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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Hawai'i agriculture up 2.6%

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

Pineapple remained the king of Hawai'i agriculture 2003, but other products such as flowers are threatening its reign.

Sales of all farm products rose 2.6 percent to $553.41 million in 2003 from the previous year, according to figures released yesterday by the Hawaii Agricultural Statistics Service. It was the fourth consecutive year of growth for the industry, thanks to a gain in pineapple sales and continued growth of nontraditional crops such as flowers, nuts and aquaculture products.

Pineapple sales rose 2.2 percent to $102.85 million last year to remain the biggest cash crop, followed closely by sales of flowers and nursery products, which increased by 2 percent to $97.69 million.

Although Hawai'i's farm sector remains relatively small compared with the $10 billion tourism trade, agriculture continues to play a role in diversifying the state economy, preserving greenbelt lands and reducing the Islands' dependence on imported food.

And after a decade of mostly declining sales during the 1990s, agriculture appears to be on steady footing. Much of the credit for the industry's continued survival is pegged to entrepreneurs who are leading the industry away from traditional plantation crops.

Still, making a living in agriculture isn't easy, even for growers of increasingly popular products such as flowers. Competitive pressures from foreign exporters and Mainland producers require continued diligence, said Cassandra Phillips, co-owner of Kamuela Greenhouse/Specialty Orchids in Waimea, Hawai'i.

"It's like perpetually changing the direction of the ship," she said. "You do what you have to do to get the plants out the door and try to do a better job than everyone else."

Last year marked the 11th consecutive year for growth of diversified agricultural products. Sales of such goods, which include macadamia nuts, coffee and flowers, increased 3.1 percent to $386.16 million. At the same time, sales of Hawai'i's second-biggest individual crop, sugar cane, remained relatively flat at $64.4 million.

Sugar cane was surpassed by sales of vegetables and melons, which increased 5.3 percent to $64.91 million in 2003. Increasingly, local produce provides an alternative to imported food, said Matthew Loke, administrator of the state agricultural development division.

"The number of new farmers' markets appears to support that," Loke said, referring to farmers' markets at Kapi'olani Community College, Kailua and elsewhere that are providing a venue for local farmers.

Agriculture import figures were unavailable from the state yesterday.

"At this point and time I'm very optimistic about agriculture in Hawai'i," Loke added.

During 2003, the fastest-growing sector was aquaculture, where sales grew 9.8 percent to $27.65 million. The sector includes companies such as High Health Aquaculture Inc. in Kailua, Hawai'i, which sells disease-free/disease-resistant white shrimp to farmers breeding commercial shrimp in captivity.

"The outlook is excellent," said Jim Wyban, president of High Health Aquaculture. "People want to know that what they're eating is clean and safe and we can do that in aquaculture."

Despite the industry's continued growth, certain agriculture sectors such as livestock declined last year — a trend that continued this year. Milk, cattle and hog sales were all down, as some farmers struggled with high transportation, feed and land costs. Among the livestock operations that closed this year were Wai'anae's Evergreen Hillside Dairy, and the broiler chicken portion of farms owned by the Kakazu and Shigeta families in Nanakuli.

Even as newer crops such as flowers and vegetables take on a larger role in Hawai'i's farming sector, older industries such as pineapple are adapting. Maui land & Pineapple Co. is in the process of shifting production to sales of higher-margin, fresh pineapples of a new, sweeter variety. Ultimately, the company hopes to boost fresh pineapple sales to

50 percent of production, which would be up from 30 percent today, said Fred Rickert, chief financial officer for Maui Land & Pine.

"It won't be sudden, but there will be a transition," he said, noting that it takes as long as 18 months for pineapples to grow.

Reach Sean Hao at 525-8093 or shao@honoluluadvertiser.com.