Dean’s Column: Agricultural innovation for resilience and rural development in Hawaiʻi

Agricultural modernization is essential to enhance the productive capacity of environmentally-friendly integrative farming systems, farm worker and food product safety, and thereby economic return per unit land area.

By Bruce Mathews.

Bruce Mathews
Bruce Mathews

Whenever there are allegations of pollution or health risks generated by a medium or large scale agricultural operation there are always people who blanket attack modern agriculture, technology, and corporations. They then often advocate for small farms, production methods of the past, or even worse strongly endorse unverified “miracle” practices.

The problem with looking too much to the past is that it can stifle support for innovation which is key to a resilient food-secure future, and rural economic development. Furthermore in our often romanticized view of small farmers feeding half the world we tend to easily forget that many of these people live on a subsistence diet and frequently suffer hunger and malnutrition due to low and (or) inconsistent yields.

A huge problem with the concept of sustainability is that what can be sustained changes with time, technology, resource availability, population pressures, climate change, economics, cultural norms, etc. Furthermore, sustainability has lost some of its luster as a buzzword in agriculture because many of its advocates have little in depth understanding of the underlying biogeochemical processes and biophysical constraints impacting food production stability relative to societal needs, soil carbon storage, water quality, etc. Land use needs to be much better aligned with land potential if the dual goals of improved local food security and reduced environmental harm (farming without harming) are to be achieved (Liebig et al., 2017).

The fact is that most people have limited understanding of how the food they consume is produced, including those who primarily purchase certified organic.

Are we in Hawaiʻi committed to feel good gardens, part-time hobby farms run by retirees, and rural gentrification or are vibrant agricultural industries with next generation facilities and equipment going to be a high priority for the economic and social development of our rural communities? Agricultural modernization is essential to enhance the productive capacity of environmentally-friendly integrative farming systems, farm worker and food product safety, and thereby economic return per unit land area.

During the past few months I have been increasingly approached by long-term small to medium scale farmers expressing concerns over advances they have seen in the U.S. mainland and Asia with respect to improving farming practices through mechanization, automation of various aspects of production, sensor control systems, precision water and nutrient management, emerging applications for low-cost unmanned aerial systems (UAS), low-energy drying technologies, novel ways to exclude pests from crops, genetic improvements with high-yielding locally-appropriate crop cultivars and animal breeds that have been achieved through functional genomics work with molecular markers, informatics and production simulation modeling, and inventory control and tracking systems.

In order to maintain economic viability farmers are having to shift from inefficient (poorly optimized), resource-input driven enterprises to those driven by the latest science and technology. A long-term East Hawai‘i farmer recently told me that he has essentially had to become an agricultural systems engineer who must constantly evaluate the latest technologies, market dynamics, and safety compliance methods in order to remain in business.

Furthermore, it is globally apparent that far too many farmers are lacking the requisite quantitative and technical reading skills to correctly calculate application rates of inputs and perform optimization analyses for comparative business scenarios. Farmer knowledge gaps contribute to low economic yield returns relative to those that are realistically achievable and also frequently lead to greater pollution and wasted resources (West et al., 2014). China has identified the collective effect of smallholder grain farmers lacking such proficiencies to be a major source of their non-point source agricultural pollution (Zhang et al., 2016).

If we are going to revitalize Hawaii’s agriculture after many post-plantation era false starts then we need to accelerate agricultural modernization and enact reforms to improve farmer income and incentivize farmer investment in technological improvements. There is also definitely room to keep farmers and agricultural students better informed of the latest global developments in agricultural technologies and markets.

We should not take the approach that most of our farms are too small for such considerations as innovations frequently lead to rapid lowering of costs for technologies originally geared for large farms. And students never know where life will take them so they need to be informed at a level where they are relatively comfortable with all forms of production agriculture even if all the required resources are not presently available in Hawaiʻi.

This is the visionary approach that is being taken in many parts of Asia, even in resource poor areas where many young people are surprisingly ambitious and industrious. We have much for which to be thankful however if we don’t instill in our youth greater overall initiative and willingness to venture it is at our own peril.

We also must fundamentally change agricultural research through farmer participatory innovation to assess new technologies and production systems. The results obtained from small highly uniform research plots at universities often do not translate well to field-scale operations of farmers. This is particularly true when the small plots receive greater and more-timely management interventions in terms of weed and pest control than is practical for farmers and the have far less soil and topographic variability than is found on real farms.

For example, uneven biological nitrogen-fixation by a leguminous cover crop resulting from variations in soil conditions at the field scale can have huge implications for yield of the economic crop. Kravchenko et al. (2017) suggests that this variability at the field-scale is one of the reasons why field-scale yields in organic systems often do not match yields projected from small plot research to the same degree as conventional management practices based largely on blanket applications of chemical fertilizer nitrogen. They argue that we must be extremely careful in extrapolating small-plot yields in organic and low chemical input systems to farmer’s fields.

We also know that field-scale operations of farmers can result in more rapid build-up of pest populations than small plots and that organic operations do not have many approved options in terms of immediately effective crop rescue chemicals. Another major factor to consider, particularly in Hawaiʻi, is staying on top of the weeds in organic systems especially when the weather is not conducive for mechanical intervention.

There have always been those who dream of a Big Island organic farming paradise yet little will happen without strategic and fundamentally sound commitments to progress in science and technology.

Food and rural economic crises can be reduced in magnitude or avoided outright by the decisions we make. There is no revolutionary alternative to investing in the applied STEM and social sciences, farmer participatory field-scale research, and associated outreach needed to revitalize Hawaii’s agriculture and rural economies. The ways relevant applied science and new technologies can be best put to use on farms, entities supporting agribusiness, and rural development needs to be assessed through a solid partnership between public and private local experience.

We have urgent problems to be solved in Hawaii’s agriculture and rural communities and the quest at the university needs to focus more on these matters through a systems thinking approach rather than on reductionist academic understanding for its own sake. To be a relevant and empowering partner for the community we need to keep our roots in reality.


Kravchenko, A.N., S.S. Snapp, and G.P. Robertson. 2017. Field-scale experiments reveal persistent yield gaps in low-input and organic cropping systems. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 114:926-931.

Liebig, M.A., J.E. Herrick, D.W. Archer, J. Dobrowolksi, S.W. Duiker, A.J. Franzluebbers, J.R. Hendrickson, R. Mitchell, A. Mohamed, J. Russell, and T.C. Strickland. 2017. Aligning land use with land potential: The role of integrated agriculture. Agric. Environ. Lett. (in press).

West, P.C., J.S. Gerber, P.M. Engstrom, N.D. Mueller, K.A. Brauman, K.M. Carlson, E.S. Cassidy, M. Johnston, G.K. MacDonald, D.K. Ray and S. Siebert. 2014. Leverage points for improving global food security and the environment. Science 345:325-328.

Zhang, W., G. Cao, X. Li, H. Zhang, C. Wang, Q. Liu, X. Chen. Z. Cui,, J. Shen, R. Jiang, G. Mi, Y. Miao, F. Zhang, and Z. Dou. 2016. Closing yield gaps in China by empowering smallholder farmers. Nature 537:671-674.

Bruce Mathews is dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Managementat UH 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.

Small acreage farm photo at top of post: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service via Wikimedia.