It was only three years ago that Gov. David Ige made his grand declaration to double local food production by 2030. This was a fantastic promise, made against the backdrop of the IUCN World Conservation Congress that brought thousands of conservationists to Hawaii from all over the world.

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Hawaii absolutely needs to double food production. We don’t produce nearly enough of our own food, and this reality leaves our population vulnerable from a multitude of angles.

We lack resilience in the event of a major storm that closes our harbors.

And we are constantly subjected to the antiquated economic pains of the Jones Act, a draconian federal law from 1920 that requires goods shipped between U.S. ports to be transported on vessels built, owned and operated by U.S. citizens or permanent residents. The result substantially increased shipping costs for Hawaii residents on all imports, including food.

Fresh, local food is also often healthier. And buying locally also means that you are helping to support agricultural land and green space in the islands. It is healthier for the environment and better for the climate. The closer the source of your food, the smaller the carbon footprint.

‘Ulu, or breadfruit, has long been a staple crop in Hawaii and across the Pacific.

Tad Bartimus/Civil Beat

The benefits of local food production are truly endless. But what is the state actually doing to realize this important promise?

The Department of Agriculture’s baseline study conducted in 2015 showed a fairly dire picture of agriculture in Hawaii. Based on this data, Ige made the following commitments as part of the state’s effort to double food production:

  • Increase capital available to farmers
  • Revitalize the livestock industry
  • Coordinate agricultural water-related policy decisions
  • Increase acreage for local food production
  • Continue farm-to-school program
  • Support “buy local” campaigns

Much of what the Department of Agriculture identified for its short-term goals have not been accomplished to date. The livestock industry continues to struggle. Water issues continue to plague the state. Agriculture Department and Agribusiness Development Corp. plans to increase activities at the Galbraith agricultural lands have encountered serious community opposition.

While the state sinks millions of dollars into pursuing agricultural efforts that struggle or encounter community opposition, it simultaneously fails to embrace traditional food practices that have worked in these islands for thousands of years.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Hō‘ala Loko I‘a is one of the community-driven initiatives that has proven highly successful. This program actually is a wonderful example of how the Ige administration and state successfully backed a grassroots community initiative to benefit communities and the environment.

Elementary school students help with the restoration of the Haleolono Fishpond in Keaukaha on the Big Island, one of the projects that benefited from the DLNR permitting process.

Kanaeokana

Efforts like this should be replicated, as the state is long overdue to provide support, both financial and regulatory, to the many local food hubs that are doing the good work on the ground.

Fishpond restoration struggled because of regulatory obstacles. Once those were alleviated, communities across the state were able to mobilize to revitalize these resources. They have found their own money, built community programs and launched incredible efforts. Hō‘ala Loko I‘a is successful beyond our wildest dreams.

There is no reason this cannot be replicated with traditional foods, lo‘i kalo, and other small farm initiatives. I’m not saying it would be easy, just that it is very possible.

There is even a bill currently stalled in the Legislature that would help to advance the wonderful work being done across the state by ‘ulu farmers.

In 2017, the Hawai‘i ‘Ulu Cooperative took over operations at the Honalo marshaling yard in Kona on Hawaii Island. Breadfruit has long been a staple crop in Hawaii and across the Pacific. In its first two years of operation, the cooperative had success increasing production and building the industry across the state.

A graphic showing the productivity of the Hawai‘i ‘Ulu Cooperative over its first two years.

Hawai‘i ‘Ulu Initiative

The cooperative is particularly important, because it enables small farmers opportunity to work together in an increasingly receptive market. ‘Ulu is sold in stores like Kokua Market, and new innovative products like ‘ulu humus are becoming available in stores like Tamura’s and Times, in addition to being regularly sold at farmers’ markets across the state.

Thanks to a commitment from local chefs like Ed Kenney and others, ‘ulu is also finding its way onto a growing number of menus at popular local eateries like Mud Hen Water, Juicy, Town, Kilauea Bakery and Pizza, Mahina & Sons, Makana Ranch House, Café Pasto, Senia, Kanumana and many more. It is a healthy crop with potential economic benefits across its entire food chain.

As a locally grown product, and particularly through the co-op, there is opportunity for the small farmers growning ‘ulu, the workers who help to prepare the crops, local distributors, and retail outlets, whether markets, stores or restaurants.

House Bill 770 has until Thursday to be heard by the Senate Ways and Means Committee. This capital improvement project would upgrade the facility’s equipment and infrastructure, a critical need for the cooperative, which serves 65 local farm members, public schools, hospitals, hotels and restaurants statewide.

The funding request is for $1.1 million.

The marshaling yard is owned by the state and managed by the Agriculture Department. The state ultimately benefits from this investment, both as a landowner and manager.

This would ultimately be a small investment in an industry with big potential. More importantly, the state needs to recognize that the face of agriculture needs a wholesale shift. In the face of climate change and increasing pressures on land, it is time to pursue innovative initiatives that support small farms and traditional farming.

To chart a course for our future, we must look to our past. Hawaii has delicious traditional and local crops, and it’s well past time for us to dig into the potential that’s been around us all along.

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