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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 27, 2006

Farms prosper with new crops as old ones lapse

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

A rainbow hangs over the Del Monte pineapple fields in Kunia. New crops like mac nuts offer hope as traditional ones are fading.

ADVERTISER LIBRARY PHOTO | February 2006

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Rising sales of macadamia nuts, seed crops and other agricultural products helped to partially offset a fall in pineapple and sugar cane in 2004, according to recently released figures.

Overall farm revenues fell about $700,000 to $547.4 million in 2004, according to the Hawaii Agricultural Statistics Service. That interrupted four straight years of growth for Hawai'i's agriculture industry, which is grappling with high land and labor costs along with competitors in low-cost foreign countries.

Many farmers have adapted to an increasingly global marketplace by growing higher-margin fruits, flowers and other produce rather than pineapple and sugarcane. Although Hawai'i's farm sector remains relatively small compared with the $11 billion tourism trade, agriculture remains important as a local food source, for providing economic opportunities in Hawai'i's rural areas and by keeping land free of urban development.

The dip in revenue came in part because of an 18 percent plunge in sales of the state's biggest single cash crop: pineapple. Faced with competition from countries such as Costa Rica, Mexico and Ecuador, Hawai'i pineapple sales slipped $18.4 million to $83.1 million in 2004. Sales of Hawai'i's other old-time crop, sugarcane, fell 4.5 percent to $61.5 million. Sugar remained Hawai'i's second largest commodity.

The future of longtime Hawai'i industries such as pineapple aren't bright. Earlier this month Del Monte Fresh Produce announced plans to exit Hawai'i a move that would leave just two pineapple growers in the state.

The declines in pineapple put pineapple's crown as king of Hawai'i's crops in jeopardy. Newer crops are beginning to outshine pine. For example, as a group, sales of flowers and nursery products fell 1 percent, but still generated $94.5 million in sales during 2004. Vegetables and melon sales rose 6 percent to $67.9 million.

The value of Hawai'i's seed-crop industry, which includes research on genetically engineered crops, jumped 22 percent to $60.2 million. That was Hawai'i's third largest commodity in 2004. Macadamia nut sales rose 24 percent to $40.1 million. In 2005 mac nut sales rose another 15 percent to $46 million, according to preliminary U.S. Department of Agriculture numbers.

The surge in mac nut sales has been driven by strong prices, said Dennis Simonis, president and chief executive for Hilo-based ML Macadamia Orchards LP. Mac nuts were the state's fourth largest commodity in 2004.

"These are probably the best prices we've had in the last 10 years," he said. "There's some optimism in the industry."

Among the agricultural sectors that grew in 2004 were cattle ($22.1 million in sales), which displaced coffee ($19.9 million) as the state's fifth-largest commodity. Algae ($12.6 million), which is used as a nutritional supplement, moved to No. 8 on the list, pushing papaya ($12.4 million) down to No. 9.

"The future of agriculture in Hawai'i is in these specialty or niche crops," Simonis said.

Reach Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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