CAPTAIN COOK, Hawaii — Bob Shaffer sees more than just soil when he stands in a trench. He sees potential.

Hawaii GrownWhen sampling the soil on a coffee farm in Kona on the Big Island, Shaffer considers its texture and appearance, how the soil attaches to roots and how and where the earth’s layers change. He looks for worms.

As an agronomist who specializes in soil and plants on farms, Shaffer wants to see farmers’ worst soil to help them make the most of their land.

“The basis of sustainability is the soil,” Shaffer said.

Shaffer is part of a growing cadre in Hawaii focusing on soil for the future of Hawaii’s food system and for the state’s resilience against climate change. That group has grown to include lawmakers who have introduced a suite of bills this session that directly and indirectly relate to the health of the state’s soils.

Bob Shaffer Big Island Hawaii Grown Soil
Agronomist Bob Shaffer has worked with farmers and their soil for decades. Listen to Civil Beat’s podcast “Stemming The Tide” to learn how his work combats climate change. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

The Dig

If anyone were to dig a 5-foot hole anywhere on one of Hawaii’s eight main islands, they would find a different subterranean situation. Broadly speaking, Oahu and Kauai might have a deeper layer of soil. On the Big Island, where Shaffer is, it’s shallower at about 14 inches deep.

Stemming The Tide

It comes down to place-based farming and understanding the needs of each farmer and their land.

“If we look at the acres that Hawaii has from stopping sugarcane and stopping pineapples, we have a lot of acres,” Shaffer said. “But when we dig holes, we start to see how much of that acreage is actually farmable.”

Shaffer is doing a targeted version of what is being proposed in bills at the Legislature — surveying Hawaii’s soil and classifying it so it can be used in the best way possible for agriculture, forestry or other uses.

‘It’s Not All Terrible’

Soil stores about 2,500 gigatons of carbon worldwide, more than three times the amount in the atmosphere and four times what’s in plants and animals.

So soil is a carbon bank that takes deposits of organic matter. Carbon is mostly stored and consumed by microbes, while traces also leach from the soil in the form of carbon dioxide to be consumed by plants.

Nitrogen producing plants for soil at Mao farms.
Nitrogen is a key ingredient in fertilizer, as it helps plants grow, but also comes from natural sources such as animal excretions. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Intensive plantation agriculture has overdrawn nutrients from swaths of land in Hawaii, leading to an over-reliance on imported fertilizers.

“It’s not all terrible,” said Susan Crow, an associate professor at the University of Hawaii.

Crow researches Hawaii’s soils with her team at the eponymous lab at the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. The focus is on greenhouse gases and the intersection of environmental and societal dynamics.

Though the deep, red soils that attracted the plantations have lost their prized organic matter, what remains are “good bones,” Crow said.

“You can rebuild it,” she added. “And in fact, those soils have incredible physical properties, which are really, really valuable for a producer because even if they have low organic matter, you can work with that.”

‘A Time For Action’

Crow was part of a global study in 2017 that found soil’s potential to help address climate change was previously understated. And federal funding cuts at the time were affecting researchers’ abilities to learn more.

Now is a moment worth capitalizing on, with Hawaii giving more attention to soils and the Biden administration more focused on climate change, researchers say.

Associate professor Susan Crow, of University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2022

The closure of the last plantation in Hawaii came a year before the 2017 study was published, marking the beginning of a transitional phase for the state’s food system, according to Crow.

“It is a critical moment in time,” Crow said. “So this is a time for action.”

The most promising bills in the Legislature are those with the broadest scope, not necessarily just focused on soil and farming but on all production on Hawaii’s lands, Crow says.

There are several such bills that lawmakers are currently considering, including those boosting opportunities for disadvantaged farmers, installing a permanent compost reimbursement program and establishing a multi-facted healthy soils program.

Crow says the bills can play a part in a wider food system that not only benefits producers but also the environment.

Shaffer, the agronomist, calls it a “quantum moment.”

Support for soil has only become stronger internationally. In 2020, Ohio State University soil scientist Rattan Lal received the World Food Prize — often deemed the food equivalent of a Nobel Prize — for his soil-centered approach to simultaneously increasing food production, conserving natural resources and mitigating climate change.

His model centers on organic matter — compost, manure and biochar (carbonized organic matter) — which has been a key focus across the globe. France now forbids food waste from its grocery stores, diverting it instead to food banks or farms to be composted. On Jan. 1, California began enforcing a law requiring all organic waste be separated from general waste.

Villa Rose intended to sell the biochar it makes with its chicken manure to retail outlets, but local farmers are so interested they are selling it by the sack. Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2021

Incentives for compost, for example, could increase demand and in-state production from organic waste, Crow says. This would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from waste management sites and from shipping, she said. It would also boost the health of the land.

For Hunter Heaivilin, a food-systems consultant and lobbyist for Hawaii Farmers Union United, each of the bills represents a means to that greater end: making Hawaii’s food systems more resilient in the face of climate change.

“My conjecture and my testimony has been that we need to be thinking bigger,” Heaivilin said.

Each of the bills alludes to an eventual goal of having a reliant and sustainable food system without reliance on imports. But it does not end at reducing imports, rather the entire food system and the way agriculture is managed should be thought about holistically.

“It’s more about imagining the effects of our farm operations do not end at our field,” Heaivilin said. “So thinking more in a mosaic, across agricultural landscapes.”

Heaivilin said he hoped that way of thinking would help Hawaii become more climate resilient to the increasingly sporadic and unpredictable weather patterns – from fires to drought to flooding.

Footing The Bill

The last time Hawaii’s soils were surveyed was from 1965 through 1972 by the University of Hawaii. The soil classifications, made at a time when plantation agriculture was still prevalent, remain in place but legislation has been introduced this session that could update those by requiring the Office of Planning and Sustainable Development to study the current classifications’ feasibility.

The classifications lay out soil and its productive potential statewide, whether for solar, food production or forestry. Senate Bill 2056 — Sen. Lorraine Inouye its primary introducer — has been widely welcomed.

Composting is now the poster child for reducing imports and enhancing local production. Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2022

Meanwhile a healthy soils program, including a statewide soil assessment, was introduced by Sen. Mike Gabbard, chair of the Agriculture and Environment Committee. Part of Senate Bill 2989, the program would require the Department of Agriculture to offer education and assistance on practices that contribute to healthy soils and provide grants to help farmers implement them.

Gabbard also has a bill targeting carbon sequestration.

His focus on food and environment is based on soil, something that he says has been ignored and degraded over the course of the past century.

“Obviously the soil’s not going to change overnight. It needs constant attention,” Gabbard said. “But we’ve got to start somewhere.”

The confluence of agricultural bills, including those focused on soils, was a good sign, said Hawaii Farm Bureau Executive Director Brian Miyamoto.

Sen. Mike Gabbard 

The bureau was particularly interested in seeing a bill enacted that would effectively subsidize compost, given the success of a 2019 pilot program.

But it all comes back to politics and money, as reimagining and installing a new food system entirely, from soil to plate, requires a lot of will and investment.

Miyamoto was buoyed by the significantly healthier state budget this year, but many issues in Hawaii’s food system remain, from lease restrictions to slaughterhouse facilities.

HFUU President Vincent Mina has a solution to overhauling the food system that does not require taxpayer money: Seek investment from one of the billionaires that have been attracted to Hawaii. Mina says it could start with $1 billion, which would go a long way to establishing food hubs, composting programs and processing facilities.

“You never see a U-Haul trailer behind a hearse,” Mina said. “It’s not for return on investment, it’s a legacy that they would leave behind.”

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

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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