When Max Bowman graduated from college in 2008, he struggled to find a job that would let him move back home to the Big Island. It was the midst of the Great Recession, affordable housing was scarce, and there weren’t many openings that made use of his English degree.
So Bowman decided to do something unusual for his generation of workers in Hawaii: He partnered with his brother and started a farm.
Bowman got a lot of help from the state in getting ‘Ano‘ano Farms up and running.
The brothers started planting leafy greens on a five-acre plot of state land leased through the Hamakua Ag Cooperative. They got a loan from the Hawaii Department of Agriculture to help with equipment and operating costs. The DOA came through with a second loan seven years later, when Bowman and his brother moved their operation to a much larger plot on the other side of the island.
“The story of our farm has a lot of connection to HDOA,” Bowman said.
Farmers and agriculture advocates say the state does a lot to keep farming alive in Hawaii — from battling pests to training farmers, researching new crops that can be brought to market, and providing loans when banks might not be willing to.
But there’s so much more that needs to be done.
Agriculture makes up less than 1% of the state’s economy. The real value of what Hawaii farms produce has plunged a whopping 72.9% since 1980, according to economists at the University of Hawaii.
It’s going to take a lot more farmers like Bowman — and big investments in new technology, infrastructure, cheaper interisland transportation, better data gathering and more — to reduce the amount of food Hawaii imports and make agriculture a significant contributor to the state economy once again.
And even though Bowman could be viewed as a success story for what young farmers can accomplish with a little help, the future of ‘Ano‘ano Farms is anything but certain. Rising shipping costs and restaurant closures during the pandemic have hit Bowman’s operation hard.
“There are just a number of challenges that are specific to agriculture in Hawaii that we face every day,” Bowman said.
Hawaii is not an easy place to make a living farming.
Land is hard to come by. So is water. There’s a lot of fallow farmland from Hawaii’s defunct sugar and pineapple plantations, but much of it lacks critical infrastructure that farmers need to grow new crops. Housing for farm workers is in short supply. Transportation is expensive and there are a number of challenges with getting products to market.
And then there are pests. Hawaii’s climate makes it the perfect breeding ground for a number of insects that can decimate crops.
The state tries to lend a hand with many of these challenges.
The bulk of day-to-day state support for farmers in Hawaii comes through the Department of Agriculture and the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.
The agriculture department plays an important role in regulating food production in Hawaii, but it also does a lot of marketing for farmers and ranchers, says Brian Miyamoto, executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau.
A lot of the DOA’s energy, though, is spent battling threats to crops. The department budgeted nearly $16 million last year on mitigating pests like the coffee borer beetle.
The department also gave out about $4.6 million in loans to farmers in 2020. The DOA’s lending program can be a lifeline to farmers who have been rejected by at least two banks, says DOA Chair Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser.
The University of Hawaii’s CTAHR works closely with the DOA on research, which is often funded by state or federal agencies through the DOA.
Some of that research is focused on short-term problems — new pests, helping farmers with struggling crops — but the university also plays an important role in providing long-term support for agricultural industries, says Nicholas Comerford, dean of CTAHR.
Take coffee — one of the state’s most successful agricultural industries. The university hasn’t been able to completely reverse the decline of coffee in Hawaii — production peaked in the 1950s — but it has helped keep the industry viable through decades of sustained research, Comerford says. It helped facilitate a statewide coffee growers association, assisted with mechanical planting and harvesting, conducted research into new coffee varieties and pest mitigation.
University employees known as extension agents act as a bridge between researchers and farmers. They can help farmers figure out new crops to grow, work to resolve challenges with soil or pests and figure out why some crops aren’t thriving.
But farmers say they see fewer extension agents out in the field these days. And CTAHR is facing steep budget cuts. The department lost 60 positions — 20% of its staff — this year.
“The pandemic has provided a difficult situation for us,” Comerford said.
But Comerford says the cuts are also an opportunity for CTAHR to figure out how to best allocate its resources and reexamine what it is doing to support agriculture.
Comerford and his staff are working with a consultant on a 10-year plan for the program. What do farmers need moving forward and how will CTAHR help with that?
“I think we’re at a stage where growth is really possible, where it hasn’t been possible before,” Comerford said.
The state needs to take a hard look at all its efforts to help farmers and bolster agriculture, says University of Hawaii economist Sumner La Croix.
And La Croix isn’t just talking about the Agribusiness Development Corp. — though he has few positive words for that state agency, which was created in 1994 to help the industry find a path forward during the collapse of Big Sugar.
The agricultural sector as a whole is becoming smaller, which doesn’t speak well for the efforts to grow it.
One big challenge, La Croix said, is that there isn’t much data about what crops are being grown in Hawaii. The agricultural department used to keep much more robust statistics, but much of that work was dismantled during the Great Recession.
“We might as well be dismantling the automatic pilot on a Tesla as we drive down the highway,” La Croix said. “I mean, we don’t really know where we’re going.”
The agriculture department isn’t going to be able to resume the level of market analysis and data gathering that it conducted a decade ago, says DOA Chair Shimabukuro-Geiser.
But the agency did make some new hires last year and has been collaborating with the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service to get more data.
Last year, it was able to analyze the production value of the coffee industry and some other specialty crops so those farmers could qualify for a federal coronavirus assistance program.
But farmers say they need more information. About what is being grown in Hawaii. About what people are charging for those crops.
“You know, we set these goals like double food production,” says Miyamoto of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, referencing Gov. David Ige’s call for the state to double local food production by 2030. “That’s great because it gives us something to reach for. But as for the double … double from what?”
There’s a lot of room for the state to provide more services to farmers, La Croix said.
But that needs to start with the state taking a hard look at where and how the agricultural industry can expand — and then helping in a more strategic manner.
The state could be useful in addressing challenges with water access and general agricultural infrastructure, La Croix said.
It could probably also do more to promote crops, identify new crops and provide assistance to small farmers, La Croix said.
And farmers need help getting access to better technology, Comerford said.
Hawaii’s farms can make better use of limited land with controlled environments like shade houses — a structure to help protect plants from excessive heat or light. They need support using nanotechnology to control diseases. And they could use better access to the kinds of equipment that farms in Japan use on smaller plots of land. Federal environmental regulations make it difficult to import Japanese equipment, something the state could help with by providing money to bring in sample equipment to be tested by regulators.
Lawmakers gave CTAHR $2 million last year for a pilot project to see what the university could do to increase production in agriculture, Comerford said. So CTAHR put out a call for proposals to farmers across the state. It got more than 40 responses from farmers with suggestions for farm-specific obstacles that, if addressed, could help increase production.
“What it tells you is that there are obstacles to agricultural production in this state that can be taken care of with a small investment,” Comerford said.
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