Protecting agriculture will take unified effort
Hawai'i's warm and inviting climate is a paradise for agricultural pests, from coqui frogs to little fire ants to Asian citrus psyllids. And once they're here, just try getting rid of them.
That's why the possible decimation of a key line of defense — more than 50 state agricultural inspectors, potential victims of the state budget crisis — has Hawai'i farmers rightly worried.
The inspectors are among the 118 state Department of Agriculture employees facing possible layoffs. The inspectors protect the state's agriculture sector from invasive species on two fronts — in foodstuffs entering the state, and in local products leaving it. Significant gaps in the system could leave local farmers battling new pests in the field and with products too tainted to export.
The result could be devastating. California, a primary gateway for Hawai'i's $125 million agricultural export industry, has threatened to bar all products from the Islands if they start turning up infested.
The state has an obligation to maintain a stable, trustworthy certification system for Hawai'i's agriculture sector. To do so during this severe budget crisis demands a new level of cooperation between the state and the local farm industry.
Some proposals now being considered by state officials could help ease the problem:
• Saving at least half of the targeted inspector positions by draining separate invasive species funds. But it's a partial, short-term answer at best; the money comes from the conveyance tax and shipping fees, which aren't stable sources of payroll funding.
• Streamlining the inspection process for imports by getting shippers to identify the contents of their containers before docking. That way, fewer inspectors can work more efficiently.
• Providing training for growers so they can certify their shipments themselves.
• Request more help from federal inspectors.
Certainly, these solutions are worth pursuing. Hawai'i's agriculture sector — mostly small farmers eking out a living, growing everything from fruit and herbs to potted plants and flowers — needs and deserves the state's support, even during this budget crisis.
Unfortunately, it won't be enough. Local growers will have to be more united and aggressive to protect their businesses.
Working with their trade associations, university researchers and government agricultural agencies, farmers will need to work to establish uniform quality protocols for treatment and inspection of their products — protocols that can ensure they won't be locked out of Mainland or foreign markets.
It's a tall order for an industry made up primarily of small, independent businesses. But for Hawai'i's agriculture to grow and thrive, it's a necessary step.