Hawaii Rep. Cindy Evans, chairwoman of the Water and Land Committee, cares a lot about how agricultural land is used in Hawaii.

For more than a decade, the representative from the Big Island has been debating land use policy questions, including whether the state should allow farmland to be diverted for other uses such as wind farms and retail stores.

But until this year, Evans hadn’t realized that she and other lawmakers were basing their decisions on data that is decades old.

House Bill 1120, introduced by Rep. Angus McKelvey from Maui, proposes updating the state’s agricultural land productivity ratings, which date back to 1972.

Policymakers and other decision-makers, including members of the state Land Use Commission, look to the classifications to help determine what sorts of development should take place in Hawaii.

“You always hear people talking about Type A and Type B soil,” Evans said. “When I realized (how old the data was), I just went, ‘Wow.'”

What Data Is Available?

HB 1120 would require the state Office of Planning to analyze Hawaii’s farmland and re-classify it based on its productivity. The bill would also change several laws that deal with agricultural land, replacing references to the Land Study Bureau with the Office of Planning.

The Land Study Bureau was made up of a group of University of Hawaii scientists who analyzed soil between 1965 and 1972. The bureau rated land based on how fertile it was on a scale from A to D.

Since the early 1970s, the state has conducted two other large-scale studies of farmland productivity. One 1978 study evaluated farmland based on a range of factors and classified it as “prime,” “unique” or “other.” Another 1986 analysis by the state Land Evaluation and Site Assessment Commission scored farmland on a numeric scale, evaluating its potential for different land uses in a more complicated and subjective analysis than the previous studies.

But critics say even those studies are outdated. McKelvey said that the maps from the 1978 analysis are so old that when he tried to view them last year, his office didn’t even have software capable of opening the computer files.

In the years since, there has been additional research on Hawaii’s agricultural land. But Office of Planning Director Leo Asuncion said that those studies have been piecemeal and that even taken together, they don’t provide an overarching picture of the state’s farmland.

Asuncion said the 1972 analysis was based on the needs of the primary crops at the time — pineapple and sugar. The study rated just 24 percent of the state’s total farmland as very productive (between A and C on the rating scale).

A lot has changed since then. The big plantations are gone; now, agriculture in Hawaii is a lot more diversified. Some areas that weren’t irrigated then may be irrigated now, and others that had adequate water may not anymore. New technology, including geographic information systems (GIS), has also emerged, allowing for more precise mapping and analysis.

“Is it time to update it?” Asuncion said of the ratings. “I think so… In order to make decisions going forward, I would rather have the best available data I can get.”

How Much Is Good Data Worth?

Re-analyzing Hawaii’s farmland won’t be cheap. The Office of Planning estimates that it will need half a million dollars to hire people with the scientific knowledge to update the 1972 study.

HB 1120 will also be competing with many other proposals for limited funding at the Legislature, given the recent announcement that the state is expected to receive nearly $1 billion less in revenue over the next two years than it had anticipated.

Robert Harris, director of the Sierra Club, said that updating the study is a good idea, but he thinks that the money would be better spent furthering the state’s mandate to designate Important Agricultural Land (IAL).

The IAL designation sets aside farmland in perpetuity, ensuring that it won’t be re-zoned for development. But even though the state has had a constitutional mandate to identify important farmland since 1978, neither the state nor counties have done so.

Other groups, such as the Land Use Research Foundation and the Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council, don’t think that updating the agricultural land productivity ratings is necessary. In his testimony, the foundation’s director, David Arakawa, said that the ratings don’t drive agricultural policy and that lawmakers should instead focus on creating incentives for farmers.

But Evans thinks that even if the ratings are not being used, the state should still take the time to reevaluate them and, if necessary, eliminate them from existing law.

She’s not sure if the money to fund a study will come through this year, but hopes the idea will at least gain some momentum.

“Personally, because we’re making a lot of decisions based on soil type, I think it’s a worthy goal,” she said.

Contact Anita Hofschneider via email at anita@civilbeat.com or on Twitter @ahofschneider

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