Star Advertiser: Many hurdles ahead in farming our land

EDITORIAL| INSIGHT

By Maureen O’Connell
November 19, 2017

Stepping up local food production in our island state is a sensible goal. With greater access to fresh, homegrown products, Hawaii could reap economic, environmental and health gains. What’s more, a more robust production could leave us less vulnerable to shortages tied to natural disaster, such as the likes of Hurricane Maria’s hammering of Puerto Rico.

However, challenges accompanying more food production are daunting due to geography-related constraints on farming as well as labor and technology snags, and an escalating demand to plant affordable homes here.

Last fall, when Gov. David Ige addressed the the IUCN World Conservation Congress — an environmental convention held in Honolulu — he announced his “Sustainable Hawai‘i Initiative.” In addition to more protection of watersheds, nearshore waters and various other green-focused objectives, Ige’s plan includes an aim to double Hawaii’s food production by 2020.

So far, that goal is yielding more aspirations than measurable operations.

While the state has a fairly recent fix on commercial crop acreage, it lacks firm figures on how much food is being produced locally versus what’s imported. Agency efforts to hold onto the latter baseline slipped away amid state government’s Great Recession budgetary cuts. Industry researchers estimate that Hawaii imports roughly 90 percent of our food.

Supporters of the call for more local production and greater food security, such as Honolulu’s Ulupono Initiative, an investment firm specializing in environmental sustainability, maintain that while the governor’s 2020 goal is now likely unrealistic, given still-steep hurdles, the push forward should continue.

Among the hurdles is development of a new baseline for measuring local food production.

At this time last year, the state was working with Ulupono Initiative to come up with an online food metrics platform aimed at providing policymakers with a clear statewide picture of food imports and exports. The Agriculture Department spent $90,000 on the computer program, with Ulupono contributing a $160,000 grant. But after long delays in subsequently contracted work that failed to meet the state’s needs, the Agriculture Department pulled the plug.

The state agency is now attempting to address the matter through other efforts. Amy Hennessey, an Ulupono Initiative spokeswoman, said: “We are hopeful this work is continued in some way in the future because the state needs to better understand the total volumes and kinds of food produced locally so that gaps and areas for improvement can be identified.”

Commercial ag charted

The state is faring better with the hurdle of charting commercial agricultural land use. Last year, the Agriculture Department released maps pinpointing farming and ranching operations — the first such update since a 1980 survey.

Done under a contract with the University of Hawaii-Hilo’s Spatial Data Analysis and Visualization Lab, the satellite-based mapping underscores dramatic change in the state’s agricultural profile over the past several decades, with the passing of longstanding sugar and pineapple production.

In 1980 there was a total of 350,830 acres in crop production statewide, 85 percent of which was either sugar or pineapple. By 2015, when the baseline update was completed, total acreage had dropped to 151,830, with just 28 percent dedicated to those two crops. While sugar remained dominant in 2015, with 38,810 acres, most of that land is now fallow following the shuttering of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company on Maui late last year.

Today, Hawaii’s current top crops — seed production, commercial forestry and macadamia nuts — are grown primarily for export purposes. The bulk of emerging diversified acreage, which is planted with varieties of leaf, root and melon crops, are consumed locally. Farm land dedicated to those foods increased to 16,904 acres from 7,490 acres.

Accounting for more than three-fourths of the total commercial acreage is pasture land. Its tally in 2015 (761,429 acres) was down from 1.1 million acres in 1980. The decrease, according to the Agriculture Department, is due in large part to removal of remote lands from pasture use by landowners such as Kamehameha Schools and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands as well as acquisition of pasture properties by the National Park system, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army.

Noting that drop and the doubling of diversified crops, Hunter Heaivilin, a member of the Sierra Club’s Oahu executive committee, said: “We support expanding food production locally, but in determining where state efforts should be directed, it is important to consider market and land use trends.”

He said the state should be careful to avoid focusing primarily on large-scale operations in attempts to “move the needle” on growing our own food production, whether that’s farming or ranching. Such focus, Heaivilin said, “ignores the contributions of numerous small and mid-size producers entering and already in the marketplace.”

Industry subsidies?

The Hawaii Farm Bureau contends all forms of agriculture should be tapped for growth. But progress will be slow-going unless the Legislature bumps up ag funding, which now adds up to less than 1 percent of the state’s budget, said the bureau’s president, Randy Cabral.

“We need more investments in water infrastructure, drought mitigation, disease and pest research, marketing, transportation and strategies for dealing with labor shortages,” Cabral said. “It is easy to say what needs to be done. Placing agriculture as a priority … will require serious commitment. Infrastructure and capacity-building are critical along with a pragmatic position about advancement of agriculture.”

When asked to respond to a counter-argument that any subsidy of commercial agriculturalists should come from the private sector rather than taxpayers, Cabral said, “As a business, farming and ranching have risks like every other business. However, unlike most other businesses, we have to deal with bad weather, drought, pests and diseases.”

He continued, “We subsidize the tourism industry. We subsidize our film industry. Investments in agriculture is an investment in the very core business of a society. … Even as we live in a global economy, natural disasters and pestilence can isolate us easily as an island state. At that time, it will be too late to regrow agriculture.​ All other industries have the capacity to thrive with a strong agriculture base. Agriculture will not automatically thrive due to a strong film industry.​”

Growing new farmers

Another local food hurdle: growing a new generation of agriculturalists. The average age of a farmer in Hawaii is 60, according to federal data.

In response, the Farm Bureau has introduced state legislation and supports initiatives stressing ag education programs, ranging from Future Farmers of America to 4-H. And Ulupono backs workforce-growing projects. For instance, Hennessey said, it has partnered with Kamehameha Schools to provide grants to Go Farm Hawaii, which provides training for beginning to advanced level farmers.

In addition, she said, “We collaborate with a number of funders statewide including the Kokua Hawaii Foundation to provide support for programs that bring agriculture education and school gardens to schools across Hawaii, increasing appreciation and consumer demand for local food among children and their families.”

The Sierra Club’s Heaivilin said new farmers and training programs are key to future sustainability success as the demand for local produce is now outstripping supply.

Tethered to supply-and-demand concerns, according to the nonprofit, is the “suburbanization” of productive farmland, with Castle & Cooke Hawaii’s Koa Ridge housing development — poised for construction on what had been designated by the state as prime farmland in Central Oahu — serving as the latest example.

The 768-acre site will be covered with 3,500 homes, with 30 percent reserved for sorely needed affordable to moderate-income housing. To offset the ag loss, alternative land was provided for farming operations. Heaivilin said, “This type of approach, called ‘development-supported agriculture,’ has been growing across the country, but our land use and other laws do little to ensure that lands will remain in agriculture in the long term.”

In the case of Koa Ridge, the alternative ag land arrangement has prompted a deal through which the newly acquired land may be divided into for-sale “ag lots” — and that houses may be built on them.

Cabral said as local food production increases, so should policy-related vigilance. “Urban growth boundaries should be established … to protect farmers on the fringe of development,” he said. “Farmers should not continuously be required to defend their right to farm if local food production is a state priority.”

Regarding the challenge of balancing agriculture with other land development, Ulupono’s Hennessey added: “In order to have the ability to produce our own food, we must work to preserve agricultural lands as much as possible and find ways to harmonize development with meaningful food production so that they can peacefully coexist as in years past.”