As drought stretches on from what was supposed to be the rainy season into an increasingly dry summer, farmers and ranchers across Maui County are trying to find innovative ways to save their crops, their livestock and their livelihoods.

The unusually dry winter and continuing drought has left farmers with less water, but also struggling to deal with unseasonal and unusual pests. At the same time, growing deer populations are encroaching on their land and eating their crops.

Now, farmers and ranchers are researching and experimenting with new and old ways to attract, harvest and conserve water for their crops and livestock, from planting water-attracting trees and foliage to trying to harvest moisture from fog.

Molokai DHHL Hawaiian Homestead land near the Molokai Airport.
Molokai is facing an exceptionally dry summer, after what was an unusually dry rainy season. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The worsening drought is underscoring Hawaii’s need to build more resilient agricultural systems because, right now, irrigation is one of the only means of dealing with the hot and sterile climates they are seeing — especially on Molokai.

In recent years, the Molokai Irrigation System has faced increased demand but this year could be even worse, according to Glenn Teves, an extension agent for University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

Teves says about 2 inches of water per acre is needed on Molokai from the irrigation system. To irrigate 1 acre with 1 inch of water takes just over 27,000 gallons.

“It’s gotten up to 3, 3 1/2 inches,” Teves said about demand in recent years. “It’s just totally ridiculous. You’re talking about 85,000, 90,000 gallons per acre.”

The areas in red indicate parts of Hawaii hit by extreme drought. Courtesy: U.S. Drought Monitor

Then there is the heat, something most plants in Hawaii are simply not adapted to.

Many of the crops across Hawaii come from hot and dry parts of the world – the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia or the Fertile Crescent – but they are used to cold nights. Instead, they typically face hot days and warm nights here, he says.

“It’s at the point where some of these plants are going into cardiac arrest,” he said.

Pestilent Invasives

Though deer and pigs are often blamed for a lot of drought-borne agricultural adversity, there has been an uptick in the number of insects on Molokai’s farms, which Teves believes have somehow survived the “winter kill.”

Bragada bugs suck water from the leaves of crops, rendering them unsellable on the market. Courtesy: Glenn Teves

So this year’s crops have faced continual pressure from insects like bragada bugs or hornworms and hawk moths, which have been eating at tomatoes, cabbage and cauliflower, Teves says.

And on Molokai, where a large portion of the population relies upon subsistence farming and hunting, those insects and the dry weather compromise the local food supply.

Jamie Ronzello, who directs Sustainable Molokai’s food sovereignty program, says every year of drought feels worse than the last.

Hornworms are particularly fond of taro and can kill juvenile plants, but also eat away at other plants. Courtesy: Glenn Teves

Her own land in southwestern Molokai – facing “extreme drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor – has changed dramatically since she and her husband started growing salad mix 10 years ago. They have since transitioned to other crops.

“The grass was so tall, it was above my head. Now it’s so dry I can see for miles,” Ronzello said.

On Maui though, at the 11,000-acre Ulupalakua Ranch, southwest of Haleakala Volcano, invasive weeds have begun to thrive.

Maui County locator map

Ranch president Sumner Erdman says while thousands of eucalypts and other species of trees have been killed off by invasive insects, previously benign species of plants are competing with the grasses he wants his cattle to feed on. In light of the historical droughts, Erdman’s herd has been winnowed to 1,100 cattle from 2,300.

Meanwhile, the 30,000-acre Haleakala Ranch currently runs a herd of about 1,400 cattle.

Both ranches are part of Maui Cattle Co., which provides grass fed beef to the local market.

Looking Back And Out, For Drought

More than 100 years of data relating to rainfall has been compiled for the Pacific Drought Knowledge Exchange, an initiative led by East-West Center fellow Ryan Longman.

Using the data, Longman and his team are currently working on the Hawaii Rangeland Information Portal, which could help ranchers to make decisions on the size of their herds and how their grasses might perform in any given season, ahead of time.

Tools such as the rangeland information portal could potentially be adapted to also include crops aside from grasses, he says.

Longman says he hope the program, which is being developed alongside the Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council, will be launched by next spring.

But in collecting data, there are always outliers. And this year is one, Longman says.

“La Nina should mean a really wet, wet season. Hopefully we get back on track next year,” Longman said. But next winter is months away. “We’ll probably have to get through one of the hottest summers in Hawaii (on record).”

Becoming Drought Resilient

While ranchers’ herds have been cut down, the arid outlook is prompting farmers to prematurely cut the size of their crops, according to Warren Watanabe, executive director of the Maui Farm Bureau.

Farmers are reducing their crops out of fear of the summer forecast, extending an already early start to the dry season, but also facing the pressure of labor shortages, Watanabe says.

“There’s no point in planting if you can’t harvest the crop,” Watanabe said.

Watanabe is part of a growing cadre of agricultural insiders looking to technology to help Hawaii adapt, through methods of farming that require less water, such as greenhouses and hydroponics.

Using technologies such as indoor farming, like Sensei Farms Lanai, pictured here in 2020, is seen as a way to mitigate the effects of drought. Courtesy: Sensei Ag

The question over whether genetically modified organisms or gene editing could help remains a contentious and politically charged issue, considering Hawaii’s history with seed corn and GMO companies, which have faced considerable community pushback over health and environmental concerns related to their use of pesticides.

But Watanabe says the reality of climate change might require more openness to the idea.

“I think there has been a moderation in the opposition but I think it’s just about educating people,” Watanabe said.

But Teves of UH believes there are varieties of crops here in Hawaii that are already adapted to drier climates, even kalo. The only difference is perception, culturally or flavor-wise, as well as the will to experiment.

It’s just a matter of breeding them to extract the best qualities possible, to deal with whatever the future might hold for Hawaii.

Ranchers in southwestern Maui are looking for ways to diversify their operations, as there is far less grass for cattle to eat.  A herd is pictured here at Kualoa Ranch. Ku'u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2021

Meanwhile, when it comes to livestock, Maui ranchers are having to make hard decisions as history has shown it is almost futile to try to rebuild herds given the frequency of drought.

Erdman of Ulupalakua says that even with plenty of rain, it would take five years to rebuild his herd to 2,400 cattle, so it is becoming untenable.

“It’s time to change programs,” Erdman said.

Instead, Ulupalakua is planning to more than double its sheep herds to 1,000 and plant drought-friendly trees, including fruit trees, to replace their now dead “water-sucking” eucalyptus.

The idea is that the trees help keep water in the land when it does rain, while also attracting moisture, and the sheep help control weeds through their more diverse grazing habits while also fertilizing soils.

And though water through rain is absent during drought, there’s a chance that fog holds some hope for ranchers. Researchers at UH Manoa are looking into fog-capture technology, which might help ease the drought’s burden by harvesting water from clouds.

It it proves cost-effective, using swathes of mesh to capture condensation drifting across Maui’s hills could help ranchers and farmers deal with the dry weather.

“We’ve been looking at it for years and we’re obviously still looking at it pretty hard,” Erdman said.

“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 Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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