A bill that would let farmers sell unpasteurized milk has made it past the halfway point of the 2022 legislative session.
Bills relating to the sale of raw milk have appeared in the Legislature since 2015 but have faced staunch opposition from state agencies. This year is the first time it has made it to the Senate after clearing the House earlier this month.
Not much has been skimmed from the slew of agriculture- and food-focused bills in the works this year, with a healthy portion surviving the recent deadline for bills to cross over from one chamber to the other last week. And as the Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee deliberated on its first dozen bills on Monday, agricultural industry representatives say it is a good sign that lawmakers are taking food security and self-sufficiency seriously.
But it remains to be seen how the bills will fare between now and when session ends May 5.
While many of the bills seek to increase funding for projects and increase infrastructural integrity, House Bill 2028, introduced by Big Island Rep. Mark Nakashima, lasers in on making raw milk available to customers.
Current laws in Hawaii only allow for Grade A pasteurized milk and milk products to be sold, but Nakashima’s bill would allow farmers with no more than two cows to sell raw milk.
Bills relating to the sale of raw milk have been opposed by the Department of Health and other agencies due to health risks. Their claims are also backed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which directly associates historical campylobacter and salmonella outbreaks with consumption of unpasteurized milk.
DOH assesses the risk of raw milk consumption as so acute that it ordered 20 Oahu pet stores to stop selling raw goat milk last year, for fear it was being consumed by humans.
But Nakashima believes any safety issues of raw milk pale in comparison to other food safety issues, such as tainted romaine lettuce.
“I’m just trying to create a small hole for a family farm to be able to increase their livelihood by being able to provide raw milk to their neighbors,” Nakashima said. “We’re not looking at … ramping up to Costco scale.”
Nakashima said he hoped to raise the number of cows per household to seven.
Meanwhile, a litany of other bills being passed between the House and Senate have wide-ranging implications for Hawaii’s food system.
The draft legislation runs the gamut, from irrigation for kalo farmers and more agricultural extension agents on Kauai, to food safety education and establishing a special fund for investing in agriculture.
The special fund for agricultural investment, Senate Bill 2992, would help fill a gap left by Hawaii’s barrel tax, which funneled approximately $3 million annually into DOA coffers each year until last year.
Ulupono Initiative government affairs director Micah Munekata said that the fund could play an important role in helping farmers invest in their operations and address lawmakers’ broad concerns over how state agencies have used special funds in recent years.
Munekata says research shows that cost-sharing programs were especially effective in lieu of straight loans.
Cost-sharing would remove part of the financial onus from the state but also require greater buy-in and responsibility from producers.
Federal programs often call for equal buy-in for projects, between agencies and grantees, so if the state were to invest $1 million it would account for $2 million worth of agricultural investment.
A $1 million investment from the state would be a good start but any fiscal request will be entirely reliant upon the DOA’s plan, according to Munekata.
Hawaii Farmers Union United has a suite of its own bills, but one takes aim at the aging population of farmers — the average age of Hawaii’s farmers is 60 — through an apprenticeship mentor program.
The program would help create a wider-scale succession program for farmers, by making DOA funding available to them to employ apprentices, teach them needed practical skills and even groom them to take their place.
“We can see there’s a role for a matchmaker in the middle,” said Saleh Azizi, HFUU policy and legislative chair. “We’re also finding that farmers need help to think about things like succession.”
But to attract more young people into farming, roadblocks need to be lifted too, such as ensuring decent pay and a place to live.
“We’re constantly talking about increased food production; that needs increased labor and increased housing,” Azizi said.
Underpinning the success of agriculture in Hawaii is its infrastructure, agricultural representatives say.
Much of the irrigation infrastructure around Hawaii is leftover from now-defunct plantations, which also maintained them. That infrastructure is integral to delivering water to farms across the state but is at risk of becoming derelict if not addressed promptly.
Munekata says the projects ultimately need to be funded through the budget bill.
And the governor’s budget, which allocated $53.7 million to DOA for the coming fiscal year — about 0.3% of the state’s total budget — has a list of infrastructure improvements included in it.
“That was very encouraging from our perspective to see some of these monies being identified, at least from the administration,” Munekata said. “And hopefully they’re able to be successful with the House Finance Committee to sort of convince them why these projects are important.“
The House and Senate have also provided solutions for the long-delayed transfer of agricultural lands to DOA from the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Act 90, which has left the departments at loggerheads for almost 20 years, was revisited last year in a working group co-chaired by Sen. Lorraine Inouye and Rep. David Tarnas.
One Senate bill and four House bills were put forward this year as a result, and all but one — House Bill 1660 — have survived, although plenty of time remains for amendments to include the dead bill, Munekata says.
Though Hawaii is emerging slowly from the pandemic and its associated restrictions, the importance of farming and self-sufficiency should not be forgotten, according to Hawaii Farm Bureau Executive Director Brian Miyamoto.
In the face of global supply chain issues, inflation and the need for diversification, the number of bills still alive was reassuring, he said.
Having started the session monitoring 300 agriculturally related bills, the bureau is still keeping an eye on 90 bills, he added.
“We’re seeing more wide-range support and the Legislature gaining more understanding of the complexities of agriculture but we do need investment,” Miyamoto said. “Farming is first and foremost a business, and if you’re not able to turn a profit then you’ll go out of business.”
“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.
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