Filipino Farmers Are Major Part of Hawaii’s Drive Towards Building Food Sustainability

by Edwin Quinabo

There are many myths surrounding agriculture and farming in Hawaii.

Myth: There isn’t enough agriculture land in the state for an Ag industry to thrive.
Fact:  The latest Federal agricultural census shows only 8% of Hawaii’s agricultural lands are being used for growing crops. But nearly half of Hawaii’s lands are designated for agriculture. There are 4.1 million acres that potentially can be used for farming in some capacity.

Myth: Locally grown food is more expensive than imported food?
Fact: Some local food items are already cheaper than their imported counterparts (depending on the season), but experts say with economies of scale (local farmers producing more food) in a thriving local Ag industry, this could reduce the price of more local food items even further.

The way it is now with 85-92% of Hawaii’s food shipped into the state (according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture), a family of four – two adults and two children – paid an estimated $9,835 on food in 2022. That total is the highest in the nation by a substantial amount, based on the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank.

Growing need for Food Sustainability
Since the vulnerabilities exposed during the pandemic that had bottleneck supply chains raising prices of imported food and causing a shortage for many items, support for building a local food system, local food sustainability and local farmers have never been higher.

Caroline Julian-Freitas, Honolulu, said “We’re experiencing in the post-pandemic world supply chain issues-disruption, high cost of transportation and inflation, along with disease that could impact inventory and cost, such as bird flu that’s causing egg prices to skyrocket. All of these make it very important for Hawaii to grow most of its food so we can feed our own people. Along with those issues, we should also all be aware of the impacts of climate change – drought, change in temperature, etc – that make it challenging for farmers in our state and across the globe to grow food.”

She said, “Food insecurity has become an important issue that I think about often, especially since the pandemic.  During the pandemic, a lot of our citizens were out of jobs, and many relied on food drives.  If it were not for the help of a generous community, many would have gone hungry.  Because of the supply chain issue, supplies being delivered to stores have been slow to arrive and store shelves go empty, a sign that we are still recovering and have taken food being readily available for granted.”

Hawaii State Senator Henry Aquino told the Filipino Chronicle, “It’s been a long-standing goal for Hawaii to become self-sufficient due to our remote location, shipping costs and other unique issues our state faces.  These challenges have presented both opportunities and obstacles for Hawaii to truly become self-sufficient.

“Food security is one of the key components to becoming self-sustaining and while our state as a whole has made some strides, we are not close to being independent. We continue to rely on imports and due to our shipping system, lack of storage facilities and limited manufacturing in the islands, we have about a two-week supply of food and goods at any given time.”

Food Hubs
Besides local farmers, critical to growing a local food system has been the proliferation of food hubs which are enterprises that help local farmers and gardeners get their products to grocers, schools, restaurants, retailers, hotels and food banks.

Saleh Azizi of the Kahumana Farm Hub in Waianae, said food hubs are distribution networks that buy, market and sell local ingredients to businesses. Collectively, the 14-member Food Hub Hui supports approximately 1,100 Hawaii farmers across the island chain. The food hub is really there for farmers to have a one-stop shop to offload all of their harvest and to not have to go to multiple buyers and negotiate prices.”

Farm operations in Hawaii: number of small farms on the rise
According to the 2021 (as of Jan. 2022) Hawaii State Agriculture Overview there are 7,300 farm (non-livestock) operations in Hawaii. The livestock inventory in the state includes cattle, cows used for beef 79,200, cattle cows used for milk 800, hogs 9,000.

The latest available U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census shows the greatest increase in the number of farms came from small farms between one to nine acres. Another bright spot is the number of farms with sales of $25,000 to $500,000 or more increased.

Highlighting a few of the Census sales for 2017: Vegetables, melons, potatoes and sweet potatoes $85 million; Organic food $15 million; Fruits, tree nuts and berries $144 million; Aquaculture $74 million; Poultry and egg $8 million; and Nursery and greenhouse product $100 million; Direct sales to consumers $28 million. Most of these category’s sales have risen from the previous census.

Consumer support and raising consciousness on buying local food
Cecilia Ramiscal, Ewa Beach, says she goes to open markets to help local farmers. “I like the freshness of vegetables and fruits there. Some Filipino vegetables are also available at farmers markets that are not sold by grocers. I think we as consumers should do all we can to buy local food products. I would like to see grocers place signs in the vicinity of where their local products are stocked. If given the chance and being aware of where the source of my food is coming from, I will always choose locally grown food. Grocers should be making that distinction and I bet those products will sell better.”

Ramiscal said it’s time that Hawaii has better control of its food security. “Like many residents here during the pandemic’s worst time, I was afraid that we would not be able to get some items. What we saw was a lot of panic buying. We’re lucky that empty shelves did not last longer. I don’t understand why food security is not being prioritized in our state. It makes no sense that we have all this fertile land in Hawaii and a history of growing crops, and here we are today, not having a strong local food source.”

Senator Aquino has friends and relatives who grow food for both personal consumption and commercially. He grew in Waipahu when the Oahu Sugar Co. plantation was still around and provided work for many in Waipahu and neighboring areas.  He said we can support our farming industry by buying their crops and products, share with others where these sources are and encourage others to do the same.  He mentions people’s open markets, farmers markets sponsored by the Hawaii Farm Bureau and most of our grocery outlets have local foods, grown by local sources.  “There are times where certain local crops can be pricey but the goal to support local sources should be the aim for all — provided that there’s a market for the products.”

Julian-Freitas said, “There’s definitely a mind-shift that needs to happen in the area of Hawaii’s food sustainability and agriculture due to reliance on imports.  Hawaii needs to make supporting local agriculture a priority and recognizing its needs to survive as an industry and providing solutions to the challenges they face.  It’s definitely not a simple fix.  But I think recognizing the importance of the agriculture industry’s role in our state is a first step.”

She said, “Hawaii residents should be doing their part to support locally grown food and vendors should be marketing it as local. We can all support our Hawaii farmers by buying more locally grown food and attending open markets.  Restaurants should buy local, when they can, and government institutions that serve food should also buy local to increase demand.”

Hawaii hotels, restaurants and schools using locally grown food
Besides consumers, there is a push for large institutions like hotels, restaurants and public schools to buy local food.

This month more than 20 Oahu hotels and restaurants committed to buying more food from local farmers, signing onto the Oahu Good Food Program, a partnership between the Hawaii Tourism Authority and Oahu county.

Hawaii Tourism Authority Director of Planning Caroline Anderson says the partnership with the county aims to benefit farmers and ranchers and address tourist expectations for local food.

One of the hotels that signed onto the Oahu Good Food Program is the Kahala Hotel and Restaurant. Kahala Vice President and General Manager Joe Ibarra (Editor’s Note: visit for Ibarra cover story, Oct. 15, 2022, edition) said menu offerings at the Kahala hotel are 54% local and come from 68 local suppliers. That ratio is up 22% from 2019.

Hawaii’s Department of Education has a goal of increasing its spending on local food to 30% by 2030. At the moment, it is only purchasing 6.2%.

Needing more government help
Local farmers say if the state is serious about building farming and agriculture locally, there needs to be more investment in critical infrastructure like water systems and support in extension programs that assist farmers with things like the latest technology, how to best deal with pests and climate changes, and teaching farmers business skills.

The University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources is one of the extension sources farmers have been relying on, but it has undergone cuts to staff.

Denise Yamaguchi, executive director of the Hawaiʻi Agricultural Foundation, said “Less than half a percent of the state’s budget goes to agriculture, so if we can get them to fund more agricultural infrastructure, more agriculture opportunities, or just things to help the farmers, I think that’s really needed.”

Senator Aquino said there have been legislative efforts to strengthen assistance for farmers by providing invasive species support, exempt general excise taxes for food products that are shipped between the neighbor islands.  “There’s certainly more that can be done to help the agricultural industry,” he said.

Federal grants available for Hawaii farmers
Aquino mentions there are existing grant programs through Hawaii Department of Agriculture (HDOA), various federal agencies and private grantors to support farmers with safety regulations, start-up expenses, and necessary equipment.

Much of the financial support for farmers comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered by HDOA.

Sharon Hurd, the director of the HDOA, said a third round of grants from the Micro-Grants for Food Security Program — designed to help small farmers and home gardeners so they can grow more of what we eat — will likely begin receiving applications in spring 2023.

The grants can be used to buy tools, equipment, seeds, and canning equipment, as well as to purchase livestock.

Some $3 million dollars in federal grants have been allocated for the Micro-Grants for Food Security Program. In the first year, a total of 177 grants were awarded statewide. The deadline passed for the second round.

Hurd told the Conversation (Hawaii Public Radio) “One of the major projects was fencing. In the food insecure communities, it seems evident that they need protection from pigs, mostly, but in other communities, it’s axis deer, and the fence has to be tall because axis deer are very skilled at jumping fences. No sense to grow crops if the pigs come in and have, you know, their way with it.”

Another HDOA grant supported by the USDA is the Specialty Group Block Grant Program. Applications for that grant’s Fiscal Year 2023 is now being accepted. The HDOA will be awarding a total of approximately $450,000 to Hawaii proposals that enhance the competitiveness of Hawaii specialty crops. Project awards may range up to $50,000. Specialty crops are defined by the USDA as fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops (including floriculture). Much of Hawaii’s diversified agriculture falls under this specialty crop designation. The application deadline is noon on March 3, 2023. 

To make it easier for farmers, grants have changed from submitting a proposal to an application. For information on grants, visit hdoa.hawaii.go.

History and connection to farming
For many Hawaii Filipinos, there is a strong family history connected to farming and plantation. Like many locals who have ties to the sakada generation of plantation workers in Hawaii, Julian-Freitas is proud of her family’s link to Hawaii’s history in the agriculture industry.

“My paternal grandfather, Cerilio Julian, arrived in Hawaii 100 years ago and was contracted to work for Maui Ag Co for seven years. He sent his hard-earned money to support the family he left behind – my grandmother, father and his five siblings. When his contract ended, he went back to Laoag and purchased acres of land, with rice being its main crop and money maker. The acres of farm land is called San Julian, the namesake of our family. It still exists today. My extended family in the province continue to farm the land, which has provided them financial support and self-sufficiency and they’re able to use the money to pay for college for the younger generation.”

She said, “My grandfather’s story of humbleness, hard work and saving money transcends through how I live my life and the values I pass on to my children.”

Ramiscal, 62, said her uncle from Narvacan, Ilocus Sur, came to Hawaii in the 1950s to work on the sugar plantation and was able to later petition her father to come to Hawaii in the 1970s. Before my uncle, my grandfather’s brother came to Hawaii decades earlier as one of the pioneering generations of Filipino plantation workers.

“This family connection to farming and plantation work is another reason why I feel strongly about supporting our farmers today. It’s tradition for our community. And there are many farmers in the state who are Filipinos. We can be proud of this because they have an important role in feeding the people of our state,” Ramiscal said.

Owning land to farm
Both Senator Aquino and Julian-Freitas bring up the point that many farmers make: that farmers need land and access to capital to start their farm. Many Hawaii farmers do not own the land they do their farming.

One rare opportunity is being provided by real estate developer Peter Savio who has a new agricultural project, Orchard Plantation, in which he is offering affordable land to small farms on Oahu’s North Shore.

Savio told The Business Journals, “One of the big problems here in Hawaii is we all talk about [agriculture], and we talk about helping local people get into [agriculture], but we don’t have a single program to help them finance, so they cannot finance their operations. I sell everything at cost.”

The Orchard Plantation’s website says it has 15, 1 acre lots, with a minimum acquisition of 2 acres per parcel at $130,000 per acre, with existing and new roads and plans for a possible Plantation Camp. Orchard Plantation is a Fee simple agricultural project that will be made available to give local farmers the opportunity to own the land they farm.

Local farmers can sign up to be on the Orchard Plantation’s mailing list (visit: for updated information.

Senator Aquino said, “I’ve long respected the importance of farming and providing food for our communities.  Collectively, as a state, we need to raise a much broader awareness of the need for farmers and food providers for the near and distant future.”

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