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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Sustainable farming vital for health of Isles

By Peter Merriman

I have long been a big fan of organic farmers and ranchers for various reasons. Chief amongst these is the great taste of the food they produce. But a narrow-minded focus on organics as the "holy grail" in food production ignores other critical concerns (or the bigger picture) for the people of Hawai'i.

As organic products continue to gain shelf space in markets and residents turn their vision toward self-sufficiency for the Islands, farmers face decisions about managing lands, marketing products and maintaining a financially viable business in a state where agricultural parcels are increasingly rare. As we consider creative ways to feed a growing population, we need to look beyond organics to the value of locally produced food and sustainable agriculture. Many farmers and ranchers in Hawai'i are doing great things for the land and the economy, but are not organic.

I appreciate the high-quality, wholesome and nutritional aspects of organically raised products. So I am thankful to see a wide variety of organic products in our stores. Yet, as a chef and entrepreneur, I know that great flavor is what matters most. When produce, even organic produce, is shipped thousands of miles to Hawai'i, it loses a lot of flavor.

Locally grown food has the advantage of freshness and flavor, and supports Hawai'i's economy.

Sustainable farming is vital for the health of the Islands. It helps perpetuate Hawai'i's agriculture heritage. In addition to self-sufficiency and food security, farming adds cultural depth to our communities and ensures a rewarding lifestyle for our agricultural workers. Ask Big Island farmer Richard Ha and Kohala ranchers Monty Richards and Pono Von Holt, amongst others.

These growers know that in order to sustain a stable and growing workforce, jobs in agriculture need to be desirable. That's why they practice agricultural and employment techniques that are good for the workers, for the land and for our communities. Just as important, they are designing agricultural enterprises that are profitable. And, profitable agriculture means less pressure to convert farmland to subdivisions.

But many of the farmers and ranchers who care, are quality oriented, and practice sustainable management methods, may not even try to meet organic certification requirements. For example, to protect against pesticide drift, the Hawaii Organic Farmers Association (HOFA) requires a 25-foot land boundary setback. For some farmers, this is too much land to take out of production, and, in many situations, no real threat of drift exists.

We can support organic and regionally produced foods. We can also support sustainable agriculture by farmers who use little chemical fertilizer, and no herbicide or pesticide.

As a chef, I have the good fortune to be closely connected to farmers and ranchers. I visit farms and see farming practices firsthand, and there is a lot of quality food being produced that might not meet official government certification of "organic." But few consumers have the opportunity to visit local farms, so the farmers need other ways to connect with and educate Hawai'i residents. Hawai'i's Department of Agriculture can help by assisting smaller farms to establish local brands and connect with the consumer via the Internet. Our consumers have proven they will support local brands such as Hamakua Springs, Aloun Farms or Ka'u Oranges when they know about them. The Department of Education can help by gradually increasing the amount of locally grown food used in school lunch programs. The kids will enjoy better food and improved health, and as demand for locally produced items dramatically increases, our farmers make a better living.

According to Theodore J.K. Radovich, Ph.D., at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, "The goal of organic production systems is to produce food of high nutritional quality in sufficient quantity by working with natural systems rather than seeking to dominate them."

Great farmers are inspired to care for the land by sustaining the soils for future generations and to care for community by creating good jobs and delivering flavorful foods. Whether that farmer uses organic or simply sustainable methods, great farmers care. When we support farmers and ranchers who care, we all benefit in many ways, even if it starts at simply great-tasting food.

Chef and restaurateur Peter Merriman is a co-founder of Hawai'i Regional Cuisine. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.