Everybody talks about preserving agricultural land, but nobody talks about preserving the farmer. There seems to be this belief that if the land is there, we’ll farm it.

But the reality is this — we can’t afford to farm it. And mostly, we can’t afford to farm it because we can’t afford the energy that farming requires.

About a decade ago, I attended my first conference on the mainland where I learned about the rising cost of energy and its impact on farmers. I learned how the world’s diminishing oil supply will slowly cripple and then crush small farmers like me. I learned then — and have continued to learn — that we have to think creatively, look to partnerships and technology, and we have to end our dependence on oil if our farms and our food security are to survive.

What I most remember about the conference, however, is coming home to Hawaii Island and talking with a group of local farmers. They were all struggling, just like I was, and they felt guilty, even ashamed. They thought they must be doing something wrong, that it’d not been this hard before, that if they could only figure out what to do differently, their farms would thrive.

It hurt me, seeing that shame and embarrassment. I told them they’d done nothing wrong, that it wasn’t their fault. It was the cost of energy killing their business. Ten years later, we’re still feeling that pain, that failure.

Hawaii’s move to 100% renewable energy by 2045 is the right move. Now we have to make a similarly brave move toward food sustainability — farming more food, more cost effectively, with more technology and new systems, and in partnership with energy companies that share our values.

Kahumana Organic Farm Cafe Farm.
Kahumana Organic Farms & Cafe in Waianae. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Farming and renewable energy production fit together brilliantly, cohabitating on the land and supporting each other. It’s our future, and it’s time we embrace it.

In Hawaii, we know our resources are limited and our survival depends on our ingenuity, our self-sufficiency, and our capacity to share and work alongside one another. Our ancestors divided up these islands under that very concept — that each ahupuaa included everything its people would need, provided those people worked together, shared their resources, and looked out for one another. They did, and our ancestors thrived.

In recent decades, we’ve forgotten that.

We’ve staked our claims and put up fences. We’ve divvied up agriculture lands and classified them, setting aside “ag A” lands like the golden ticket waiting for the farmer to come farm it. We’ve allowed other ag lands to be subdivided for homes with little to no agriculture.

Look To The Ancestors

Right now, we have an opportunity to change that, to remember our ancestors’ practices of shared land for common good. Forward-thinking legislators, HECO, solar developers, and local farmers are working to partner energy production with farming — putting those lands to work so that grid-scale, affordable power can be produced alongside local farming. It is farming that looks to the future with technology, vertical farming, greenhouses, and other developments now being used the world over.

Opposition to this project has focused on the use of “ag A lands,” that they should be preserved for farmers like back in the day. But that’s just not how it works anymore. Farmers like me have to make the numbers work, whatever grade of land and wherever it might be. It’s not about the land. It’s about the money. If the farmer makes money, the farmer will farm. When farmers can farm, we all win.

The opposition has made this project more difficult, and so the solar developers are adjusting, moving the project within the tax map key to lands not graded at that A level. They’re still partnering with farmers — sharing the lands for the community’s shared good. But those grade A lands still remain underutilized by a system rooted in outdated 20th century ways.

Farmers like me have to make the numbers work, whatever grade of land and wherever it might be.

These partnerships are steps in the right direction. Solar projects invest in the long-term, with plans for energy production for years to come. By partnering together, we know that those lands will remain committed to agriculture, that our energy will be sustainable and affordable, and our island communities’ food security will be met. Our keiki and their keiki and their keiki will benefit for decades and our lands will be preserved.

Mahalo to those legislators and HECO and other supporters who’ve listened, who’ve taken the time to think differently about how we do things, and who’ve taken this bold action. I hope we can do more. I hope the opposition will come to the table and reconsider. I hope they’ll look to the future, not the past, and find solutions that benefit all of us.

Those oil prices are rising and the supply is diminishing. We can’t afford to mess around.

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