A new day in agriculture?

Analyzing the success of the governor's A New Day in Hawaii plan promise to increase Hawaii’s food security and the size of its farming community.

When Governor Neil Abercrombie revealed his A New Day in Hawaii plan back in 2010, he called for an “agricultural renaissance,” pointing out that Hawaii imports 80 to 90 percent of its food and has a reserve food supply that would only last a mere seven days, placing our isolated island chain at the mercy of any natural disaster that would disrupt shipping lines.

Increasing agricultural production was a major theme in the plan; but what did the administration accomplish in the four years since Abercrombie took office?

In his list of accomplishments published in January, under food and agriculture, Abercrombie noted the following:

“Preserved more than 1,000 acres of land for agricultural use through the purchase of land from the Galbraith Estate.”

This $25 million purchase gave 1,207 acres of the former pineapple land to the Department of Agriculture (DOA) and 495 acres to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

“Strengthened the state’s food security and agricultural workforce through the Veterans to Farmers initiative at Waimea Nui.”

This program teaches veterans how to become farmers and grow produce, and is aimed at increasing the size of Hawaii’s farming community.

“Oceanic Institute Feed Mill: Entered into a contract to build a feed mill on Hawaii island, scheduled to break ground in the summer of 2014, thereby reducing the costs to import feed and further diversifying Hawaii’s agriculture industry.”

The $5 million state and federally funded project actually won’t be breaking ground until this fall. It will be located at the University of Hawaii at Hilo on a one-acre parcel of land on its Farm Laboratory in the Panaewa Agricultural Park.

The feed mill is intended to be a research facility, developing feed for aquaculture and terrestrial animals in order to help reduce Hawaii’s dependence on importing animal feed, while not actually producing feed commercially. Instead, it will show that it is a feasible option, which may attract commercial mills to the islands.

“Important Agricultural Lands (IALs): Since the beginning of the Abercrombie Administration, more than 70,000 acres have been designated as IALs, thereby ensuring that land remains in agricultural use for perpetuity.”

Abercrombie ran into controversy in 2012 with his support of the Hoopili land deal, in which 1,500 acres of prime agricultural land will be developed into a suburban community of 12,000 homes and five schools, requiring one of the state’s largest farms to close.

This was a reversal of the governor’s initial stance on the Hoopili development. The governor had promised those opposed to Hoopili development during his campaign in 2010 that the deal wouldn’t happen on his watch.

With the island’s growing population, supporters of the development stressed the importance of building more housing for farmers to live in, while still keeping around 250 acres for food production.

Abercrombie also supported the Koa Ridge development in central Oahu, where 3,500 homes will be built on 576 acres of farmland. The deal was greenlit back in November of 2013, but has been marred in controversy and lawsuits that have prevented it from proceeding.

But perhaps most importantly, Abercrombie stressed his intent to improve Hawaii’s food security and to lessen the state’s dependency on imports.

Measuring Hawaii’s food security level

The goal outlined in the New Day plan was to decrease Hawaii’s dependence on imports by 10 percent. A 2012 report by the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT) and the Department of Planning (DOP) found that this would have major economic benefits, keeping $300 million within Hawaii’s economy and creating more than 2,300 jobs.

Attempts to measure, through data, how the state has improved (or not) is difficult. The most recent numbers come from 2010.

The DOA contracted Sustain Hawaii to come up with a web-based Statewide Food System Metrics Platform. This database is intended for lawmakers and the public to be able to find out information about food security more easily, enabling a better dialogue and bettering the state’s ability to address questions of sustainable subsistence agriculture.

However, the database is not expected to be available until mid-2015, according to Kevin Vaccarello, the founder and director of Sustain Hawaii.

The Hawaii Green Growth Initiative has four goals for the state to achieve by 2030:

1. Achieve 70 percent clean energy; 40 percent from renewable resources, 30 percent from conservation.

2. Double local food production; 20–30 percent of food consumed in Hawaii would be locally produced.

3. Reverse the trend of natural resources loss, mauka to makai, through watershed protection, invasive species control and community-based marine management.

4. Increase local green jobs and provide the necessary education to implement these targets.

Data from 2010 published in the Agriculture and Food Economics journal by Matthew Loke and PingSung Leung, indicates that only 11.6 percent of food in Hawaii that year came from local production, and that 88.4 percent of food available came from imports. Over 80 percent comes from the mainland.

This is confirmed by the DOP and DBEDT report that noted Hawaii imports 85 to 90 percent of its food.

Nearly 40 percent of commercial local food production is in fresh fruit, while vegetables make up 26 percent, protein (seafood) nearly 25 percent, and fresh milk around 8 percent.

The journal report also examined Hawaii’s self sufficiency ratio, and placed it at 15.7 percent, while fruit had the highest level of self sufficiency at 60.4 percent, followed by seafood protein at 58.7 percent, fresh vegetables at 31.9 percent and milk at 12.4 percent.

According to DBEDT, Hawaii is almost completely self sufficient in watercress, Chinese cabbage, mustard cabbage, green onions and Asian vegetables like choi sum and malunggay leaves.

Hawaii farmers also grow around 75 percent of tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cucumbers and sweet corn, but most lettuce and other vegetables come from the mainland or foreign countries.

As for fruit, Hawaii grows locally most of the watermelon, papaya, pineapple and banana it consumes as a state, along with seasonal supplies of mango, lychee, rambutan and jack fruit. Most locally grown produce is sold at farmers markets and not at regular grocery stores.

Hawaii doesn’t commercially produce rice and is completely dependent on imports of the grain.

In data from the 2004–5 year—the most recent data available—the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that Hawaii residents, on average, spent 6 percent of their pre-tax income on food at home; that percentage climbed to 11.5 percent if expenditures for eating out and alcohol purchase was included.

Since then, between 2005 and 2012, incomes in Honolulu increased by 27 percent and food-at-home prices also went up by 31 percent, meaning food prices have gone up slightly faster than incomes have.

The DBEDT and DOP also addressed some of the problems that are hindering the increase of local food production, including pressure to use IALs for other purposes than agriculture. This results in farmers encountering difficulty in getting long-term leases with good rents.

There are also issues with the state’s aging irrigation systems that need to be fixed and redeveloped.

The costs are also increasing for transportation, fertilizer, fuel, electricity, feed and other necessities for farming, and another issue is the aging farmer population: the average Hawaii farmer is 59, according to the DBEDT and DOP 2012 report.

But perhaps the biggest impediment to Hawaii’s food security is the costs associated with producing large amounts of food. Costs to the producers, will, in turn, affect the costs to the consumer. Everyone knows about the high cost of living in Hawaii, which may hamper residents’ ability to support local agriculture.

In a 2012 issue of Hanai’Ai - The Food Provider Linda J. Cox, community economic development specialist at the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, analyzed why agricultural products produced locally cost so much. She cited 5 reasons: the costs of labor, energy, fertilizer, land and transportation.

According to the report, agricultural wages in Hawaii are 35 percent higher than the U.S. average. Labor costs represent around 40 percent of the total agricultural costs in the state.

Comparing the cost of energy in Hawaii with others around the world, Cox concluded that Hawaii has the fifth highest price tag, and it keeps going up. Another big cost is fertilizer, where Hawaii sees higher prices than the mainland due to shipping charges, which are also steadily rising.

As for land and transportation, U.S. agricultural land prices are already some of the highest in the world, and Hawaii’s land costs are four times higher than on the mainland. Hawaii also has the highest per-mile maritime transportation cost in the nation.

The big, complex question remains: to what degree is government action effective in increasing self-sufficiency, and how much is market driven?

Vaccarello put it this way: “...The market is the fundamental driver, but the market aggregates power and influence which then trickles into policy, which then, in turn, favors those power brokers/market drivers.”

While Abercrombie did make good on some of his promises, Hawaii still has a long way to go before reaching its goal of doubling food production by 2030.