Bruce Mathews: Sustainable intensification of smallholder agriculture

Farmers need to base their decisions on facts, rather than misleading or inaccurate information and activist dogma, for sustainable intensification of agriculture to achieve its potential.

By Bruce Mathews
Interim Dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management
University of Hawai‘i at Hilo

Bruce Mathews
Bruce Mathews

There is presently a disconnect between the economic reality of Hawai‘i’s working farmers, educators, and the well-intentioned sustainability and food sovereignty idealism of governmental leaders, politicians, and community activists.

At most community agricultural meetings in Hawaiʻi, there are candid discussions regarding the growth and development constraints faced by the smallholder crop and livestock sectors. These discussions revolve around strong import competition from large continental-based operations, heavy dependence on imported energy and nutrient inputs for our farms, and a myriad of challenges associated with lease land, access to water and adequate infrastructure, labor constraints, lack of applied research and extension outreach, marketing, ability to comply with regulations, access to promising new cultivars, security, building equity, and sufficient financing.

Sometimes these pressures make commercial farmers wonder if our society at large in Hawaiʻi only really wants hobby farmers and gardeners.

Waking up to the needs of Hawai‘i farmers

According to the Hawaiʻi Department of Agriculture, nearly 50 years ago (1966) was the last time Hawaiʻi produced at least half the food consumed in the state. Recently I was going through a box of agricultural reports from the 1950s to 1970s that was found in an old building near Kapa‘au on the Big Island. Inside one of the reports there was a newspaper clipping from page A-10 of the Friday, May 6, 1966, Honolulu Advertiser entitled, “Kahuku Cracks Cabbage Barrier.”

In the article, the manager of the Kahuku Plantation on O‘ahu is quoted as stating, “These dealers are going to have to wake up to the needs of modern farming in Hawaii.  They, too, are looking down the narrow old way of doing things.”

Today’s agricultural industry leaders are providing input to universities throughout the U.S., saying that they want versatile agricultural graduates with a wide array of practical skill sets relevant to their operations. At the same time, management at universities with agricultural programs is often frustrated about their expense relative to their tuition revenue and have severely cut their operating budgets.

This is little different than a nation stating that its army is expensive and therefore they can’t train regularly with ammunition, mechanization, or air support. Based on history there is little doubt that such an approach frequently leads to undesirable outcomes.

Sustainable intensification

While some advocate for subsistence agricultural practices with little if any use of fuel consuming equipment, these practices generally result in low productivity, create a poverty traps for its practitioners, and ultimately, the farmer won’t farm for lack of profit.

Instead, our smallholder agriculture needs to focus on what many development experts call strategies for “sustainable intensification.” Sustainable intensification of agriculture implies producing more agricultural output from less land area using the best crop genetics and precision management technologies coupled with recycling almost all forms of farm-derived organic wastes and when feasible bringing suitable urban-derived organic wastes onto the farm.

It also implies more integrated crop-livestock-aquaculture-forestry systems. Such practices allow for improved water use efficiency and lesser use of fertilizers and certain pesticides. This being said there are simply not enough high quality, feasibly recoverable organic wastes and soils of inherently high fertility for organic farming to become the dominant agricultural system supplying the needs of present or projected future population levels in Hawaiʻi or the world.

And despite the romanticism of Eden, the truth is that ancient cultures, including that of Native Hawaiians, mined upland soil fertility.

Soil management is key to true sustainability

Soil management is key to sustainable intensification because the best genetic manipulations in the world won’t work for long to support economic yields if we cultivate soils depleted of nutrients, organic matter, and beneficial microbial and faunal balance. The genetic manipulations of improved nutrient use efficiency would only provide for a delayed collapse.

Furthermore, the problems of climate change such as drought and heat waves will only be magnified in degraded soils.

Sustained high yields of well-adapted crop cultivars can best be attained through integrated soil nutrient management involving a judicious combination of organic amendments, inorganic fertilizers, biological N fixation, and further ameliorated when needed to adjust pH and inoculate with beneficial rhizosphere microbes. While soil organic matter, organic amendments, and green manures are critical to soil nutrient supply and retention, their synchrony of nutrient release relationships (particularly for nitrogen) relative to crop needs are often less than optimal.

Hence, the benefit of strategically timed and balanced applications of inorganic fertilizers (based on agronomic soil/plant testing), coupled with organic inputs, is to ensure a desirable economic yield per unit land area while minimizing environmental risk.

Attempting to compensate for poor synchrony of nutrient release through large applications of animal manures, fish waste, or composts derived from them, can also lead to environmental pollution over an extended period of nutrient release. However, in practice, over application of animal manure is rare due to the low availability of inexpensive manure except occasionally near large confined animal feeding operations.

Public policies and actions that support smallholder farmers’ access to key inputs at reasonable prices, with sound information on their appropriate use, is as crucial as functioning markets in advancing the local agricultural sector. These inputs will not only be expected to increase yields and maintain soil health and fertility, but must also improve the nutritional quality of crops, economic return to the farmer, and reduce nutrient losses to the environment.

The need for revitalized outreach and education

One of the failures of the Green Revolution has been environmental degradation resulting from inappropriate use of inputs. Without adequate educational outreach to farmers about sustainable intensification, and routine quantification of soil health/fertility in response to recommended best management practices, we will continue to place the environment at risk.

Farmers need to base their input decisions on facts, rather than misleading or inaccurate information and activist dogma, for sustainable intensification of agriculture to achieve its potential.

Extension outreach to farmers needs to be revitalized through agricultural college graduates with practical skill sets who truly understand the economic scalability of various farming practices and the implications of global markets, new technologies, and international relations.

Furthermore, students in agriculture programs need to wisely select what courses they take to fulfill requirements within their major and as general electives. If one wishes to advance into better paying agricultural management positions, then a minor or rough equivalent in business/agribusiness is desirable. Similarly, further study in the natural sciences and applied math/statistical modeling beyond the minimum degree requirements is desirable for advancing in an agricultural research career.

Bruce Mathews is a professor of soil science and agronomy at UH Hilo (learn about his research at “Bruce Mathews, soil science: Researches nutrient cycling in tropical pastures.“) 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.