Dean of UH Hilo’s College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management: Ultimately, revitalizing Hawaiʻi’s agriculture will depend on strong and productive relationships among farmers, consumers, agricultural scientists, and governmental and non-governmental agencies related to food production and distribution.
By Bruce Mathews – Dean of the College of Agricultural, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management, UH Hilo.
On January 21, the University of Hawai‘i Economic Research Organization (UHERO) published a brief by Sumner La Croix and James Mak entitled “Reviving Agriculture to Diversity Hawai‘i’s Economy,” describing limited potential for agriculture to be a major source of economic growth in Hawaiʻi over the next 10 to 15 years. They noted that doubling food production would only increase state GDP by 0.15 percent, however there are certainly a host of other factors for Hawaiʻi to consider besides GDP such as contributions to nutrition, food security, and the pervasive local cultural value of aloha ʻāina (Leung and Loke, 2008; Gupta, 2014; Meter and Goldenberg, 2017).
A week prior to the UHERO brief there was a scathing Honolulu Civil Beat article by Stewart Yerton entitled “Auditor: State Agriculture Agency is Failing to Fulfill Mission,” describing the massive failings of the state’s Agribusiness Development Corporation (ADC). This was followed in Civil Beat by Jessica Terrell’s article and passionate plea entitled “Hawaii’s Food System Is Broken. Now Is The Time To Fix It.”
These publications and others coupled with the overall anxiety of the COVID-19 economic crisis has led to considerable commentary and discussion about the agriculture system in Hawaiʻi being in dire need of revitalization. Realistically, there is little new in these 2021 publications that was not discussed after the near complete demise of the sugarcane industry by the end of the past century (Suryanata, 2000; Suryanata, 2002).
More than 20 years later we are still on the same quest to identify a set of new field crops that could take the place of sugarcane and pineapple (La Croix and Mak, 2021). Perhaps sugarcane could even make a limited comeback as the longer ratooning, more fertilizer efficient, and higher soil carbon storing energycane hybrids which could contribute to more sustainably fueling future tourist-packed jets in place of imported fossil fuel (Parachini, 2018; ʻImiloa, 2021). If the fuel option fails the cane juice can always be distilled into agricole rum! Importing a large portion of our food (~85%) and fuel (~92%) while repeating the same discussions that took place over the past two decades only serves to further highlight Hawai‘i’s questionable ecological footprint and ability to serve as a model for tropical island sustainability.
Agricultural education and entrepreneurship
Some of the stakeholders participating in the discussions correctly add that agricultural education is also in need of curriculum improvement and broadening. Since most of today’s undergraduate students did not grow up in the agricultural sector, quality hands-on practical experiences are required to gain workforce competencies in addition to theoretical classroom instruction.
Furthermore, greater internationalization of agricultural curriculum and inclusion of business entrepreneurship, finance, and life-cycle analysis is key in a globalized but environmentally threatened world (Bruenig and Shao, 2012; Tomar, 2014; Van Raalte and Van Riel, 2014). At UH Hilo, we desperately need to bring back the agribusiness specialty with a dose of bio-economy and the commercialization of bio-innovation. Much excitement has been created this semester through Angela Faʻanunu’s special topics class entitled Sustainable Agribusiness and Island Food Systems and funded by a donor as part of a joint initiative between the UH Hilo’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management (CAFNRM) and the College of Business and Economics (COBE).
There is a desperate lack of horticultural entrepreneurship throughout the Pacific Islands and breeding of improved fruit and vegetable cultivars for the region has largely collapsed due to a lack of long-term public sector support and little interest from private investors (Markham, 2013). Traditional crop production curricula have tended to focus on the science and theory of yield without adequate consideration of market analysis and raising net income while protecting the environment. Successful growers in Hawaiʻi tend to monitor wholesale prices of produce at terminals throughout the Pacific and their ability to reliably supply the local market in the face of generally intense import competition.
Economics, technology, and land
Arita et al. (2014) and La Croix and Mak (2021) point out that Hawaiʻi’s agricultural sector is hampered by approximately 40 percent higher labor and input costs relative to other U.S. farms and that our operations lack economies of scale. Nearly all fertilizer and most soil amendments are imported. Furthermore, there are often gaps in technology such as automation, robotics, environmental control greenhouses, sensors, and overall precision management of inputs. Hawai‘i’s farm production may already be a much as 20 percent less efficient on average, than U.S. farms overall (Arita et al., 2014). While we cannot compete in today’s economy solely by implementing farming practices of the past, we can certainly be informed by their knowledge (Van Raalte and Van Riel, 2014). Unfortunately, an inconvenient truth is that in the absence of long-term assurances of some form of subsidies or tax breaks that many areas of Hawai‘i’s agriculture will not be able to compete against less expensive imports.
One of the challenges with scaling up has been the fragmentation of agricultural lands through rural gentrification, real estate speculation by the super-rich which drives up land costs, and the associated barriers to securing longer-term leases critical to obtaining investment capital. Some farmers spend considerable time commuting and moving equipment between fields and the short-term leases provide little incentive to conserve or improve the soil. Gentrification and rural real estate speculation has also resulted in much agricultural land being fallowed long-term or otherwise underutilized creating gentrified wastelands of land inequality. Owners of such lands benefit from lower real estate taxes for ag land despite the limited actual farming activity.
Furthermore, these owners often lack expertise in agriculture and when they attempt to farm they often fail. Some actually try to seek advice but are frequently taken advantage of by those lacking professional credentials who promote pseudo-science or unproven inputs and practices. As predicted by Kelly (1981) following closure of several of the smaller sugarcane plantations, the most common agricultural use of former sugarcane lands tends to primarily default to poorly managed, unimproved, low-input pastures.
Given the challenges of agricultural profitability in Hawaiʻi and elsewhere in the tropics many small farmers feel like they are on a niche/boutique/luxury/higher-value crop treadmill to sustain a modest living that is typically buffered by other sources of income (Bittenbender, 1999; Suryanata, 2000; Arita et al., 2014; Rueda et al., 2018). A similar situation exists for aquaculture due to the high costs of imported feed and other inputs (Belton et al., 2020; Farmery et al., 2021). Producing locally produced animal protein for the masses other than pasture-finished beef cattle generally means developing locally produced corn-soy feedstocks and by-catch/by-product fishmeal. Certain island Southeast Asia countries have rapidly progressed in this area during the past 20 years.
[See also Dean’s Column: Travels to Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, November 2016, Nihopeku]
Traditional food-based agricultural crop production tends to have very low profit margins when competing globally against less expensively produced imported products. Inevitably, most of the people want a significant amount of food products that can’t be economically produced or processed in Hawaiʻi. While freedom to choose is part of liberal democracy so is the ability to conduct marketing campaigns. La Croix and Sumner (2021) emphasize that if Hawaiʻi’s consumers can be convinced it’s worthwhile to pay a bit extra for local produce/food then a lot of the challenges will take care of themselves. We still have a long way to go in developing consumer support to pay premiums for local products (Loke et al., 2015).
This being said, there is still the social caveat that in the absence of market interventions by government much of local food production is likely to remain beyond the budgets of most consumers. It is worth noting, however, that on the island of Hawai‘i and the other neighbor islands, quite a few hunt, fish, gather, share, and trade food collected from the land and sea, thus reducing their food costs.
It’s difficult to imagine significantly moving the needle on local food production without subsidies and tax breaks. Such market modifying polices may gain increasing support if it becomes apparent that the global food system is nearing a tipping point which would result in international agri-commodity battles. Unfortunately, sustainable agriculture rhetoric has largely become a mantra for politicians and social change advocates.
Some potentially unique opportunities may emerge with mid-scale corporate bio-economy (fossil carbon replacement) technologies that rely on bioprocessing of sustainably produced, tropical-perennial biomass crops grown on marginal lands to generate high value organic chemicals, including advanced biofuels, while storing soil carbon (Matlock and Mathews, 2019). While such technologies may never be fully advanced in Hawaiʻi there is no reason why we can’t attract research and development investment and once again be a leader in tropical agricultural technology innovation like we were 50 years ago. Many old-timers remember that we once had the worlds highest sugarcane production levels based on innovation, advanced knowledge and technology while having better worker safety than most competitors. If bio-economy technologies can be developed at scale in Hawaiʻi they could be a major source of economic growth. Similarly, we could start manufacturing our own green ammonia nitrogen fertilizer from renewable energy resources such wind, hydro, geothermal, solar, etc. (Smith and Torrente-Murciano, 2021).
So how do we better advantage our small farmers while revitalizing agriculture overall? We should explore the facilitation of professionally managed cooperatives to provide small farmers greater power in the marketplace to obtain credit, share equipment, purchase inputs, coordinate sustainable production, safely wash, store (cold storage is key), package, and market their products (Tomar, 2014; Rueda et al., 2018; Oberlack et al., 2020). Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) compliance with respect to post-harvest handling is often difficult for individual small farmers. Simultaneously, consideration needs to be given to attracting some mid-size investors to help carry the various agricultural sectors. It is possible for this to be done in a mutually beneficial partnership with successful cooperatives and well-supported contract farming arrangements (Tomar, 2014; Oberlack et al., 2020). Such approaches are being increasingly pursued elsewhere in the tropics.
Advanced data analysis
Coordinated production can also be facilitated by mid-size entrepreneurs through small farmer participation in contract growing programs. A success story on the Big Island is the Calavo Growers’ papaya operation. Their growers are regularly updated on the production practices which lead to the greatest profitability per acre under different soil types and land use histories. This information is largely derived by Calavo’s modeling of the mandatory field management practice data provided by the farmers, Calavo data on yield, culls, etc. for each farmer and growing area, coupled with periodic soil and plant tissue testing.
According to Chantal Vos of Calavo and Norman Arancon, a professor of horticulture at UH Hilo, grower production practices have greatly improved with this approach of studying the overall farmer practices and then routinely providing group feedback on what works the best under different conditions.
There is certainly room to encourage much greater on-farm research work and compilation of agricultural relational databases by university faculty and farm service providers. Those who adapt an analytics mindset will increasing have an advantage. The pressure to find efficiency and drive productivity creates the need for advanced data analysis that can find the multiple factors that can increase overall profitability by 10 percent in today’s operating environment where there is often no silver bullet.
The agricultural programs and extension/outreach across the 10-campus University of Hawaiʻi System need to be revamped to better serve the small farmers, industry, and the local food security aspirations of the populace. Furthermore, the populace needs to be better informed on our relationship to the land and sea and what it takes to produce food locally and globally in an environmentally friendly, economically viable, and socially just manner. While some are no doubt already doing a great job this will mean better instilling such commitment across the board and for leaders to facilitate improved public-private partnerships, links to producer organizations, and on-farm research.
Most of the producer organizations are also in need of internal strengthening. Future academic hiring should also take into consideration industry experience and community outreach in addition to the traditional academic parameters such as research publication and formal course instruction.
Ultimately, revitalizing Hawaiʻi’s agriculture will depend on strong and productive relationships among farmers, consumers, agricultural scientists, and governmental and non-governmental agencies related to food production and distribution.
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Bruce Mathews is a soil scientist currently serving as dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. A 1986 graduate of UH Hilo, Mathews joined the university in 1993 as a temporary assistant professor of soils and agronomy and became a tenure-track assistant professor two years later. His areas of research include plant nutrient cycling and soil fertility as affected by environmental conditions and crop management, assessment of the impact of agricultural and forestry production practices on soil, coastal wetlands, and surface waters, and the development of environmentally sound and economically viable nutrient management practices for pastures, forests and field crops in the tropics. He received his master of arts in agronomy from Louisiana State University and his doctor of philosophy in agronomy and soils from the University of Florida.