Dean’s Column: Hawaii’s food production potential, a slow march forward

In order to be competitive one needs to be farming at an economy of scale and price point differentials that work, particularly when the competition is imported from continent based mega-farms.

By Bruce Mathews.

Bruce Mathews
Bruce Mathews

While there have been calls for at least 50 years for the state of Hawaiʻi to improve its food self-sufficiency and hence food security, the progress to reduce dependence on imports has been painfully slow. This being said, community interest in increasing locally grown food is rapidly expanding. However, interest alone will not be sufficient to turn the dial substantially without major changes in consumer behavior or extreme market distortions.

Economies of scale

In order to be competitive one needs to be farming at an economy of scale and price point differentials that work, particularly when the competition is imported from continent based mega-farms. Even in Hawaiʻi the entrepreneurial produce farmer success stories that are most often mentioned tend to be on the larger side. It takes a unique mix of entrepreneurial skills, hard work, and capital access to make a decent middle class living let alone a small fortune as a family farmer. Locally grown produce may become more competitive as continental growers deal with increasing water costs and climate change.

The gradual transition from plantation agriculture to small family farms in Hawaiʻi has not been easy. Many small family farms have tended to be on a roller coaster because of challenges in providing a relatively stable middle class lifestyle even when they are multi-income families. Farming is a tough profession with plenty of risks and it is common to see small farms with lots of starts, stops, and changes in players. We also have a poor track history in Hawaiʻi of our small farmers uniting in cooperatives to better position themselves in the marketplace, access inputs more reasonably in terms of purchasing power, and to comply with food safety standard expectations and regulations. Hawaii’s outer island farmers need scale to fill shipping containers in order for transportation costs to the large Honolulu markets to be more reasonable and cooperatives could also help in this regard.

Near term opportunities

A lot of people talk about potential of the organic sector which presently comprises approximately four percent of Hawaii’s agriculture. Increased local organic production, particularly for leafy greens and beans/pulse crops would also mean reduced risk of imported pests that are more common on organic produce. Some challenges that are associated with organically grown in Hawaiʻi include:

  • i) Limited local and reasonably prices sources of manures and crop/biomass residues for quality composts.
  • ii) High cost of the most effective imported fertilizer and pest/disease control products ap- proved for organic farming.
  • iii) Green manures/crop rotation strategies which work well with our soil and environmental conditions in terms of nutrient release synchrony and breaking pest/disease cycles.
  • iv) Often immense challenges with weeds.
  • v) An apparent unwillingness of most residents to pay much of a locally produced price premium for organic.

Organic production in Hawaiʻi has a long way to go before the deliverables begin to match the constant advocacy. Furthermore, as was discovered by Hawaii’s agronomists and horticulturalists during the early 1900s many of our inherent soil fertility constraints and environmental conditions are no Garden of Eden panacea for commercial scale organic farming (for example, see articles published in the Hawaiian Planters’ Record prior to the 1930s when chemical fertilizer use started to expand rapidly).

There is little doubt that with proper economies of scale that there are still opportunities for growing fruit crops such as banana, pineapple, mango, avocados, specialty fruits, etc. for local consumption, however there are immense risks as well. There is also a solid export market for sweet potatoes grown along the Hilo-Hamakua Coast of the Island of Hawaiʻi.

While there is a need to grow sweet potato in rotations to minimize disease and pest problems the superior soil physical properties of the Hydrudand soils in the region are ideal for good yields and quality with proper soil fertility management.

The replacement carbohydrate issue and food security

It is well known from experts in multiple disciplines that no island society/nation state is secure in the event of an isolation crisis such as “the boats stop coming scenario” unless the islands are producing about seventy percent of their staple carbohydrates at the time they are cut off.

Given it is highly unlikely that Hawaiʻi is going to start producing food grain crops like rice again some people are advocating for local dietary replacement with breadfruit and root crops such as sweet potato, taro, cassava, etc. Changing consumer preferences will be a long hard slog. Furthermore, the price points for breadfruit and root crop-derived flours are likely to be prohibitive, let alone the production scale to capitalize a processing operation.

Indeed value-added product development has been talked about for decades as a means to increase the proportion of local crop production that is not discarded and as a means to increase income of farmer entrepreneurs. While we should continue to explore the feasibility of value-added options the production scale and consistency of supply often becomes  an issue with respect to attracting meaningful investment in processing facilities.

Research and education for Hawaii’s agriculture

Farmers often tell us that they are concerned that other places in the world have made dramatic advances in production optimization and precision agriculture technologies. They also tell us that we need to better ensure that a higher percentage of college graduates are really farm ready in terms of relevant skill sets and have the desire and required work ethic to make it in farming. We can do better however we need support.

There is no doubt that the University of Hawaiʻi System, the Hawaiʻi Department of Agriculture (HDOA), and the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center (PBARC) of USDA have funding limitations and other challenges that impact the capacity of their agriculture programs. People need to recognize that the volatile “boom-and-bust” research spending cycles dependent nearly entirely on grants and donors is highly inefficient and tends to be counterproductive because they interfere with the planning, conduct, timely and flexible responses during crises, and overall efficacy of research (i.e. no long-term studies and less than optimal coordination).

Furthermore, states that rely too heavily on external funding for agricultural research risk having their research agendas diverted from local priorities. In this case, salaried employees are inefficiently utilized and the morale of both the staff and the local clientele can be negatively impacted.

The governments and private sector of China, India, and Brazil have increasingly recognized the need for long-term investment in agriculture and now account for nearly half the research and development investment in this sector and  most of the tropical/subtropical agricultural work. In order to compete and deal with environmental challenges (including new crop pests and diseases driven in part by climate change) Hawaiʻi farmers need far greater investment in locally relevant agricultural science and technology.

While Hawaii’s agriculture no longer has the influence it did during the sugarcane and pineapple plantation era we can no longer retreat and behave like investment in local agriculture is rather futile. Creativity, innovation, and flexibility are key to capture opportunities and address current needs and future challenges. The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Science (IFAS) and their College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) just received significant funding from the Florida Legislature after much pleading by stakeholders (farmers, researchers, educators, students, food activists, etc.) to improve their technical capacity in subtropical agricultural teaching, research, and extension in an interdisciplinary format.

The funds included allocations to renovate facilities/labs and hire some pre-eminent globally recognized scholars in areas deemed strategic for near-term revitalization of Florida agriculture, and a host of early career PhDs with demonstrated potential. While there are no guarantees in terms of outcomes this is refreshing development when so many states seem to be driving public university programmatic and hiring priorities in line with potential tuition revenue and grant dollars.

In the present era the ability of agricultural science to attract high enrollments similar to many of the social science disciplines is unrealistic, however the university agricultural programs need to change as was recently detailed by agronomist and nature journalist Joel Bourne, Jr. in his 2015 book entitled, The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World. Bourne indicates that too many agricultural programs overly emphasize reductionist biology, wear chemical blinders, and are either unwilling or unable to provide students with sound comparative sustainability analysis of various agricultural production systems.

This leads to students changing majors or graduating bored with degrees they no longer believe in. Furthermore, similar to the health science areas there is no way around the fact that there are greater inherent costs in offering quality agricultural programs. Societal good and longer term consequences somehow need to be better factored into the decision making processes with respect to agriculture. Growth in agritourism can improve awareness of the food system.

Agriculture graduates—beyond the romance and rhetoric

It is easy to forget that many of our successful farmers in Hawaiʻi had other careers, eventually dabbled in farming, and then moved to full time farming.

Society needs to get over the notion that a substantial number of our agricultural graduates are going to go straight into farming (unless their families already have the resources to farm or they can partner with an existing farm) and grow the diversified crops that have been the post plantation era mainstays (sweet potato, papaya, coffee, etc.) or venture into new crops. It is rare to find an entrepreneurial agriculture student who plans to lease land and take on major start-up debt to farm straight out of college. A few do it, however it is not ever on the radar screen for most. In a large part if comes down to the risks and workload versus the rewards (including lifestyle) and most will opt for more immediately stable income options and regular work days than being a potentially high stress beginning farmer.

The factors influencing economically viable farming in Hawaiʻi are multifaceted and best discussed by agricultural economists, agricultural policy, and rural development experts. Their analyses need to be taken into consideration as well as the viewpoints of the concerned stakeholders.

Bruce Mathews is dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo. His areas of research are plant nutrient cycling and soil fertility; assessment of the impact of agricultural and forestry production practices on soil, coastal wetlands, and surface waters; and nutrient management practices for pastures, forests, and field crops in the tropics (learn more about his research). He received his bachelor of science in agriculture, with high honors, from UH Hilo in 1986. 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.