Jim Hollyer, program manager of UH-Manoa’s Agricultural Development in the American Pacific Program. “There’s a huge collage of opportunities out there.”

That’s a stark contrast to island agriculture’s not-too-distant past.

Once, a lot of working people in Hawaii knew the fields. Knew hoe hana.

In the 1930s, more than 50,000 from a population of 370,000 worked the flumes and furrows of 254,500 acres of sugar cane.

In 1959, it was said that sugar signed the paycheck of one in 12 workers.

As late as 1970, sugar and pineapple, though eclipsed by tourism as Hawaii’s driving industry, still employed 76 percent of the agricultural workforce, with 9,500 laborers.

But for all that human effort and turning of land, it was a one-sided partnership.

For a place that had come to be defined by agriculture, Hawaii saw virtually nothing in kitchen-table returns for the massive investments of money, machinery and manpower over the years. The harvests were always meant for others.

Folks could put sugar in their coffee. They could slice a pineapple now and then. But day to day, it was largely subsistence gathering, backyard gardening and the canned goods that came off the barges that filled stomachs.

“Twenty, 30 years ago, we didn’t even think about where our food was coming from,” Hollyer says. “We just brought in whatever we ate. It wasn’t a priority to be self-sufficient.”

These days, with “sustainability” a buzzword, the emphasis has shifted toward feeding Hawaii.

Diversified crop operations are producing a variety of fruits and vegetables such as cabbage, onions, eggplants, string beans, tomatoes, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, broccoli, bananas, watermelon, cantaloupes and honeydew melons.

Smaller specialty farms are growing hydroponic lettuce, vanilla beans, heirloom tomatoes, strawberries and herbs.

“It’s not so much a matter of whether we can grow stuff,” Hollyer says. “We can grow almost anything here. It’s just, how do we grow it cheaply enough?”

Easing the islands’ dependence on imported food, even on a modest scale, figures to be a huge task.

Farmers here face unique hurdles, foremost being the acquisition of large parcels of land.

Where many mainland operations are family farms that have been passed from generation to generation, almost all of Hawaii’s farmers lease because of the price of land and have no guarantees of longevity.

“Landowners are developers,” said Milton Agader, who leases 300 acres and specializes in asparagus at Twin Bridge Farm in Waialua. “They’re always going to be looking to get the most for their buck. That’s how all the ag lands have disappeared.

“The end of our farm is going to be when the land is sold.”

Agader would like to see the state become more involved in protecting agricultural lands.

“They say the state doesn’t have any money, but I think they have a lot of expensive zoned land in Kakaako that businesses would love,” he says. “Maybe they could make a trade — one acre for 300 acres.”

Then there is labor.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service says Hawaii’s paid agricultural workforce is down to an estimated 6,250.

Recent headlines suggest that might be a factor in some disturbing revelations.

Brothers Alex and Mike Sou, who operate 3,000-acre Aloun Farms in Kapolei, go to trial in November on charges related to human trafficking. They are accused of tricking 44 workers from Thailand into coming to Hawaii and then essentially enslaving them.

The workers say they each paid $20,000 for the chance to earn $9.42 an hour at Aloun Farms. Once here, they say, they were forced to live in storage containers and were threatened with deportation if they complained.

The Sous, using a recruiter, were able to import the workers under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s H-2A program, which allows employers to hire immigrants at lower costs if they anticipate a shortage of American workers.

The Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation has said that many farms are looking to outside labor because island residents no longer want to work in fields.

“I think, more accurately, there is a shortage of people living in Hawaii now who want to fill existing job openings on Hawaii farms at the wages offered,” says Hollyer.

“Ag wages are not minimum wage,” says Dr. Matthew Loke, the state’s Agricultural Development Division administrator and co-author of a 2008 agriculture report with UH-Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. “On average it’s about $11.40 an hour.

“But you have to work all day in the sun. It’s hard work. Kids today would rather work in the mall where there’s air conditioning.

“So to feed expectations, maybe $11.40 is not enough. Maybe it needs to be $14.40. But in order to pay workers $14.40, you have to really be selling some high-end stuff. You can’t do that with watermelons.”

Not all farms are struggling. Some have found comfortable niches.

In Aiea, siblings Barbara and David Sumida produce 5 tons of watercress a week, or 70 percent of the state’s supply, at their 10-acre, 11-employee Sumida Farm, which has been in the family since 1928.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” David says, “and the demand is always greater than the supply.

“But we feel fortunate. We wanted to keep the farm in the family, so it’s like we’re the keepers of the flame.”

Sumida says that while specialty farms will always fill needs in Hawaii, it will be the larger, diversified crop operations like Aloun Farms and Larry Jefts Farm in Kunia that will boost self-sufficiency.

“They’re going to have to grow our basic necessities, like cabbage, tomatoes, onion, corn,” Sumida says. “They’re the ones with the big ideas.”

In the end, the question comes down to whether island residents are willing to pay more for food in tough times.

The state Department of Agriculture has been trying to brand local foods with its Hawaii Seal of Quality push — so far with limited success.

“On the high end, yes, it’s worked,” Loke says. “Last May we did a retail event at Whole Foods. Just one afternoon, you know, where we had chefs come in to prepare food with local produce. And then we tracked sales for three months after the event.

“On average it went up 37 percent. So it was really good for us and really good for Whole Foods. But that’s Kahala.

“A lot of our farmers are so busy farming they don’t even have a brand. And if you don’t have a brand, how do you tell if it’s a local product or not?”

Loke says most consumers can’t even distinguish between local and imported eggs (“If it’s stamped, it’s imported”) so education has to be key.

“You have two products. One’s a dollar a pound, one’s a dollar quarter. If people train themselves, they’ll say, ‘Hey, I’ll buy local,’ ” Agader says. “But sometimes when huge quantities of mainland products are just dumped on the market at really low prices, there’s just no way you can compete.”

Monty Richards, the straight-talking, suspender-wearing chairman of the Big Island’s Kahua Ranch, asks, “Do you realize that the milk you buy in the supermarket has been double-pasteurized and that it comes from California in big tanks?

“They re-pasteurize it and put it into your nice containers and you take it home and wonder why you don’t get much shelf life. Well, it’s because it’s old milk before you ever got it! Same thing with fruits and vegetables. But they’ve done such a hell of a good job advertising that people just don’t realize it.”

Loke sees change coming in small increments.

“Think about it,” he says. “If you talk about pumpkins … before Aloun (Farms), we were importing all of our pumpkins. Now I think we may be 80 percent self-sufficient. Watermelon? I’m sure we’re at least 75 percent. We could be totally self-sufficient in pineapples and papayas. Chinese cabbage and head cabbage? Definitely. Sweet potatoes? Definitely. Herbs, for sure.

“It will take time, but I think we can get there.”

Hawaii’s farm future:Fertile fields? – Hawaii Editorials – Staradvertiser.com

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