Bruce Mathews responds to UHERO agricultural report: There are more things to consider than GDP

Dean of UH Hilo’s College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management: Ultimately, revitalizing Hawaiʻi’s agriculture will depend on strong and productive relationships among farmers, consumers, agricultural scientists, and governmental and non-governmental agencies related to food production and distribution.

By Bruce Mathews.

Bruce Mathews
Bruce Mathews, Dean of the College of Agricultural, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management, UH Hilo.

On January 21, the University of Hawai‘i Economic Research Organization (UHERO) published a brief by Sumner La Croix and James Mak entitled “Reviving Agriculture to Diversify Hawai‘i’s Economy,” describing limited potential for agriculture to be a major source of economic growth in Hawaiʻi over the next 10 to 15 years. This report noted that doubling food production would only increase state GDP by 0.15 percent, however there are certainly a host of other factors for Hawaiʻi to consider besides GDP such as contributions to nutrition, food security, and the pervasive local cultural value of aloha ʻāina (Leung and Loke, 2008; Gupta, 2014; Meter and Goldenberg, 2017).

A week prior to the UHERO brief there was a scathing Honolulu Civil Beat article by Stewart Yerton entitled “Auditor: State Agriculture Agency is Failing to Fulfill Mission,” describing the massive failings of the state’s Agribusiness Development Corporation (ADC).  This was followed in Civil Beat by Jessica Terrell’s article and passionate plea entitled “Hawaii’s Food System Is Broken. Now Is The Time To Fix It.”

It’s like déjà vu all over again

These publications and others coupled with the overall anxiety of the COVID-19 economic crisis have led to considerable commentary and discussion about the agriculture system in Hawaiʻi being in dire need of revitalization. Realistically, there is little new in these 2021 publications that was not discussed after the near complete demise of the sugarcane industry by the end of the past century (Suryanata, 2000; Suryanata, 2002).

More than 20 years later we are still on the same quest to identify a set of new field crops that could take the place of sugarcane and pineapple (La Croix and Mak, 2021). In some cases the future may be drawn from the past: sugarcane could even make a partial comeback for new applications with environmentally friendly and sustainable agronomics, using energycane hybrids that have longer ratooning, are more fertilizer efficient, and store more soil carbon to regenerate depleted lands.

For example, new approaches to sugarcane/energycane could contribute to making high-performance aviation fuels that will more sustainably fuel future tourist-packed jets while replacing imported fossil fuel (Parachini, 2018; ʻImiloa, 2021). If the fuel option fails the cane juice can always be distilled into agricole rum! Importing a large portion of our food (~85%) and fuel (~92%) while repeating the same discussions that took place over the past two decades only serves to further highlight Hawai‘i’s questionable ecological footprint and underscores our unrealized potential to serve as a model for tropical island sustainability.

Revising Hawai‘i’s agricultural education for future requirements

Some stakeholders participating in these discussions correctly add that agricultural education is also in need of curriculum improvement and broadening. Since most of today’s undergraduate students did not grow up in the agricultural sector, quality hands-on practical experiences are required to gain workforce competencies in addition to theoretical classroom instruction.

Angela Faanunu
Angela Faʻanunu, UH Hilo assistant professor of tourism, teaches a special topics class entitled Sustainable Agribusiness and Island Food Systems funded by a donor as part of a joint initiative between the UH Hilo’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management and the College of Business and Economics. Courtesy photo.

Furthermore, greater internationalization of agricultural curriculum and inclusion of business entrepreneurship, finance, and life-cycle analysis is key in a globalized but environmentally threatened world (Bruenig and Shao, 2012; Tomar, 2014; Van Raalte and Van Riel, 2014).  At UH Hilo, we are actively seeking to bring back the agribusiness specialty with a dose of bio-economy and the commercialization of bio-innovation. For example, much excitement has been created this semester through Angela Faʻanunu’s special topics class entitled Sustainable Agribusiness and Island Food Systems and funded by a donor as part of a joint initiative between the UH Hilo’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management (CAFNRM) and the College of Business and Economics (COBE).

Current problems in tropical agriculture identify opportunities for new education and research programs. There is a desperate lack of horticultural entrepreneurship throughout the Pacific Islands. Breeding of improved fruit and vegetable cultivars for the region has largely collapsed due to a lack of long-term public sector support and little interest from private investors (Markham, 2013). Traditional crop production curricula have tended to focus on the science and theory of yield without adequate consideration of market analysis and raising agricultural net income while protecting the environment. As an example of the type of practices all aspiring farmers need to learn, successful growers in Hawaiʻi tend to monitor wholesale prices of produce at terminals throughout the Pacific region, to improve their ability to reliably and profitably supply local markets in the face of intense import competition.

Sweet potato fields with ocean in background.
An eight-acre sweet potato farm north of Hilo owned by Mitchell and Lili Anderson. Photo by Chantal Vos.

Overcoming challenges to Hawai‘i agriculture

While we cannot compete in today’s economy solely by implementing farming practices of the past, we can certainly be informed by their knowledge and integrate them with modern technology (Van Raalte and Van Riel, 2014). We need combined knowledge of what works in island environments with effective technologies for farmers to compete and thrive economically. Revised agricultural education, facilitating access to up-to-date technologies and varieties, streamlined regulatory processes, and supporting policies are all needed to overcome Hawai‘i’s agriculture challenges of which there are many.

Arita et al. (2014) and La Croix and Mak (2021) point out that Hawaiʻi’s agricultural sector is hampered by approximately 40 percent higher labor and input costs relative to other U.S. farms and that, in the absence of large volume crops, our operations lack economies of scale. Nearly all fertilizer and most soil amendments are imported, generally in smaller quantities and at higher prices.

Furthermore, there are often gaps in expertise and technology such as automation, robotics, environmental control greenhouses, sensors, data management, and overall precision management of inputs. Hawai‘i’s farm production may already be a much as 20 percent less efficient on average, than U.S. farms overall (Arita et al., 2014). Unfortunately, an inconvenient truth is that in the absence of long-term assurances of some form of subsidies or tax breaks that many areas of Hawai‘i’s agriculture will not be able to compete against less expensive imports.

Increased scale is a traditional approach to overcoming higher costs and lower efficiencies, but one of the challenges to scaling up in Hawai‘i has been rural gentrification that fragments agricultural lands, real estate speculation that drives up land costs, and associated barriers to securing longer-term leases critical to obtaining investment capital. Some farmers spend considerable time commuting and moving equipment between multiple small plots while short-term leases provide little incentive to conserve or improve the soil. Gentrification and rural real estate speculation have resulted in much agricultural land being fallowed or otherwise underutilized on a long-term basis, creating wastelands of land inequality. Owners of such lands benefit from lower real estate taxes for ag land despite their limited actual farming activity.

Furthermore, these owners often lack expertise in agriculture and when they attempt to farm they are more likely to fail. Some actually try to seek advice but are frequently taken advantage of by those lacking professional credentials who promote pseudo-science or unproven inputs and practices. As predicted by Kelly (1981) following closure of several of the smaller sugarcane plantations, the most common agricultural use of former sugarcane lands tends to default primarily to poorly managed, unimproved, low-productivity pastures.

Given the challenges of agricultural profitability in Hawaiʻi and elsewhere in the tropics many small farmers feel like they must get on a niche/boutique/luxury/higher-value crop treadmill to sustain a modest living that is typically buffered by other sources of income (Bittenbender, 1999; Suryanata, 2000; Arita et al., 2014; Rueda et al., 2018). Although growing specialty tropical crops is consistent with their comparative agricultural advantage, these challenges come to a head when there are policy or community objectives to grow more food locally—even when it is overall less efficient to do so. A similar situation exists for aquaculture due to the high costs of imported feed and other inputs (Belton et al., 2020; Farmery et al., 2021). Producing locally produced animal protein for the masses other than pasture-finished beef cattle generally means developing locally produced corn-soy feedstocks and by-catch/by-product fishmeal. Certain island Southeast Asia countries have rapidly progressed in this area during the past 20 years.

Traditional food-based agricultural crop production tends to have very low profit margins when competing globally against less expensively produced imported products. Inevitably, many people want a significant amount of locally grown food products that can’t be economically produced or processed in Hawaiʻi, raising the question whether farmers are willing to undertake economic self-immolation to supply food when consumers largely choose cheaper products. While freedom to choose is part of liberal democracy so is the ability to conduct marketing campaigns, and campaigns to persuade consumers of the benefits from locally produced food are a durable strategy to promote local agriculture. La Croix and Sumner (2021) emphasize that if Hawaiʻi’s consumers can be convinced it’s worthwhile to pay a bit extra for local produce/food then a lot of the challenges will take care of themselves. We still have a long way to go in developing consumer support to pay premiums for local products (Loke et al., 2015).

Bell peppers
Bell Peppers, Kula Farmer’s Market, Maui. Photo credit: Sue Salisbury via flickr.

This being said, there is still the social caveat that in the absence of market interventions by government much of local food production is likely to remain beyond the budgets of most consumers.  It is worth noting, however, that on the island of Hawai‘i and the other neighbor islands, quite a few hunt, fish, gather, share, and trade food collected from the land and sea, thus reducing their food costs.

What role for policy?

It’s difficult to imagine significantly moving the needle on local food production without subsidies and tax breaks. Such market modifying polices may gain increasing support if it becomes apparent that the global food system is nearing a tipping point which could result in international agri-commodity battles. Unfortunately, sustainable agriculture rhetoric has largely become a mantra for politicians and social change advocates, often in the absence of underlying scientific foundations.

Some potentially unique opportunities may emerge at larger scale from bio-economy (fossil carbon replacement) technologies that rely on processing sustainably produced, tropical-perennial biomass crops grown on marginal lands to generate high value organic chemicals, including advanced biofuels, while storing soil carbon (Matlock and Mathews, 2019). Commercial implementation of these technologies in Hawaiʻi depends on State energy policy, but there are many reasons why we can successfully attract research and development investment and once again be a leader in tropical agricultural technology innovation like we were 50 years ago. Many old-timers remember that we once had the world’s highest sugarcane production levels based on innovation, advanced knowledge and technology while having better worker safety than most competitors. If bio-economy technologies can be developed at scale in Hawaiʻi they could be a major source of economic growth. Similarly, we could start manufacturing our own green ammonia nitrogen fertilizer from renewable energy resources such wind, hydro, geothermal, solar, etc. (Smith and Torrente-Murciano, 2021).

Plowing a path forward

So how do we better advantage our small farmers while revitalizing agriculture overall? We should explore the facilitation of professionally managed cooperatives to provide small farmers greater power in the marketplace to obtain credit, share equipment, purchase inputs, coordinate sustainable production, safely wash, store (cold storage is key), package, and market their products (Tomar, 2014; Rueda et al., 2018; Oberlack et al., 2020). Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) compliance with respect to post-harvest handling is often difficult for individual small farmers, but can be justified through cooperative efforts and investments. Simultaneously, consideration needs to be given to attracting some mid-size investors to help carry the various agricultural sectors. It is possible for this to be done in a mutually beneficial partnership with successful cooperatives and well-supported contract farming arrangements (Tomar, 2014; Oberlack et al., 2020). Such approaches are being increasingly pursued elsewhere in the tropics.

Coordinated production can also be facilitated by mid-size entrepreneurs through small farmer participation in contract growing programs. A success story on the Big Island is the Calavo Growers’ papaya operation. Their growers are regularly updated on the production practices which lead to the greatest profitability per acre under different soil types and land use histories. This information is largely derived by Calavo’s modeling of the mandatory field management practice data provided by the farmers, Calavo data on yield, culls, etc. for each farmer and growing area, coupled with periodic soil and plant tissue testing.

According to Chantal Vos of Calavo and Norman Arancon, a professor of horticulture at UH Hilo, grower production practices have greatly improved with this approach of studying the overall farmer practices and then routinely providing group feedback on what works the best under different conditions.

There is certainly room to encourage much greater on-farm research work and compilation of agricultural relational databases by university faculty and farm service providers. Those who adapt an analytics mindset will increasing have an advantage. The pressure to find efficiency and drive productivity creates the need for advanced data analysis that can find the multiple factors that can increase overall profitability by 10 percent in today’s operating environment where there is often no silver bullet.

Norman standing in field of sweet potatoes.
Prof. of Horticulture Norman Arancon collects leaf samples from sweet potato field during a soil testing project in 2018. Photo by Chantal Vos.

The agricultural programs and extension/outreach across the 10-campus University of Hawaiʻi System need to be revamped to better serve the small farmers, industry, and the local food security aspirations of the populace. Furthermore, the populace needs to be better informed on our relationship to the land and sea and what it takes to produce food locally and globally in an environmentally friendly, economically viable, and socially just manner. While some are no doubt already doing a great job this will mean better instilling such commitment across all stakeholders and for leaders to facilitate improved public-private partnerships, links to producer organizations, and on-farm research.

Most of the producer organizations are also in need of internal strengthening. Future academic hiring should take into consideration industry experience and community outreach in addition to the traditional academic parameters such as research publication and formal course instruction.

Ultimately, revitalizing Hawaiʻi’s agriculture will depend on strong and productive relationships among farmers, consumers, agricultural scientists, and governmental and non-governmental agencies related to food production and distribution.

Author’s note: This column was updated on Feb. 5, 2021. Input from Peter Matlock, Bioeconomy Research and Commercialization Specialist at UH Hilo College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management, is gratefully appreciated.

Literature Cited

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Belton, B., D.C. Little, W. Zhang, P. Edwards, M. Skladany, and H. Thilsted. 2020. Farming fish in the sea will not nourish the world. Nature Communications 11:5804.

Bittenbender, H.C. 1999. MIFFs: Diversified ag’s silent majority. Univ. Hawaii Coop. Ext., CTAHR, Honolulu, HI.

Bruenig, T., and X. Shao. 2012. What should be included in an international agriculture undergraduate course? J. Int. Agric. Ext. Ed. 12:47-54.

Farmery, A.K., E.H. Allison, N.L. Andrew, M. Troell, M. Voyer, B. Campbell, H. Eriksson, M. Fabinyi, A.M. Song, and D. Steenbergen.  2021. Blind spots in visions of a “blue economy” could undermine the ocean’s contribution to eliminating hunger and malnutrition. One Earth 4:28-38.

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ʻImiloa. 2021. Kō: Hawaiʻi’s Legacy; Hawaiʻi’s Future — ʻImiloa Astronomy Center ( Univ. of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, Hilo, HI.

Kelly, J. 1981. Change and adjustment on former Hawaiian sugar plantations. Geog. Perspectives 48:5-12.

La Croix, S., and J. Mak. 2021. Reviving Agriculture to Diversify Hawaiʻi’s Economy  Univ. of Hawaiʻi Economic Research Organization (UHERO), College of Social Sciences, Univ. of Hawaiʻi at Manoa, Honolulu, HI.

Leung, P., and M. Loke. 2008. Economic impacts of increasing Hawai‘i’s food self-sufficiency. Univ. of Hawaii CTAHR EI-16.  Honolulu, HI.

Loke, M., X. Xu, and P. Leung. 2015. Estimating organic, local, and other price premiums in the Hawaii fluid milk market. J. Dairy Sci. 98:2824-2830.

Markham, R. 2013. The paradox of horticulture in the Pacific Islands. Chronica Horticulturae 53(3):14-20.

Matlock, P., and B. Mathews. 2019. UH Hilo’s College of Agriculture, Forestry & Natural Resource Management advances bioeconomy technologies for tropical applications. Ka Lono Hanakahi 34(6):3-4.

Meter, K., and M.P. Goldenberg. 2017. Hawaiʻi’s food system: Food for all. Crossroads Resource Center. Minneapolis, MN.

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Yerton, S. 2021.  Auditor: State Agriculture Agency Is Failing To Fulfill Mission – Honolulu Civil Beat  January 14th, 2021.


Bruce Mathews is a soil scientist currently serving as dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. A 1986 graduate of UH Hilo, Mathews joined the university in 1993 as a temporary assistant professor of soils and agronomy and became a tenure-track assistant professor two years later. His areas of research include 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 the development of environmentally sound and economically viable nutrient management practices for pastures, forests and field crops in the tropics. He received his master of science in agronomy from Louisiana State University and his doctor of philosophy in agronomy and soils from the University of Florida.