When Hawaii’s agriculture industry consisted of a few large plantations, it wielded immense political power.

As landowners and agricultural barons, sugar and pineapple producers dominated the archipelago’s economy and its social fabric, helping deliver Hawaii into statehood and then jockeying the islands’ newborn political system.

After 146 years, the closure of the state’s last remaining sugar grower on Maui in 2016 marked the death of the plantation industry following a long decline triggered in part by competition from cheap foreign labor.

That same year, Gov. David Ige solidified a long-held vision to bolster the state’s ability to feed itself with a pledge to double the island chain’s food production by 2020, although he quickly pushed the goal post back a decade to 2030.

But on an island chain with limited resources, the agriculture industry must compete for land and taxpayer dollars with tourism, real estate and other more lucrative sectors. The gaping economic hole created by the loss of sugar and pineapple has so far been filled not with new crops, but with tourism.

There’s no silver bullet solution, but experts say fixing one particular problem — the agriculture industry’s dearth of political clout — could help the sector secure more public money to better address its full menu of challenges.

On the opening day of the Legislature this year, demonstrators displayed handmade signs calling for state investment in local agriculture. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2021

“There’s zero political power in the industry now,” said Jesse Cooke, vice president of investments and analytics at the Ulupono Initiative, which supports projects focused on locally produced food, renewable energy, clean transportation and waste and water management. “And I think that’s why ag has been suffering here for so long.”

Barriers to ramping up food production in Hawaii extend beyond the ag sector’s minimal contribution to the state’s economic engine. The industry also faces a dire workforce shortage, challenges with pest and invasive species control, a farmland affordability problem, the uncertainties of climate change, price competition from cheaper mainland imports, insufficient data collection and decaying infrastructure left over from now-defunct plantations.

What’s more, experts say the industry is dependent on the decisions of politicians who don’t always understand these challenges. And there’s a longstanding reluctance to funnel public money toward an industry that generates such meager profits.

Today less than 1% of the state budget is allocated to agriculture, a sector that has been in decline for the last 40 years.

Most of Hawaii’s 7,300 farms are small farms. Nearly 80% of them have annual sales under $25,000.

Experts say the state has set a giant aspiration to double food production without putting forth a framework to see it through — nor the financial backing required to carry out such a sweeping overhaul of how Hawaii sources its food.

“We have these doubling goals, but we’ve so debilitated our agricultural statistical service that we don’t even know our baselines,” said Hunter Heaivilin, a food system resilience consultant with the Hawaii Public Health Institute and a long-time food system planner in Honolulu. “So it’s like, ‘We’re going to double what?’ We still don’t know.”

Even if Hawaii farmers succeed in doubling food production, an analysis by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization found that it would only increase state GDP by a small fraction of a percent.

“Agriculture has become an afterthought for politicians because it’s a small portion of our economy,” Cooke said. “The money is in real estate. The money’s in hotels. It seems like for a lot of political folks, it’s something good to say, ‘Oh, we need to build our food supply.’ But the real need to act on what you’re saying, it’s no longer there.”

An important first step toward reclaiming a modicum of political power, Cooke said, would be for the agriculture industry to dissolve barriers between different groups of food producers, such as big and small farms or organic and GMO growers. Then the industry can form a unified voice and use it to clearly articulate its top priorities, he said. 

“I’d say in general ag is a high-investment, high-risk, low-return business and it’s more of a community service than a large moneymaker,” said Sarah Freeman, who is the food access coordinator for Hawaii County. “Most farmers here just do it as a sort of second job. But the kind of economic system a lot of community members here want is a rural, thriving agricultural economic system.

“When you look at how much the rail project costs or the fact that the Hawaii Convention Center wants $64 million to redo their roof, and then we’re over here asking for (funding) to make a large impact in our food system, I think the case for the state making that investment becomes really clear,” she added.

By the 1960s, Hawaii was importing more food for local consumption than it could produce, a trend that accelerated for three decades. Local production of hogs, eggs, milk, chickens and cattle have also dramatically declined since statehood. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2011

A silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic is that agriculture has become a top-of-mind issue for voters. As supply chain issues continue to cause food product shortages and price spikes, experts say farmers have the opportunity to piggyback off the heightened public interest in how Hawaii sources its food

Nearly 2,500 miles from the nearest continent, Hawaii spends up to $3 billion a year importing more than 80% of its food — a precarious problem that experts say will take massive amounts of political will to fix.

If the state really wants to develop agriculture, it doesn’t have to look further than the tourism industry, according to Glenn Teves, a University of Hawaii extension agent on Molokai who grows taro and tropical fruit on his 10-acre Hawaiian homestead farm. To a large extent the visitor industry is subsidized by the state in many forms, including airports, roads and beach maintenance, he said.

“If you did the same thing for agriculture, creating key infrastructure, it would thrive,” Teves said. “But here’s the catch: every other economic sector wants what agriculture needs … especially affordable water and land.”

When it comes to the goal of doubling local food production by the end of this decade, Heaivilin said the state should hone in on a strategy that ensures it’s achieved in a way that benefits local communities and not just a handful of large agribusiness investors.

He questions the consequences of a recent wave of mainland-based food producers that have come to Hawaii to answer the governor’s call to skyrocket local food production.

In 2016, Hawaii’s last remaining sugar grower shut down an operation that had run for 146 years. Now the 40,000 acres are owned by Mahi Pono, the marriage of a California farm management company and a Canadian pension fund. The company is growing produce with plans to reduce the state’s reliance on imports. Courtesy: Mahi Pono

On Maui, for example, Mahi Pono is growing red, yellow and white potatoes on 41,000 acres of former sugar cane fields with the goal of stealing away some of the Hawaii market share from mainland-grown potatoes.

It’s a respectable goal. But Heaivilin said he’s concerned that the company, a joint venture between a California-based food branding and investment company and one of Canada’s largest pension groups, is beholden to faraway interests.

“There’s a danger to having a single major producer of any one food item, especially when that producer is not tethered to the local community but instead based someplace else,” Heaivilin explained.

On Oahu, a plan to produce up to a million eggs a day by Villa Rosa, a partnership between California’s Hidden Villa Ranch and Indiana’s Rose Acre Farms, would no doubt bolster Hawaii’s local egg supply. But it might also put smaller egg producers, including some that are family-owned, out of business, Heaivilin said.

Then there’s Idaho billionaire Frank Vandersloot, who controls Hawaii’s two largest slaughterhouses, and the Florida-based indoor farming company Kalera, which plans to produce several million heads of lettuce per year in what would be the largest vertical farm in Hawaii.

Although these ventures promise to build a more robust food system in the islands, Heaivilin said he’s concerned that it will be to the benefit of outside interests.

“In(to) whose hands are we delivering ourselves?” he said.

“If somebody doubled the amount of cucumbers available in the local marketplace, it may serve the consumer by having more local fare available on the plate,” Heaivilin said. “But I would then question who (benefits) in terms of the financial capital. Is it rural farms and local families and communities? Or is it distant shareholders and their motivations that are actually being served by this effort?”

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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