Federal and state budget cuts, combined with challenges in gathering data, have led to a shrinkage of up-to-date, accessible and comprehensive agricultural data in Hawaii in recent years.

Farmers, policymakers and others involved in agriculture say that hampers their ability to make critical decisions, including what crops to grow or invest in.

They also say it leads to murkiness about the reality of farming in Hawaii, especially land use.

Many of the most useful datasets in agriculture are outdated. The Statewide Agricultural Land Use Baseline has a 2015 timestamp, though that one is being updated this year.

State and federal agencies still publish data and reports about farming. But several data and market analysis programs have been discontinued in the past decade, including monthly reports on select Hawaii crops. Other reports have reduced frequencies.

In other cases, data and research exist but are not accessible in a centralized location.

The recession took out much of the research staff in Hawaii agriculture.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Data should be easily and readily available,” said state Rep. Lynn DeCoite, a third-generation sweet potato farmer from Molokai. Without accurate, accessible data, agriculture becomes a guessing game, she added.

Farmers need to know what’s worth growing, where to grow things and how they’re going to get the resources to do that, she said. Information fuels those decisions. “You need to know whether you can make it farming,” she said.

The economic recession in the late 2000s and subsequent government budget cuts took out much of the manpower that enabled robust agricultural data collection, not just in Hawaii but nationally, according to farmers, researchers and advocates in the field.

More than a decade later, the funding never returned to pre-recession levels, said Shawn Clark, the statistician for Hawaii with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, or NASS. What’s left are skeleton crews — both federal and state — to do the work, he added.

“You’ve got to manage the money you have,” he said. “Do what you can with what you’ve got.”

The NASS underwent a reorganization in 2012 — a cost-cutting measure by the USDA — that consolidated 46 field offices into 12 regional ones. Hawaii’s field office was absorbed into the Pacific Region office based in California and the team shrank from nine to two, according to Clark.

The Hawaii Variable

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s research and statistics team also downsized, though the specific number is unclear. In 2009, then-Gov. Linda Lingle embarked on a massive layoff campaign of state employees in response to a budget shortfall, which included dozens of DOA employees. Among them were research staff.

The department’s research administrator Matthew Loke declined to be interviewed.

The DOA website has several recent statistical reports, including the top 20 commodities of 2019 and farm labor statistics for 2020. But many other reports were halted as funding was slashed, including historical monthly reports on bananas, papayas, vegetables and livestock, which some farmers said they appreciated most.

Clark, the federal statistician, said he believes the remaining staff has been able to overcome the loss of resources and discontinuation of some reports to ensure that the state and federal agencies’ ability to capture accurate data about Hawaii’s agriculture hasn’t been compromised.

“We’re very capable,” he said. “That hasn’t changed over time.”

The Challenges

There are challenges, however, Clark said. It has been particularly difficult during the pandemic to visit farms in-person and to engage with farmers, some of whom have been wary of government officials knocking on their doors seeking information.

The visits help verify or follow up some of the data that federal and state researchers get through phone, online and mail survey responses, which is how they generally collect the information, he said.

Getting responses in general is difficult, even without the added factor of a global pandemic, he said. The response rate of the 2017 Census of Agriculture — the premier product from NASS — was 71.5%, down from 74.5% in 2012.

“The main thing is just being able to get full cooperation from producers,” Clark said.

The 2017 Census of Agriculture shows more than 7,000 farms in Hawaii.

The NASS uses Hawaii-specific forms that take into account crops that are grown here, and statistical methods to adjust for the non-responses. But at the end of the day, the goal is to get as many farmer responses as possible, Clark said.

“It can only be as good as the data we’re getting from people. The better the cooperation, the better the data,” he said.

Sometimes, it’s hard just getting to the farms to collect the information, said Ryan Perroy, one of the researchers at the University of Hawaii Hilo who produced the 2015 statewide agricultural land use report and is working to update it.

The team combines the use of satellite images, field interviews and other research methods to show an agricultural footprint in Hawaii. That’s different from the USDA’s Census of Agriculture, which is based on a survey.

Perroy said it has sometimes been hard to get permission to use the roads that lead up to farms. Other times, weather and COVID-19 hindered their mission.

But much of the work is complete and the report is set to be released this year, with the new data expected to show more diversified agriculture in the state and competing land uses.

“These data are really helpful not only for visualizing the patterns of agricultural activity across the islands but also for any number of different things  — future projection, land use scenarios,” Perroy said.

Maps

Land use is one of the areas where farmers and decision-makers need more up-to-date and comprehensive data, Jesse Cooke of Ulupono Initiative said in an interview.

“It’s a lot of flying blind in agriculture right now,” he said. So much agricultural land is privately owned, which means access is limited. “Until you have somebody go out there and figure out how much is being used, that’s going to be tough to answer.”

Brian Miyamoto, executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, said in an email that state statisticians have done their best with limited resources but need adequate funding to provide data services.

“With the drastic decline in State revenues due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is all the more important that we have good data to make these important decisions,” he said.

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.

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