Hawaii’s agricultural sector has a specific request of gubernatorial candidates: Reveal your plan for the future of farming.

Hawaii GrownIncreasing agricultural production has become a talking point in Hawaii’s political sphere, farmers say, but any meaningful change is yet to be seen.

Many cite more than 12 years of politics, stemming from former Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s 2010 announcement to double local food production by 2030, which Gov. David Ige also pledged in 2016.

Farmers and ranchers say they want more investment into agriculture from the next administration, through various programs that consider everything from the cost of farming to climate change and invasive species.

But as candidates vie for Ige’s spot ahead of the August primary and November gubernatorial election, the industry is calling for them to say something beyond familiar platitudes.

Rows of Pineapple crowns that were recently hand planted located between Wahiawa and Haleiwa with Waianae Mountains in the background.
The days of plantation agriculture are done and small farms are dominating the state, but making them profitable is a key concern for industry representatives. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Self-sufficiency has underpinned the conversation about increasing agricultural production, as most of Hawaii’s food – generally accepted to be somewhere around 80% – is imported.

“We know that supporting small farmers and supporting agriculture is going to do well in the public eye,” Hawaii Food Hub Hui coordinator Saleh Azizi said.

But vocal support has mostly translated into piecemeal action, according to Azizi, who is also the Hawaii Farmers Union United’s policy and legislative chair.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie points to Sen. David Ige during debate presented by AARP at the King Kamehameha Hotel in Kailua-Kona on July 29, 2014
Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie debated with Gov. David Ige during an AARP event in 2014. PF Bentley/Civil Beat/2014

Agriculture has been getting plenty of mentions in the race for governor among Democratic frontrunners Lt. Gov. Josh Green, U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele and businesswoman Vicky Cayetano and leading GOP candidates Duke Aiona and BJ Penn.

But substance has been lacking, according to Hawaii Farm Bureau Executive Director Brian Miyamoto.

“They all tell you they want to increase agriculture,” Miyamoto said. “Explain to us how.”

And the agricultural sector has plenty of concerns it would like to see addressed.

Systems Thinking

Farmers and ranchers can point to the issues: Labor is inordinately expensive; frayed supply chains are inflating fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and equipment costs; invasive species are chewing through crops; climate change is affecting harvests; housing on agricultural land is unavailable; land is costly; new farmers are rare; and water is becoming increasingly scarce and expensive.

Each barrier farmers and ranchers face is intertwined and cannot be solved in silos, according to Azizi. The barriers need to be addressed with “systems thinking,” which considers how everything relates to one another.

Over the past few years, lawmakers made some well-meaning moves, such as legislation to increase institutional spending on local food, though there have been concerns about farmers and ranchers’ ability to be able to provide enough food, even for government agencies.

“At the end of the day, we want investment.” — Brian Miyamoto, Hawaii Farm Bureau

The Ige administration’s package of bills this year included 14 relating to agriculture. The governor has signed two into law, one of which allows Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture to build, maintain, alter and remove infrastructure on its lands. The act also establishes an agricultural enterprise program, to help farmers increase their productivity.

Meanwhile, DOA will receive $52.9 million from the state budget — maintaining its 0.3% overall allocation — after being adjusted to consider the appropriations to the Agribusiness Development Corp., which will move to the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism from under DOA. Ige has sought $53.7 million for DOA in his proposed budget.

Still, DOA gets a relatively small percentage of the overall state budget.

“That’s not appropriate if you’re wanting to improve agriculture in the state,” said Nicholas Comerford, who recently retired as dean the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

While the governor’s bills were good steps, according to Azizi, the new leadership needed to capitalize more on the pandemic-borne focus on increasing local food production.

“We’re not quite seeing that,” he said.

For a start, given departmental heads change with the administration, the Farm Bureau’s Miyamoto says he would like to see someone with agricultural experience once again at the helm of DOA.

The governor appoints the director of the Department of Agriculture, a position that also chairs the Board of Agriculture, who takes charge of the six-division, 268-employee department that oversees a significant portion of Hawaii’s agricultural lands.

Cabinet choices are not typically revealed by candidates until after elections.

Understanding Agricultural Scale

The 2017 Agricultural Census — the most recent for Hawaii — illustrated an uptick in farmers since 2012, though more than 90% of them earn under $100,000 annually. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a small farm as being an operation earning under $250,000 per year.

Hawaii Ulu Cooperative Operations Manager Holokai Brown stands fronting different varieties of breadfruit plants.
Organizations such as Hawaii Ulu Cooperative have been seen as examples of how cooperative farming can secure a viable future for farmers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Most of the farms earning under $100,000 are less than 50 acres — a majority average 16 acres — so productivity will have to take center stage, because Hawaii’s agricultural makeup has been flipped from dominating plantations to a tapestry of small farms, according to Comerford.

“It’s going to be a change for the state, understanding that agricultural scale isn’t necessarily acres, it can be total sales,” he said.

But for the food system to grow as a whole, there needs to be a mix of small, medium and large farms to help ease the burden of farming on an archipelago in the Pacific, one without an easily accessible supply chain or facilities to add value to products, according to Bruce Mathews, dean of UH Hilo’s College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management.

Supply chain issues have more recently been affecting farmers and ranchers, as they struggle to bear the increasing cost of agricultural products, such as fertilizers or machinery.

Helping more small farmers scale up their operations, so they have more buying power and create greater demand, in turn helps the entire industry and could ensure a more resilient food system, Mathews says.

For the past few decades, ranchers have sent their cattle to the mainland because Hawaii does not have enough slaughterhouse facilities and importing grain is expensive. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2021

One example of the model is the Ulu Cooperative, which amasses breadfruit and staple carbohydrates from growers on the Big Island and Maui, processes their product and sells on the farmers’ crops and markets them.

Essentially, by being a member of such an organization, Mathews says there is a greater chance of increasing production, which many of the Ulu Cooperative’s members have done.

Meanwhile, ranchers remain concerned about agricultural lands and keeping them in production, particularly in relation to Act 90, a law enacted in 2003 calling for the transfer of agricultural lands from the Department of Land and Natural Resources to DOA.

Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council Executive Director Nicole Galase says finding a resolution to the loggerheads would be a solid first step in showing support for Hawaii’s agricultural system, given the insecurities felt by ranchers on DLNR leases.

Given the changing climate and the difficulty of doing business in Hawaii, the administration should be looking for ways to give more certainty to agricultural producers, Galase says.

The Future

Both agricultural deans agree there is a need to invest in various Hawaii-appropriate technologies, which includes breeding techniques to contend with various issues that come with climate change.

Some work is being done to develop and attract technological innovation and investment to Hawaii, through events such as the Tropical AgTech Conference held in Hilo last month.

Comerford says there needs to be more emphasis on everything from breeding and aquaculture to farming in controlled environments, such as greenhouses and hydroponic systems.

Walter Ritte walks near an open pit at Molokai Ranch where the ranch is burrying dead Axis Deer found on its property. January 15, 2021
Droughts have become more volatile. Last year, this led to widespread death in Molokai’s invasive deer population. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

And while communities around Hawaii remain skeptical about investment in certain technologies, in part due to a contentious history with the seed corn industry, Comerford says it is crucial to consider Indigenous, contemporary and emerging farming methods.

“We can care for the aina and we can still do it with new technologies,” Comerford said. “In this state, that’s going to be a necessity.”

The entire question of agriculture often ends up in discussion about sustainable food systems, though the nursery and forestry industries should also be included, says Miyamoto.

Nonetheless, there are numerous issues that could be dealt with by the next administration.

“It’s just a laundry list. At the end of the day, we want investment,” Miyamoto said.

“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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