Sunday, September 26, 2010


Is There a Future for Hawai`i Agriculture?

By Henry Curtis

The 2010 State Agricultural Conference was, at its heart, an agricultural conference. Thus the section on bioenergy was not focused on creating an alternative way of producing energy but rather biofuels were seen as alternative agricultural products.

The conference was held at the Ihilani Resort and Spa, Ko 'Olina, Oahu (September 23-24, 2010).

Ironically, on Thursday morning, as the state agriculture conference was just getting under way, the Hawai`i Land Use Commission gave unconditional approval to Castle & Cooke to remove 575 acres of prime agricultural land from productive use for the purpose of urbanization. Castle & Cooke is also seeking massive taxpayer subsidy to build a wind farm on Lana`i to power O`ahu to increase the State's energy self-sufficiency.

Sustainable Agriculture

Timothy LaSalle, Ph. D. was the Keynote Speaker and he was dynamic.

He has a B.S. in Science from Cal Poly; M.S. degree in Populations Genetics from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; and a Ph.D. in depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute.

LaSalle’s doctoral work was in depth psychology which focused on resistant to change, specifically the reasons why human economic and cultural systems—including non-organic agriculture—are so resistant to change. He noted that “Only about 20 percent of us are confident enough in ourselves to ‘risk’ our established identities on making a significant change, even when we know it is the right thing to do.”

LaSalle was a full professor at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), where he taught chemical-based dairy science classes for a dozen years. He then served as the CEO (2007-10) of the Rodale Institute. The Rodale Institute was established in 1947 as an organic alternative. The Institute studies the links between healthy soil, healthy food and healthy people. LaSalle now serves as the Founder and Director of NewEra Agriculture

Timothy LaSalle said: “As humans we get caught in our own paradigms. We get caught in a political view, we get caught in a religious view, we get caught but more importantly, in a world view. And our culture and education bring us up in this world view. And one of the things western education has done and this has gone global, it has come to Cartesian Reductionist, and not to use those kinds of words, but into a physical mindset that, let’s look at one little thing and find an answer and that will fix it.

What I learned early on though that in those paradigms there were constricted and value would be put in and if it disagreed it would be thrown out and that’s typically the case. We do that in our own thinking.

We come to a place where we say I ah I do not understand, I do not agree and we discard it. In essence and search for answers we have to begin to open frameworks, and that’s where I had to challenge my own self, and this is a hard head. ...

Paradigms work against innovation.”

The Dreamer

Perhaps the most controversial presenter was Kyle Datta. Some loved his rosy optimistic dream of the near-term future, while others felt it was very unrealistic.

Kyle Datta is a managing director of Ulupono Initiative and has a varied past having worked for Booz Allen, the Rocky Mountain Institute, and being CEO of the U.S. Biodiesel Group. The other managing director of the Ulupono Initiative is Robin Campaniano (the former President and CEO of Farmers Insurance Hawaii, previously known as AIG).

Pierre and Pam Omidyar are the founders and are sole sponsors of the Ulupono Initiative, a Hawai‘i based, Hawai‘i-led and Hawai‘i-focused social investment organization.

The Ulupono Initiative has made several investments in Hawai‘i

* Hawai`i BioEnergy LLC (Kamehameha Schools, Grove Farm Company, Maui Land & Pineapple Company, Khosla Ventures, and Finistere Ventures)

* MA‘O Organic Farms (Waianae)

* Kohala Center's Hawai‘i Island School Gardens Network

* Sopogy (concentrated solar power), and Kanu Hawai‘i

The Ulupono Initiative has assumed management of Kapalua Farms, a 158-acre organic farm and agricultural research facility in West Maui.

The State Department of Agriculture and the Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism (DBEDT) believe that we produce about 15% of our food, while 85% are imports. Kyle Datta suggested that we grow a much higher percentage of fruits and vegetables locally than most people think.

Datta believes that the percentage of locally grown fruits and vegetables should only include those crops that are grown commercially in Hawai`i. “We have a statistic that we provide about 15% of our food. But our society has changed its diet ...We choose to eat food that don't grow here and that skews the statistics. ...Our farmers provide actually about 1/5 of our food [that is commercially grown here].”

Datta is an optimist: “Agriculture in Hawaii has undergone a long, dark and difficult night, a steady decline that was accelerated by the spike in oil commodity price in 2008. We sit at the end of the supply chain and we must compete in the global marketplace ...Thanks to our natural resources, our ingenuity, and the wisdom of our heritage, we believe that Hawaii's agricultural sector is poised for a rebirth. We have an agricultural sector that collectively provides a half billion dollars to this economy. It’s one of the most important sectors in the State and yet we don't understand the value that we ourselves really provide.”

This analysis is a slight stretch of the facts. The financial value of our state economy is $60B/year while the agricultural sector is $0.5B/year (less that 1%). The two largest sectors of agriculture are seeds for export and flowers. The food sector is therefore quite small relative to the state economy. The small size of the agricultural sector shows up in DBEDT’s number of civilians in the work force in 2009. There were 641,000 workers in the State of which just 6,100 were in agriculture.

Datta is a dreamer: “What would happen if all the parts of the agricultural community worked together, the big farmers, the small farmers, the chemical farmers, the organic farmers, the ranchers, the dairies, the hog farmers, the poultry farmers, the environmentalists, the conservationists, the federal state and local governments, the retailers, the distributors, the processors, what would happen if we all started working together.”

The stretching of facts to build a can-do dream can be seen on the Ulupono Initiative website: "Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) is fundamentally shifting its business model from making money by selling more fossil based kilowatt-hours to making money by conserving energy and selling more renewable power. ...On the Big Island, the company produces renewable energy from wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, and ocean energy to supply 31 percent of the county’s power needs."

In reality, HECO, MECO and HELCO use oil to generate 99.7% of their electricity. They rely on others for renewable energy.

Other dreamers who were present included Sarah Bittleman, Senior Advisor to the USDA Secretary and Dr. Paul Zorner, President and CEO, Hawaii BioEnergy.

Sarah Bittleman: "U.S. agriculture runs a $30B trade surplus."

Dr. Paul Zorner: We can and must change. “The current state of Hawaii’s energy and food security is not great. We import ...90% of our energy, 80% of our food, for a total export from our economy of at least $10 billion per year. It’s a remarkable drag on our economic health and it’s not, it’s not sustainable.” Dr. Zorner has great hope for the future role of agriculture in Hawai`i.

The Cynic

Alan H. Gottlieb, a dynamic speaker who is also a self-described cynic, started out as an optimist 30 years ago. Alan Gottlieb graduated from the University of Hawaii at Manoa; is a founder of the Paniolo Hall of Fame; serves on the Board of the Hawaii Beef Industry Council; is currently the President of the Statewide Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council; is a member of the Hawaii State Board of Agriculture (2004-); serves as Treasurer for Ponoholo Ranch Limited, a Big-Island cattle ranch, the 20th largest cow/calf ranch in the United States; and manages subsidiary Second City Property Management, which operates agricultural water systems in West Oahu on over 8,000 acres for a number of diversified farmers.

Following Datta’s rosy dream, Gottlieb said: “Okay, let's get back to reality now.”

“One of the things that were obviously going to have to do to achieve this vision is to sell the public. That might be of all the things were going to talk about that might be the hardest thing to do; selling the public on this vision. Well maybe the hardest thing would be to get us all to work together in this system. ...The other real tough thing is the politics of this thing, because politics runs everything we do every day.”

There are major issues that must be resolved, including land, water, food and fuel, energy and labor.

Another pessimist who spoke is Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar (HC&S) General Manager Chris Benjamin: “I come out looking like Debbie Downer ...I depress you." "There are a lot of challenges here that I think everybody recognizes: selecting the right conversion technology, developing the right end products, for the right customers, dealing with the environmental issues, permitting issues, as I said before, effluent disposal, off-take agreements, again with the right set of customers, cost, the economic feasibility, financing, those things you all know about."

One issue raised by several individuals and speakers concerned the proposal by Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) to pay a premium for locally grown bioenergy crops. State regulators have recently okayed HECO’s paying a premium for local energy. The resulting energy surcharge will be passed on to all ratepayers including ranches and farms already getting squeezed against cheap imports.

The Decline of Rural Agriculture

Sarah Bittleman, Senior Advisor to the USDA Secretary described the state of affairs in rural agricultural America: “If you live in rural America today, you are likely to make $11,000 less than your urban counterpart, you are more likely, unfortunately, to be a high school dropout, than your urban counterpart, you are half again as likely to be a college graduate, and America, rural America is losing its population, 57% of rural counties, lost population between 2000 and 2008, compared to 18% of urban counties. If we are losing population and we have an aging population, of the folks who are left, and we have less education, what we need is more opportunity to convince folks to tell their children to stay in rural America. ...Today rural America account for about 1/6 of the population but account for 45% of those who served in our armed forces.”

As Donna Wong noted, agricultural employment is undergoing a long and steep decline. Historically almost half of U.S. workers were farmers in 1900. In Hawai`i, one out of every three workers in 1940 worked directly for sugar and pineapple companies.

Today only 2% of Hawaii workers and 2% of U.S. workers are employed in the agricultural field.

The average age of a U.S. farmer is 58 while the average age of a Hawai`i farmer is 60. Farmers have stressed education for their children, who increasing are going into other fields of employment.

Our current farming system has created a labor crisis: according to Charlie Reppun, 80% of all U.S. agricultural workers are foreign born. American born workers consider farmers beneath them.

Biofuel versus Agriculture

Sarah Bittleman, Senior Advisor to the USDA Secretary: “Rural America, farmers and ranchers, you are playing and will play an even greater -- as we develop the paths forward -- key role in energy security for the nation.”

There is tension between the Hawai`i farming and bioenergy communities. This tension erupted two years ago when DBEDT encouraged the bioenergy to go after Hamakua land. The BLNR held a meeting where the existing leases were not invited. BLNR wanted to break the existing agricultural leases and to give half the land to bioenergy interests as a “win-win” solution. Alan Gottlieb “suggested” it might be a “win-win” since the ranchers and farmers would not lose all of their land.

Gottlieb believes that this push-pull is still around. “I have some real concerns about when energy and agriculture are going to come to blows. We’re going to need both, but when push comes to shove the politicians roll their eyes, they see hey, we've got this energy mandate, and let's get rid of all this food and let's put in it energy.”

The State Legislature (Senators Hee, Kokubun, Takamine and Representative Mark Nakashima) held a hearing on this issue in Hilo and molded legislation to change the way the State will handle future bioenergy projects.

Senator Kokubun: “The emphasis on clean energy, particularly by the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative I think also creates overzealousness, let's put this that way, I think, it's not necessarily a bad thing but, we need to be very careful in our approach to ensure that agriculture meaning food production agriculture is not lost in the discussion about alternative energy agriculture. ...

There was an issue that occurred a couple of years ago where there was a desire to do biofuel production on the Big Island and the process didn't involve necessarily contacting those existing lessees that held some of those lands, those were State lands, and what it produced was some animosity some contention between the energy producers as well as the existing agricultural users so the Legislature felt that we wanted to at least we wanted to bring this to the forefront, make this an issue that was not ignored that was not just swept under the rug because otherwise this contention, this confrontation, this adversarial type relationship would just continue.

Given the leadership of Senator Clayton Hee in the Senate we were able to put together a bill that very simply asked that any time any bioenergy development is being proposed on State land that a public hearing be held on the island on which that was being proposed.” The Legislature overrode the Governor’s veto of the public hearing bill.

Climate Change

Timothy LaSalle: “Tropicana Orange Juice, when it said we got to figure out what our carbon footprint is, they assumed it would be refrigeration or packaging or transport -- and when they did the analysis it was farm nitrogen fertilizer -- it was number one by far.

The soils capacity to hold carbon is so large, and it wants it, we should be paid to do it. ...Here we have, as far as ranchers, the opportunity to actual to fix the global problem.

Christine Jones of Australia said that if we increase all of Australia 1% in soil carbon that would mitigate all we emit.”

The scientist he referred to is Christine Jones, founder of Australian Soil Carbon Accreditation: "Soil organic carbon is the largest reservoir in interaction with the atmosphere." (United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation) – Vegetation 650 gigatons, atmosphere 750 gigatons, soil 1500 gigatons. ...Only soils can sequester significant amounts of atmospheric Carbon in the next 30 years. Every other solution will take 30 years to start shifting meaningful volumes."

Energy Diversification

Dr. Makena Coffman is an Assistant Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Hawaii at Manoa and is a Research Fellow with the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization (UHERO).

The talk by Dr. Makena Coffman was more animated than her traditional presentations. She told me that it was because she didn’t have a power point presentation. In addition, Dr. Coffman showed a greater range of knowledge than her past talks. She readily admits that her models are still focused on the utility scale and centralized generation while recognizing that small-scale decentralized systems must be incorporated into the next generation of models.

“In its peak in the mid 70s, biomass accounted for roughly 12% of Hawaii's electricity energy production. But this figure began to decline pretty rapidly with the closure of the plantations, and oil really filled its void, so there was increasing concern that we were getting yet more dependent on oil, and in this period of time we were up to about 95% dependent on oil as our main energy source, and so with this concern in 1992 a coal plant was opened on the island of O`ahu as a means of electricity diversification.

So today Hawai`i roughly meets about 14% of its electric needs with coal burning and less than 2% for biomass...

So our switch to coal I emphasize this because I think it provides a really important lesson that we really need to thing about all of the consequences of both with our energy policy and our agricultural policy before we take action. In the fear of oil dependence we really accepted a much dirtier outcome.”

The Future

There Is No Alternative (TINA) is a common way of picturing the future. There is only one path forward, our path, according to advocates of various paths forward. But that microscopic approach masks the real debate.

Dr. Makena Coffman: “Hawai`i now has the most stringent [Renewable Portfolio Standards] RPS in the nation. But there is a great debate about what's the most effective and appropriate mix and scale of different renewable energy technologies.”

Designing future scenarios should incorporate lessons learned from the past. There was a concerted effort to create a Hawai`i ethanol industry in the past 20 years. “Previous studies has really underestimated or ignored two key factors, the first was labor costs and the second was the relatively low price of imported ethanol sources” even with federal tariffs adding to the cost of imports.

Agricultural Land: Does Size Matter?

Abbey Seth Mayer, Director of the State Office of Planning said: “What lands have roads that would support ag operations, what has water, infrastructure, irrigation ditches and pipelines, and what actually has water that's permitted, some of them don't, some of them are purely about the soil and the chemical composition of the soil. Okay, so then we have baseline, we have the broadest selection so statewide we have our biggest group, everything that is in all of the land that is in one of those five [soil rating] systems and from there we start subtracting out. ... We removed land that has already been subdivided to less than 15 acres because once you divide land up that small we knows it's going to be hard to find viable larger scale agricultural operations on those.”

Which Biofuel Crop?

There were advocates at the conference who favor saltwater algae (Cellena), woody biomass (John Ray, SunFuels), grasses (John C Cross, Edmund C. Olson Trust), as well as other fuels.

Audience members expressed concern that most bioenergy crops are also invasives.

John C Cross: “So when it comes to growing a biomass crop for fuel I want a crop that's not going to fight for its existence against the elements and my wallet. I can't tell you what crop that will work except to say I'm pretty sure it's going to be a grass type of crop. In my slides I chose guinea grass as an example of what could be a successful biomass fuel source. ...When it comes to guinea grass, it's a weed, it's something I spent 25 years of my life trying to kill.”

The Next Generation

The Conference also had speakers who are organizing the youth.

As long as 98% of Americans are not farmers, politicians will be focused on satisfying the majority at the expense of the farmers. One solution is to excite young people about farming.

Nancy Redfeather is the Program Director for the Kohala Center’s Hawai’i Island School Garden Network. Building on a successful model developed in Waimea, the network works with student gardens at the majority of public, private and charter schools on Hawai`i Island. With assistance from the Ulupono Initiative, the Network has expanded to the other counties with coordinators on each island.

Paul Kalani Kaawa Flores Jr., the lead coordinator of MA'O's college internship program, spoke about the Waianae Organic Farm. The Farm works closely with Leeward Community College. Students work at the farm and get scholarships for education to attend LCC.


The seven press passes issued for the conference reflect the changing nature of journalism: Martha Cheng (Honolulu Weekly), Philip Blackburn (Think Tech Hawaii) Michael Levine (Civil Beat blog), Dave Koga (Honolulu Star Advertiser), Beth-Ann Kozlovich (Hawaii Public Radio’s Town Square), Michael Saiz (Hawaii Health Guide) and myself, Henry Curtis (Ililani Media). In addition to writing for Disappeared News, I was the only videographer there. The videos will appear on `Olelo and on my  video web site.


Dr. William Wallace Moekahi Steiner (Dean, UH Hilo College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management)

Sandra Lee Kunimoto (Chairperson of the Board of Agriculture since 2003)

Chris Tindal (Director for Operational Energy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy Office)

Eileen O’Hara (Pacific Biodiesel LLC)

Diane Ley (USDA Farm Service Agency, formerly with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and the Hawai`i County Government)

Tim O’Connell (USDA Rural Development)

Richard Ha (Hamakua Springs Country Farms)

Vincent Mina (organic farmer and founder of the Maui Aloha 'Äina Association)

Hector Valenzuela (College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) Department of Horticulture)

Debbie Ward (Sierra Club; Quality Control Officer at Hawaii Organic Farmers Association)

Monty Richards (Big Island's Kahua Ranch)

To contact the author:
Henry Curtis


Thank you, Henry, for the excellent digest. I feel like I was there (assuming you were accurate in your account and fair in your characterizations). ;-)

Mahalo Henry for the article covering a vast area of what was presented. I looked at your titles and put them together in a paragraph.
In a Sustainable Agriculture direction there lies existing paradigms working against innovation, yielding to the dreamer and the cynic. With the decline of rural agriculture, now comes bio-fuel vs food agriculture. Climate change, energy diversification, food security, whats in our future for our agricultural lands, does size matter in supporting our next generation of farmers.

Because we don't live in a static world it is ever evolving and with each passing moment nature is poised to work with us to reach the vision I/we have for a local nutrient dense food supply produced within its laws.
As with Mr. Cross who now is using ginnie grass as a resource instead of trying and I emphasize trying to kill it for the past twenty five years. While everyone is debating as to what crop whether fuel or food we are going to produce there needs to be a definitive move to start rebuilding our soils. Utilizing all of the biological,bio-mass and animal resources we have at our disposal. We then can begin again producing at a regenerative level of resiliency from a fattened environment (Aina Momona) to truly be the paradise on earth Hawaii is known around the world to be.
Our existing agricultural system is built on fear and lack, not on abundance. We have been given such an incredible classroom, laboratory and gift in Hawaii. We are playing a very small agri-business game that has nothing to do with culture and feeding our population. I assert that if we focus on rebuilding our soils and moving from a place of resiliency we will make more money then anyone could ever imagine from an agricultural endeavor.

ranchers and ag entities need to mold together. Hawai'i can be the leader for all produce and meat for the entire pacific area (politics with continental US). it's all in our hands. has been for years.

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