Affordable ag land, money, knowledge: Ingredients for cultivating Hawaii’s food future

Jade Eckardt

HALEIWA—It’s not a pretty situation. Hawaii imports approximately 85 to 90 percent of the state’s food supply. We have less than a seven-day food supply in our stores at any given time.

In 2010, there were 7,500 farms throughout the state utilizing 1.1 million acres, according to the 2010 State Agricultural Overview published by the National Agricultural Statistics Survey.

While the average farm was estimated to cover approximately 148 acres of this land, Oahu is home to a large number of “small farmers” who farm approximately one to five acres, relying on the sale of the produce for an income. 

With our islands located approximately 2,500 miles away from the continental United States, fuel costs on the rise, and changes in agriculture, Hawaii is facing a rapidly growing need to become sustainable and self-sufficient. Farmers and agricultural activists, however, say there are too many obstacles in the way, particularly for small farmers.

In order to get a better understanding of these obstacles, The Hawaii Independent set out to answer the question: “What are the biggest problems Hawaii’s farmers face?” After talking to farmers and community members active in Hawaii’s agricultural industry, I saw that the obstacles farmers face were as varied as the farmers themselves—diversity in Hawaii’s farmers cover a wide economic spectrum and span generations.

The Hawaii Independent spoke in depth with Junior Primacio, agriculture committee chair of the Koolauloa Neighborhood Board and Kahuku High graduate in 1952; State Rep. Gil Riviere (District 46), member of the House Agricultural Committee; Travis Overley, a new farmer and owner of Aino Ono farmstands; and Mark Hudson, manager at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s NASS Hawaii Field Office.

Problems for Hawaii farmers, they seemed to agree, centered around land availability and quality, loan qualifications and availability, and the cost of supplies and labor. Farmers also point to social, cultural, and historical factors that prevent the growth of sustainable agriculture.

Although these were the most common concerns addressed, none of the problems mentioned appeared to be any more or less important to the well-being of farmers and food production in Hawaii. Each issue discussed created a holistic account of the troubles facing farmers in Hawaii today.

As one farmer selling his Waianae-grown produce at a farmers market told me: “Hun, you’d need to write an entire book to answer that question, not an article.”

Land Availability

Land availability was regarded as a problem by each person interviewed. Although approximately 2 million acres are zoned agricultural throughout the state, not all of that land is suitable for farming. And farmers have a hard time obtaining it.

“A lot of that land is lava land or wasteland,” Riviere said. “A farmer couldn’t grow food on a lot of the land available.”

Primacio said the lack of land quality doesn’t stop there, and that a lot of the land available for farming is too steep, has no drainage, or is up on a hill.

“They say there’s so many acres available for farming, but a lot of it isn’t good for farming,” Primacio said. “A lot of what’s supposed to be farmland is being used for pasture land instead.”

Hudson agreed: “A big portion of the 1.1 million acres of farm land we list on our website is being used as pasture land, not farming.”

Land availability issues aren’t limited to how much is zoned agricultural or whether it is up for sale or lease. Being able to afford to lease or purchase these properties, qualifying for a loan, and finding enough property to produce an equitable amount of product also comes into play.

Primacio said the biggest problem farmers face is the cost of leasing land.

“I can’t speak for the rest of the island, I can only speak for the Koolauloa area, but out here it costs $100 an acre a month,” Primacio said. “Then you have pay insurance—a $1 million premium. Then they have to pay for water. The land cost in Hawaii to farm is so high.”

“If I need 40 calfs to make it work and hope to expand, 40 acres that each cost $100 month to lease, how can I pull that off?”

Farmers and ranchers agree. At a meeting regarding farmers issues held in April, a part-time rancher from Punalulu explained: “It takes me more than one acre to raise one calf. My wife and I are only part-time because we both hold day jobs. If I need 40 calfs to make it work and hope to expand, 40 acres that each cost $100 month to lease, how can I pull that off?”

Another farmer from Kahuku at the meeting added, “We need more land at a cost that we can afford to rent.” He said that there are thousands of acres inland from the coast that go unused each year. “Once a year, my property gets completely flooded for two weeks. I’m going to lose what I have, or just not plant a crop while I wait for it to happen. But it’s nearly impossible to afford to lease more property.”

Farmers also point to the lack of property leases and a general inability to secure long leases.

“A lot of people are on month-to-month, without a lease, or have one for just one-to-three years,” Primacio said. “Then they go in to their lending institution and the lenders say, ‘Well, if you don’t have a lease or it’s up in a year, how do we know you can pay us back when you lose your land?’ And then they don’t get the loan, and they don’t get land.”

The rancher from Punaluu also experienced trouble securing a lease. He explained that because lenders deem the couple “part-time ranchers,” they didn’t qualify for loans and were ask to dip into their home equity.

Overley, a new farmer, pointed to the impact of large corporations on smaller, local farms.

“We’ve got these seed crops coming in, large corporations with excess surplus with big subsidies of hundreds of millions of dollars and they change the market,” Overley said. “When you have capitol that big, they have the ability to change the market, driving prices up for the local farmer for water, land, and supplies. These guys have the ability to determine the market. When the transition occurred from plantations to seeds, they had the best resources, the irrigation was set up, there was a lot of land available, and they used the best percentage of it.”
Ag land being used for residential homes

On Oahu’s North Shore, farmers say expensive residential homes are built on prime ag land.

“One of the biggest problems the North Shore faces is people building big fancy houses on some of the best agricultural land,” Riviere said. “They come in and subdivide it, they build big houses, and they don’t farm. It puts pressure on the value of land and drives it up, making it more unobtainable for farmers. Having land go residential for the rich takes away from the land available for agriculture.”

“Having land go residential for the rich takes away from the land available for agriculture.”

Primacio said property owners are able to get away with building expensive homes on ag lands because of loopholes in Hawaii’s land use laws and a lack of effective enforcement.

“Rich people come in and build [expensive homes on designated ag land] and don’t grow anything,” Primacio said. “Look at the gentelman’s farms in Waialua. Five acre lots, then they went and built these fancy houses on land zoned ag. Then someone tries to check if they’re really farming and they point to a single horse and say yes.”

In an effort to preserve agricultural land on Oahu, The North Shore Community Land Trust (NSCLT) and the Trust for Public Land are working with the owners of the Turtle Bay Resort to place a conservation easement on approximately 469 acres of agricultural land on the mauka side of Kamehameha Highway, directly across from the resort.

Under the proposed easement, the property would remain agriculture land permanently under a legally binding agreement between the land owner and the conservation organization, and could never be rezoned, subdivided, or developed.

Farmers also point to barriers in obtaining the necessary water for farming.

“If you’re looking at land issues, before you even get there you have to look at water. Water is equal or even more important,” Riviere said.

Irrigation systems, cost, and delivery are currently outdated for the needs of today’s farmers.

“The irrigations systems out here [on the North Shore] were built for the sugar companies so long ago they’re run down now,” Riviere said. “One change has been that a couple of years ago farmers had to lease the whole parcel, not part. Now, because they’re allowed to fragment and lease out smaller parts, the problem is they’ve got five, six, or eight farmers breaking up the water delivery. Owners have a hard time wanting to pay for the cost of that, no one wants to.”

(Stay tuned to The Hawaii Independent’s Food Future coverage for an in depth look at Hawaii’s water situation.)

A harsh reality for Hawaii’s new farmers

As a new farmer originally from Napa Valley, California, Overly shared his unique perspective coming into Hawaii’s ag industry. He described historic and cultural barriers for Hawaii’s new generation of farmers.

Overly’s first peek into the world of agriculture was different than what many local children see today: “I call the first farmers I saw in Napa ‘rockstar farmers.’ They pulled up to their farm in a Mercedes or BMW, threw on a pair of overalls and jumped into the fields. I thought, this is what I want to do. But here in Hawaii you look at the historical aspect. It’s a paradigm and you look at the cultural and historical aspect. Kids these days see farming as something to evolve and grow from, something to escape, not something that want to aspire to. Coming from generations of people who were essentially slaves on a plantation they want to move on to other things.”

In order to generate a new appreciation among the next generation of Hawaii’s farmers, Overley is working with students and recent graduates in the Koolauloa area to teach them how to develop the local food system.

“There’s sixteen year olds around here who sort of romanticize the idea of working on the farm and then they find out that people are getting paid $7 an hour,” Overly said. “Another problem is that a lot of people are farming under ten acres, and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that if we’re really going to try and feed ourselves locally we need to be cultivating new farmers and grow new farmers who can manage 10 to 30 acres.”

What we can do to help agriculture

Despite the obstacles facing Hawaii’s farmers, it’s not a hopeless situation.

The general consensus among those interviewed was that farmers need help through education on bills, laws, and rules in order to more closely tied to the processes that govern their industry.

Farmers also need access to affordable land and leases and to food certification facilities.

“Farmers face so many problems and we’re trying to find ways to help them because Hawaii needs to be sustainable,” Primacio said. “We formed the Koolauloa Board Ag Committee to focus on farmers and let them know they’re not alone, we’re here to help.”

Overley said farmers can find help on the state level.

“A lot of the representatives are so open-minded and appear to be by trying to do whatever is in the best interest of the people with food production,” Overly said.

“Unless we help the farmers somehow, someway, the farms are not sustainable.”

Primacio and Riviere both believe holding regular public meetings about farmers issues. During the 2011 Legislative Session in April, the two organized a meeting at Kahuku High to discuss the major problems facing Hawaii farmers today and the bills in the Legislature that may address them. Both believe that something can be resolved through awareness and education.

At the April meeting, Primacio said: “We’ve got to somehow get the farmers together. There are many obstacles, rules, and regulations that need to be known and addressed. Awareness is important.” 

When Riviere suggested regular informal public meetings for farmers, one farmer from Punaluu said that classes would need translators for several languages to get the information across to a substantial amount of farmers. Rivere responded that “a consistent, measured voice” would help.

Primacio said with the right information, Hawaii’s farmers could better deal with logistical problems that affect any farm.

“Unless we help the farmers somehow, someway, the farms are not sustainable,” Primacio said. “The reality is farmers might make some money but they cannot survive. One bad crop and they die. The only reason the plantation survived for so long is that they were sustainable, they had everything the needed. Today, farmers only have one or two tractors, one goes down and they’re jeopardized.”

Overley sees unlimited possibilities with Hawaii’s youth, who can take over the reigns for farming with a clearer understanding of what needs to be done.

“We’re 85 percent dependent on food from abroad, no one anticipated this,” Overly said. “We’ve got to cultivate and grow a generation of new farmers, farmers to carry agriculture into the future.”