Over millions of years, Hawaii was formed by lava flowing through a hole in the earth’s crust, creating hundreds of islands, 137 of which are named. The archipelago stretches some 1,500 miles toward Japan. Each island differs in age, and the soils have broken down and oxidized to varying degrees. Hawaii has 190 different soil series (PDF), and 10 of the 12 soil orders in the world.
In addition to its varieties of soil, Hawaii also has a warm climate that allows growth of some plants year-round; sunshine is abundant if not constant, and rainfall levels vary wildly depending on location. Some locales receive as little as 10 or 20 inches of rain per year. By comparison, Mount Waialeale in the center of Kauai, is among the wettest places on earth with average annual rainfall of more than 400 inches.
The soil and climate make Hawaii an ideal location to grow any number of crops. Early Polynesian settlers brought with them plants like sugarcane, taro, banana, bamboo, coconuts, mountain apples and breadfruit, just to name a few, and saw their agriculture thrive. Combining these fruits and vegetables with chicken, pigs and other animals, Native Hawaiians established a self-sufficient society for many centuries.
After Western contact in the late 18th Century, it was the ability to move vast amounts of water to formerly arid locations and the steady supply of cheap foreign labor from Asia that transformed the islands into a hospitable home for sugarcane and pineapple plantations. Sugar was first exported in the 1830s, and Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Co., a division of Alexander and Baldwin, operated the last remaining sugar plantation until 2016 when it, too, shut down.
During the nearly two centuries that sugar proliferated here, it dominated the landscape, culture and economy of the islands. The “Big Five” of Castle & Cooke, C. Brewer and Co., Alexander and Baldwin, Theo Davies and Co. and American Factors (Amfac) scooped up parcels of land and gradually increased their power and influence.
Hawaii underwent a rapid transformation as many pineapple canneries and farms and sugar producers closed their doors or converted their operations. Today, Hawaii has turned to smaller and more exotic fruit and vegetable farming. In 2013, 7,000 farms were operating, up from only 3,700 in 1954. They produce more than 40 crops, up from 28 in 1954. Hawaii is still the only U.S. state that produces coffee, and is, after Australia, the second-largest producer of macadamia nuts in the world.
Chief among the so-called “diversified agriculture” ventures are a handful of seed crop companies. International organizations like Monsanto and Syngenta take advantage of Hawaii’s year-round growing conditions and three or four crop cycles to make up the difference in shipping and the high cost of leasing or owning land in Hawaii.
Seeds, the vast majority of which are corn seeds genetically modified to resist drought, salt water or pesticides, are sold to mainland farmers. The seed crop industry was valued at about $217 million in 2012-2013, down from $242 million in 2011-2012, which was a record high. Seed corn remains the state’s most valuable agricultural resource.
Some environmentalists oppose these genetically modified organisms because they say GMOs have not been heavily tested and thus their long-term health risks are largely unknown. The companies behind the GMOs have also been criticized for making it hard for small farmers to stay in business without their products.
But many of the world’s most respected scientific organizations and publications have concluded that genetically engineered foods are as safe to eat as other foods and that there is no credible evidence of harm to humans who consume them. In farming terms, they say that genetically engineered crops are often easier on the environment than traditional ones.
Beef production is another key component of agriculture in Hawaii. Paniolo — Hawaiian cowboys — have carved out a place in island lore. The Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation says that some 90 percent of the beef produced in the state comes from Hawaii Island, generating $26 million in annual revenue. U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show that there were nearly 200,000 cattle and calves in Hawaii as of January 2014.
In addition to an increased focus on food sustainability, farmers have stressed the need to transition to local sources of renewable energy that will provide long-term fixed prices, in contrast to the rising, and volatile price of oil which can have significant impacts on the cost of farm operations.