UH Hilo Ag Dean Bruce Mathews: Hawai‘i needs versatile agricultural professionals to meet workforce demand

We also need new agricultural business models in Hawai‘i that will allow for the revitalization of agriculture.

By Bruce Mathews

Bruce Mathews
Bruce Mathews

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently announced a new report showing tremendous demand for recent college graduates with a degree in agricultural programs with an estimated 57,900 high-skilled job openings annually in the food, agriculture, renewable natural resources, and environment fields in the United States.

According to an employment outlook report released Monday by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and Purdue University, there is an average of 35,400 new U.S. graduates with a bachelor’s degree or higher in agriculture related fields, 22,500 short of the jobs available annually.

Secretary Vilsack went on to say that there is incredible opportunity for highly-skilled jobs in agriculture. Those receiving degrees in agricultural fields can expect to have ample career opportunities. Not only will those who study agriculture be likely to get well-paying jobs upon graduation, they will also have the satisfaction of working in a field that addresses some of the world’s most pressing challenges. These jobs will only become more important as we continue to develop solutions to feed more than nine billion people by 2050.

Agriculture in Hawai‘i

Our big need in Hawai‘i is going to be versatile agricultural professionals with relevant hands-on skills way beyond K-12 gardening. There is a huge shortage of young people in Hawai‘i with any actual farming experience. There were enough of us in my generation who had grandparents with farms, but the present generation has grown up nearly totally un-farmed.

We also need new agricultural business models in Hawai‘i that will allow for the revitalization of agriculture. Too many of our old-timer farmers still want to try and entice the younger generation with exploitive share cropping type deals that lack transparency.

This being said, there are some very interesting small-farm cooperative models that are now being set up on Maui (Kula) that are based on rewarding square foot of crop growing activities such as planting, weeding, fertilizing, etc., rather than paying an hourly wage.

Some cultivators (field labor folks) on Maui are claiming that with such systems they can easily make the equivalent of $20 per hour due to the price premium in organic veggie operations with profit sharing. These agriculturalists at one time made near minimum wage as field workers in conventional operations.

Alternative models

One of the most innovative cooperatives on Maui is set up as a non-profit organic and integrated farming approaches research cooperative (all farmers collect research data) where everyone involved just gets a K-1 (a tax form distributed to partners in a partnership). I plan to bring the cooperative director over for a presentation at UH Hilo this coming August.

The dilemma we face in Hawai‘i is that most people won’t really pay a price premium for locally grown that looks just like product from California. In the conventional agricultural world, one typically has to be large in order to compete, and the fixed costs of being large in Hawai‘i are a huge barrier for individuals lacking a nice size trust fund.

Last month I spoke with a 4th generation conventional vegetable farmer on Maui who only made $12,000 profit per acre last year on a couple of acres and his family owned the land. This is pretty sad, although a $12,000 profit per acre on a 10- to 30-acre conventional vegetable farming operation in California or Florida would be okay.

We need agricultural business expertise that can offer alternative models for Hawai‘i without treating the field operation workers as serfs. We also need to professionalize the skilled folks who actually grow our food, and it is taking more expertise than before.

The simple days of spreading a ton per acre of limestone and 500-600 pounds per acre of triple 16, spray, and pray for good veggies are long over.

Bruce Mathews is a professor of soil science and agronomy and dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. His areas of research are plant nutrient cycling and soil fertility as affected by environmental conditions and crop management; assessment of the impact of agricultural and forestry production practices on soil, coastal wetlands, and surface waters; and development of environmentally sound and economically viable nutrient management practices for pastures, forests, and field crops in the tropics. He received his bachelor of science in agriculture, with high honors, in 1986 from UH Hilo. He received his master of science in agronomy from Louisiana State University and his doctor of philosophy in agronomy, with a minor in animal science, from the University of Florida. Contact Bruce Mathews.

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