Wednesday, September 08, 2010


The State of Agriculture in Hawai`i

By Henry Curtis

I recently toured agricultural land and farms around the State including the Kamilonui agricultural area of Hawaii Kai; Poamoho Estates on Oahu’s North Shore; Kalani Oceanside Retreat, Puna; Hamakua Springs; Otsuji Farm, Hawaii Kai; Ka`ala Farm, Waianae; and Ma`o Farm, Waianae.

I spoke with several authors who wrote chapters in the book The Value of Hawai`i: Knowing the Past, Shaping the Future, edited by UH Mānoa professors Craig Howes and Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwoʻole Osorio (2010) and filmed presenters at the Asia Pacific Clean Energy Summit (2010).

I wanted to know the state of agriculture in Hawai`i.

All farms (organic and commercial; food and bioenergy; large and small) are facing tough times.

Agricultural Workers

Less than 2% of the population is involved in agriculture which means that farmers do not have much representation in State and County Government.

John Rosa wrote in The Value of Hawai`i: “American sugar planters imported a range of immigrant workers throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, as members of each successive ethnic group were eventually able to work themselves off the plantation.”

Charlie Reppun noted that 80% of the agricultural workers in the United States are foreign born. He noted that the need for continual importation of workers means that agriculture as is currently practiced in Hawai`i is not sustainable.

Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar (HC&S) General Manager Chris Benjamin described the problem as “someone’s got to plant the seeds, someone’s got to irrigate the fields, someone’s got to harvest, someone’s got to do the dirty work and there is not a large number of people in Hawai`i that relish those kinds of jobs. We have 800 left and I can tell you that there ages are getting on.”

Land Conversion

There is great pressure to convert existing agriculture land into residential and resort properties both in Hawai`i and across the U.S. mainland. This occurs for many reasons: gentleman estates on agricultural land are taxed at very low rates; while converting land from agricultural to residential and tourist zoning is very lucrative.

Charlie Reppun noted in The Value of Hawai`i: “The Central Valley of California, which grows one-quarter of the nation’s produce, is losing 15,000 acres a year to development.”

Writing for the Hawaii Independent, Barb Forsyth reported: "Hawaii Kai is also home to a small but close-knit farming community in the Kamilo Nui Valley who have been farming there for generations. They have gotten extensive press in recent years concerning their struggles to stave off development on valuable leaseheld land owned by Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estate."

Kamilonui Valley in Hawaii Kai has 87 acres of farmland and several working farms and is also Hawaii Kai's last "undeveloped" valley. The landlord -- Kamehameha Schools -- wants to develop all of their Hawaii Kai agricultural parcels. Last month it was reported that Kamehameha Schools proposed a reported 25-fold increase in rent for the Otsuji Farm located between Kaiser High School and Koko Head Park.

Ed Otsuji is reaching out to the non-agricultural community through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) approaches including a vegetable subscription project and a farmers market. Otsuji Farm is multi-generational, it was founded in Hawaii Kai in 1954, and is operated as a commercial (non-organic) farm.

On O`ahu’s North Shore the gated Poamoho Estates has great views and large homes but little real farming occurs. While only 2 lots are owned by bona fide farmers, all of the lot owners receive agricultural property tax breaks from the county. The 15 lots were developed as an agricultural subdivision, but the City and County of Honolulu has minimalist requirements: land with agricultural zoning that is at least one acre in size and is surrounded by a fence is a legitimate farm if one day a year a horse eats the grass.

The Union of Concerned Scientists states: “Governments do many things that speed up the land developmental process and make it artificially cheap to convert farm lands.” The most obvious are building new transportation systems such as roads and railroads. “The jobs lost when large-scale agribusiness phased out of our rural communities has never really been replaced, even by the tourist resorts that developed in their place” according to Davianna McGregor.

Tom Coffman in his chapter in The Value of Hawai`i states: “By almost any standard, the goal of compact development and the preservation of prime agricultural land have not been met.”

The struggle between competing agriculture and non-agriculture land use policies have been waged over the past half century in Hawai`i.

David Callies wrote in 1984: “The conflict between assuming an adequate supply of housing and land use controls directed towards preserving the environment and agricultural land is both real and, if each “virtue” is pushed to its furthest conclusion, irreconcilable.”


On islands that could grow enormous amounts of food, about 1/5 of Hawai`i residents live in food insecure households. The highest risk food insecure community is Wai’anae where about 1/3 of the residents live in food insecure households.

Ramsay Taum in his chapter in The Value of Hawai`i writes: “We should be more mindful about adopting policies that enhance our self-sufficiency while resisting the practice of relying too heavily on an industry whose success is tied to global economic forces we have little influence over.”

Jon Osorio believes “what we need is a pu`uhonua from the market system, and it needs to be large enough and capitalized enough to give people the opportunity to live a life directly nourished by the land.”

Hamakua Springs Country Farms occupies three ahupuaa in Pepe‘ekeo on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, and is run by three generations of the Ha family. The area gets 130 inches of water per year. Several streams have hydroelectric possibilities. Richard and June Ha grow a wide variety of crops, practice Integrated Pest Management (where chemical pesticides are not the first choice); grow some crops using hydroponics (growing plants in water and fertilizer but not soil); and providing produce for his workers. In addition, the Ha’s have opened up land for other farmers since there is synergy in groups of farms and farmers.

Barcus Adams of the Kalani Oceanside Retreat in Puna talks with pride about growing herbs in the aquaponics facility and growing fruits and vegetables which have reduced the high cost of buying food. Along with 350 solar panels the retreat facility seeks to increase self-sufficiency.

Holistic and Decentralized Farming

Historically Wai‘anae was an agricultural self-sufficient region however the removal of land for the military and the diversion of water severely cramped the region. Ma`o Farms was created to address critical needs within Waianae. They focus on five critical areas: out-of-school youth, health, agriculture, sustainable economic development, and Hawaiian culture. They aim to "build a localized movement to put the value of aloha ‘aina into action."

Gary Forth and Kukui Maunakea operate Ma`o Farms. They offer a variety of hands-on work including growing, harvesting and marketing organic crops, making pa‘i‘ai (cooked and mashed taro), and immersion into Pacific Island culture including carving traditional implements. Ma`o offers the Youth Leadership Training (YLT) College Internship, a two-year programs which works with Leeward Community College, whereby students can work at Ma`o and gain a two-year degree from the college.

Eric Enos is Program Director of Ka`ala Farm and the Executive Director for the Ka`ala Cultural Learning Center in Waianae. He approaches agriculture holistically. Students and adults participate in workshops on stone carving, wall building, landscaping, and canoe paddle and kapa bark cloth making; and participate in fieldwork in reforestation, health, archaeology, agriculture, and water quality and utilization. Ka`ala is integrated within the community and promote education, create gardens and hold community workshops in schools, parks and other community facilities.

Charlie Reppun talks of a new decentralized solution to farming: “There are more and more school and backyard gardens, which may provide one of the most important answers to the questions of who will farm, and how.”

Nancy Redfeather coordinates The Kohala Center’s Hawai`i Island School Garden Network. Showcasing examples include Mala’ai, the Culinary Garden of Waimea Middle School. The network has involved 3500 students at 58 of the 75 public, charter and private schools (K-12) on Hawai`i Island.

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As I'm sure you are aware, but don't mention here, the ag "industry" itself is fractured. You appear to use "agriculture," "farming," and like terms as synonymous with "food production" but Hawaii ag is constantly becoming less and less focused on production of food, at least for domestic consumption. The growth of ag industries like seed corn and, ultimately, biofuel feedstock producers will continue to exert pressure on food producers, perhaps to the point that, with the exception of a few CSA producers and some niche farmers (Nalo Farms), there will be little food production by the ag sector. In that context, I would like to know more (I'll have to read the essay) about Jon Osorio's proposed "pu'uhonua" system; since capital is attracted to competitive markets (because of the prospect of ROI), what source of capital doers he believe will be attracted to a sector protected from market forces that would, in all likelihood, have a limited ROI? Government (e.g., taxpayer) subsidy? What?

Thanks Henry for this interesting look at the state of food farming in Hawaii. Amazing how many parallels there are to our ongoing discourse in energy. I am heartened by the many efforts underway across the State to encourage gardening and farming in our communities. We clearly have a long, long way to go, both in policy and practice. One of the conflicts I am keenly interested in is that between the goal of 'preserving agricultural land, and the need for more people ON THE LAND in small, diversified ag environments. Here on Kauai the County has recently passed a 'farmworker housing bill' addressing (albeit in an imperfect manner) the need for more people on the land. The question, how do we help address this obvious need without potentially losing more farm land to development? Part of the answer, I think, is to seek a distinction between food and export ag in our policies. Not an easy task...

I especially appreciated Professor Callies' quote, though perhaps part of the problem lies in our current definition of 'housing', often conceived (and executed) as incompatible with agriculture. Bring on the backyard gardens. We have plenty of area, we just need to promote the idea of growing food in it!

On kauai, the conflicted county council just passed a bill that allows kauai's agricultural land to be used as resort, aka, vacation rental. Despite HRS205, there is no need to have a farm, zip, ag land now resort.

Redefine rules for ag tax breaks. You must grow food for sale as well as home consumption. A certain percentage of the land must be in food crops or animals, or pre and post production activities. We will have to challenge the large landholders. Beware of Kamehameha Schools. They come in very nice and like to defer to a "sustainable model". But the model doesn't work to actually allow a way to provide food for a significant number of local residents. It is all abaout houses and if you really pay attention at the meetings you see they are goonna do what they want, but first try to make it seem like it is what the community wants. In the end, houses win.
If you look, as Henry says, none of the models cited are actually working now, or provide a model for food security in future. Fatal flaws for the longterm. Reppun is right on with home growing, but many people too busy, or just no interest. We will have to challenge the large landholders to donate significant amount of land, cheap leases and allow growers to live on land. There is lagal precedent I believe for similar mandates from government.
Are our representatives up to this challenge? Not unless there is a real movement. This alreadyis what the majority of the people want,no question. We just have to ask....real real loud.
Thanks Henry.

Concerning ag workers, you should speak with Professor Chuck Burrows. He has been saying for many years that there are quite a few people who would like to do farming in Hawaii, if the land were made available. If we could set up a Konohiki system where the land was owned by a community trust and leased to small (say 5 acre) farmers, one could make a good living growing edible crops.
The land could come in to the trust in a trade off with the large landowners in the Central Oahu plain as a package of committing 85% of their land to farming in exchange for a 15% fast track zoning for development. (Versus no zoning for development and a cmmittment-if we could find the backbone as a community-that none of the land would get development zoning-"ever"-without this package.)
Let's keep this discussion going. We need to preserve what's left of Central Oahu.

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