UH Hilo working with Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture on statewide survey of farms and water sources

The baseline data this project will generate will be useful for decision makers and farmers as the state moves agriculture forward.

Aerial map of North Kohala with an overlay of graphics showing various farm crops color coded by commodity.
North Kohala Crop Land Summary from the Hawai‘i County Food Self-Sufficiency Baseline Study 2012. HDOA and UH Hilo are now surveying all agricultural lands throughout the state. Click to enlarge.
Jeff Melrose
Jeff Melrose

The Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture (HDOA) is collaborating with the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo on a statewide agricultural survey to provide a digital depiction of the 2015 agricultural footprint of the state. The project will include mapping current agricultural activity statewide, as well as water systems and irrigation options available to farmers and ranchers.

“The product is intended as a baseline depiction of our current agricultural use and will help to measure progress in the expansion of all agriculture, and particularly local food production, across the state,” says Jeff Melrose, a land planner and longtime agricultural land manager who is serving at HDOA as project manager of the survey.

Ryan Perroy
Ryan Perroy

Ryan Perroy, assistant professor of geography and environmental sciences at UH Hilo, is principal investigator.

“One of the basic problems this project addresses is that Hawai‘i hasn’t had a statewide geographic assessment of agricultural activity since the mid-1980s,” he explains.

The mapping work is being done within the UH Hilo Spatial Data Analysis and Visualization Laboratory, drawing upon the lab staff’s expertise in Geographical Information System (GIS) software and analysis of remotely sensed data, including Google Earth, to help in digitizing active crop and ranching areas.

Sylvie Cares of the SDAV lab is GIS technician and cartographer on the project.

Digital mapping software is being used in the field to collect aerial and satellite imagery. Crops are being identified in 12 to 15 different categories from tropical fruit and forestry to coffee, papaya, seed production and sugar. The process also involves the use of county real property and agricultural water data to help identify smaller farm operations that may not appear clearly in aerial imagery.

Input from industry leaders, landowners, farmers and other stakeholders also will be incorporated into the survey.

“It will serve as a foundational document in future agricultural planning efforts and help to inform decision makers and the general public about what kind of farming is happening statewide and what key factors support its ongoing activity,” Melrose explains.

Building a current database

In recent years, Hawai‘i lost much of its capacity to measure current agricultural activity. Changes at the national and local levels have reduced the amount and quality of data available to track and describe local agricultural production.

One of the reasons for this gap in data is that Hawai‘i is not part of mainland federal programs like the National Agriculture Imagery Program, run by the Farm Service Agency out of the USDA. That program provides consistent high resolution imagery on a repeat basis that can be used to take the “pulse” of agriculture over time, explains Perroy.

“We don’t have access to that program’s imagery,” he says, “but we do have access to a lot of other types of data and imagery that will allow us to generate a snapshot of where things stand today in terms of agricultural activity in Hawai‘i.”

Graph showing commodities .
The “Scorecard” from the Hawai‘i County Food Self-Sufficiency Baseline Study 2012. This type of data is now being collected for the entire state. Click to enlarge.

The statewide project builds on the work conducted for the County of Hawai‘i Department of Research and Development by Melrose and the SDAV lab in 2012. That work was published as the Hawai‘i County Food Self-Sufficiency Baseline Study 2012.

The baseline study currently underway will help to address the statewide data shortage as it relates to the amount of land committed to agricultural production and the type of crops grown throughout the islands. It also will help to monitor the growth of diversified agriculture and the production of food for the local market.

“The baseline data this project will generate should be incredibly useful for decision makers and farmers as we all consider how to move Hawaiian agriculture forward,” says Perroy.

The impact of the project will depend in part on how HDOA uses the final report.

“At a minimum it will provide a baseline for measuring the growth of the ag industry statewide, and it will replace the only existing statewide digital agricultural layer called the Agricultural Land Use Map (ALUM) that was created back in the 1980s,” says Melrose.

“It will also help to focus our community and policy maker discussions on the specifics of local ranching and farming by setting a statewide context for a discussion that is frequently dominated by smaller regional issues and priorities.”

Perroy says one of the things that makes this project so interesting is that the survey team is not only using existing imagery and GIS layers, but also is incorporating feedback and expert knowledge from farmers and land managers across the entire state to make sure all stakeholders are part of the process.

“This will make the maps and geospatial products we generate as useful and accurate as possible,” he says.

HDOA is funding the project, which will take approximately 10 months to complete.

For more information, contact Ryan Perroy.

-From UH Hilo Stories