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.
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.
This story is part of Civil Beat’s yearlong series “Hawaii Grown.” We’re taking a hard look at why Hawaii imports so much of its food, and what it would take to grow more of our own. Land use is critical to Hawaii’s agricultural efforts. These maps give an overview of how much land Hawaii has — and what it’s being used for.
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:
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“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.