Nearly half of Hawaii’s lands are designated for agriculture, but only a fraction of the state’s 4.1 million acres are used for farming.

Federal data shows that in 2017 — when the most recent agricultural census was conducted — only 8% of the state’s agricultural lands were used for growing crops. Another 18.5% was used for grazing animals, 8% was woodlands and another 8% was categorized as “other,” which includes farmsteads, homes, buildings and livestock facilities.

Although access to land is one of the biggest challenges for would-be farmers in Hawaii, an analysis of state and federal data shows no shortage of agricultural land.

But not all land that’s labeled agricultural is farmable, said Matthew Loke, a state Department of Agriculture administrator. Some of that land has steep slopes or is inaccessible, though there isn’t data to quantify how much land is like that. There are also zoning and infrastructure issues that may hinder growing crops — sometimes for years at a time.

UH Waimanalo farming.
Nearly half of Hawaii’s lands are designated as agricultural lands. But only a fraction is used to grow crops, state and federal data show. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Part of the decrease in agricultural land use is because of modernizations in farming, which increased efficiency and productivity, he said. Part of it has to do with the end of large-scale plantation farming and the decline of agriculture as an industry in general.

Competing land uses — including from solar and residential development, also hinder more agricultural land from being fully utilized, local experts say.

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Government programs in recent years, such as the Important Agricultural Lands, sought to alleviate those issues by providing tax incentives to owners of valuable farmland, but data and reports show the program has not benefited many farmers.

In the distant past, Hawaii’s agricultural footprint looked dramatically different, said Kamuela Enos, director of the Office of Indigenous Innovation at the University of Hawaii. Food production was everyone’s kuleana and a “practical consideration.” No labor meant no consumption.

Since then, the islands’ agricultural systems have undergone several transformations — from the indigenous system to the plantations and monocropping, and now to smaller-scale farms and diversified crops.

In contemporary society, agriculture has become much more commodity-based, with increased ability for crops to be imported and exported, he said.

But lately, with COVID-19 impacting Hawaii’s food supply chain and an increased awareness for food sustainability, Enos said the community is primed to embrace local farming, and further, Native Hawaiian practices that prospered on these lands many years ago.

“The emerging understanding of farming’s value is coming back,” he said.

Here are a series of maps that show how Hawaii’s agricultural lands are zoned and how they are actually used:

About 1.93 million acres in Hawaii are zoned for agriculture. Very little of that land is used for growing things. 

Roughly 39% of that land — about 761,000 acres — is used for grazing, according to a 2015 study commissioned by the Department of Agriculture.

That study, which is being updated this year, was more comprehensive than the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture.

Only 8% of land zoned for agriculture — 4% of  Hawaii’s land overall — is used for growing crops, which includes all categories of crops — from food to commercial forestry and flowers. 

 

Oahu has the smallest total acreage of land being used for farming, with the exception of Kahoolawe.

For an interactive look at all of the islands, click here to use this web app.

Federal data from 2017 suggests there was an increase in land dedicated to crops, but local experts say that doesn’t necessarily mean the land is actively being used for growing crops. 

“It could just be fallow,” said Loke of the state agriculture department.

Some large farms have shut operations since 2015, which may have contributed to even lower land utilization, says Jesse Cooke, a vice president of Ulupono Initiative. 

“When I look out and see local production, I still see it on a slow descent,” he said.

A prime example is Maui’s last sugar mill. It closed in 2016, taking 36,000 acres out of production.

Here’s a closer look.

Federal data from 2017 shows that most of Hawaii’s farms are on small patches of land.

Many of those small farms lease land from a handful of entities that own big chunks of the state.

Some of the top agricultural landowners include Kamehameha Schools, the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, Parker Ranch and the Robinson Family.

The Robinson Family owns the entire island of Niihau.

Some lands in Hawaii are designated as Important Agricultural Lands, which is a government program created by the 1978 Constitutional Convention to promote diversified agriculture.

It’s a voluntary program that provides tax credit to agricultural landowners that meet the criteria, which includes whether the land is capable of producing sustained high agricultural yields.

Only about 136,000 of the more than 1.9 million acres in agricultural land in Hawaii have this designation, and many of those acres belong to large landowners, including Alexander & Baldwin and Grove Farm.

A recent report by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization called the IAL program “deeply flawed,” saying the promised benefits have not materialized.

Hawaii’s major crops have also drastically changed as big-name plantations have exited the state.

Crops have become much more diversified, state and federal data showed. It’s no longer just sugar and pineapples that are dominant.

Much of the data represented in the maps is from 2015 and 2017, which were the most recent years available. Cooke of Ulupono said there haven’t been many revolutionary changes, with some exceptions, including the Maui sugar operation.

“Agriculture moves slower than most other industries,” he said.

 

The amount of land being used for agriculture in Hawaii has dramatically declined in the last century. These historical maps from the Statewide Agricultural Land Use Baseline 2015 report show the state’s shrinking agricultural footprint between 1937 and 2015.

 

Studying the land use patterns of the past can help us prepare for the future, says Natalie Kurashima, a sustainability scholar and integrated resources manager at Kamehameha Schools.

Climate change, the pandemic and other global events are highlighting the importance of local food production and sustainability.

Kurashima and her colleagues studied how three traditional Native Hawaiian agricultural systems — dryland, agroforestry and lo’i, which is irrigated pond field agriculture — could contribute to Hawaii’s food sufficiency needs in the face of climate change issues.

“Our ancestors were expert cultivators,” she said. “They were feeding huge populations for generations.”

This map below shows the distributions of three Native Hawaiian agricultural systems before the year 1977.

This one shows areas across the islands that are suitable for traditional Hawaiian agriculture under current climate conditions.

What’s interesting about what the maps show is that these lands exist in areas that are currently zoned agriculture, Kurashima said.

 

The data we have now may look significantly different after COVID-19, Cooke of Ulupono says.

COVID-19 has altered the reality of agriculture, he said. Many Hawaii farmers are struggling or shut down altogether.

But the pandemic also caused many people to reevaluate why suddenly grocery stores shelves were empty and food banks had no canned goods, he said.

“We have to look at local food production like a police force or a fire agency,” Cooke said. “You need to be able to feed your people.”


“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.