Preserve Ag Lands, Support Local Ag Industry, More Small Local Farms Needed

by Edwin Quinabo

The pandemic and the current high inflation have shown us how vulnerable Hawaii’s food security can be.  Not only have we’ve seen food prices spike considerably. At times, grocery shelves were near-cleared or completely out of stock on essential items in part due to sharp disruptions in supply chains on the mainland and panic buying.

A whopping 85-92% of our food are shipped into the state, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Considering that we are an isolated chain of islands, that statistic alone should be convincing enough that something must be done to change the course on our overreliance of imported food.

On the mainland where much of our food come from, those states themselves have been experiencing food shortages for the same reason, disruptions in supply chains; and a second reason unique to the mainland, job shortage in the trucking industry.

Such shortages there, sources of our food supply, should be sounding alarm bells to our lawmakers that they must take action, take a serious look at boosting local food production as a priority.

What to do?
Specifically what needs to be? First and foremost, start preserving existing agricultural land and stop converting them for residential or business development. And secondly, we must start putting those existing acres to good use for farming of both crops and livestock.

Farming must once again become a viable economic opportunity in our islands and be made a part of the “future” jobs sector when we talk about sustainability in our state.

The state loves to talk about diversifying our economy. Here is one industry that lawmakers should be pulling out all the stops and making it happen. We could envision and realize new higher-tech farming that utilizes methods to maximum land space.

For local consumption
But what’s important is to incentivize farming to be undertaken for local consumption. Sugarcane and pineapple still are the leading crops in Hawaii. But they are mostly for export, as well as coffee and macadamia nuts. These are massive acres of our existing agricultural land being used for export, not to feed our local population.

Clearly, we could do both farming for export and local consumption. But the latter needs a lot of catching up to do. There is a demand for it among local residents and businesses. And from an eco-friendly perspective, the go-green trend around the world is to emphasize locally grown food to cut down on transportation (and its incidental harm to the environment).

Much of our existing ag lands are not even being utilized for ag purposes. The state has about 1.93 million acres of zoned agricultural land of which only 39% of that land (761,000 acres) is used for grazing. The rest is used for growing crops or not being used for agriculture, according to a Department of Agriculture 2105 study.

An update to this study was released in 2020 that shows some improvements in the expanded use of ag lands for ag purposes.

“Our administration continues to focus on increasing local food production throughout the state,” said Gov. David Ige. “The events over the past year have made our entire community realize how critical our mission is to raise the level of our food security.”

Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser, chairperson of the Hawai`i Board of Agriculture, said “the data is an indicator of growth through many diverse crops and it emphasizes the importance of preserving and protecting agricultural lands for future cultivation and improving the state’s economic growth.”But again, how much of those expanded acreage for farming is being used to feed our people locally and not exported?

Smaller farms
What we need to see more of is smaller local farmers being able to own their own land and turning their fruits of labor into successful small businesses. Why small? Because smaller farmers end up selling their fruits and vegetables locally at farmer’s markets, to local restaurants and eateries and to their neighbors, family and friends.

For our Filipino community in particular, farming of small parcels will be an economic opportunity that to some will also be culturally fitting, particularly those who are recent immigrants from rural Philippines or our neighbor islands.

Encouraging news
Toward this end, recently developer Peter Savio announced that he purchased 280-acres of agricultural land from Dole Plantation and will divide that land up (one to 10 acres each) and sell them to about 100 individual farmers who intend to use it for ag purposes.

He says it’s his way of helping to preserve agriculture. “It’s absolutely going to save the little farmer. Right now, large farmers can survive, mainland farmers can survive but the hard-working local guy — the immigrant farmer –they’re having a tough time,” Savio said.“But if they can own their own land, they will be successful and they will stay and will raise good food for all of our families for generations.” He said land dedicated to this project will prohibit homes to be built on these ag parcels.

Savio should be commended for this project.

Going forward all major developers who stand to directly profit from ag to residential conversion should in some way be promoting ag use. In fact, Hawaii’s State Legislature should codify this into law, as well as our City Councils.

In the meantime, for many of those immigrant farmers in Waialua who have been leasing land to farm, this Savio project is a golden opportunity for them; and one that our local communities and businesses can benefit from.

More similar projects should be encouraged. It’s time that talks and action on Hawaii’s sustainability include the strengthening of our food security.

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