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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 10, 2010

Let's start doing more to develop local agriculture


By Jay Fidell

Fifty years after statehood, most of the plantations have gone fallow or become "gentleman's estates." There are 6,500 "farmers" in Hawai'i, but only half are full time. The average farmer is 59, with an annual income of $10,000.

Ignoring the need for food security, we import at least 85 percent of our food and send billions to faraway agribusinesses when we could keep the money here to strengthen our self-sufficiency, enrich our economy and employ our jobless.

We were once a world leader in agricultural production. Now farmers have overwhelming challenges in land, water, infrastructure, pests, NIMBY, encroachment, transportation costs and burdensome bureaucracy, not to mention cheap foreign competition.

Can agriculture survive in Hawai'i?

FARMS NEED LAND

You can't farm without land, and land in Hawai'i is too expensive. Eighty percent of Kona coffee is grown on Bishop Estate land, and lease rents are formidable.

Some landowners won't give long-term leases to farmers, making financing for infrastructure, equipment and crop expenses impossible. To keep land in farming, farming must be profitable.

The state's "Important Agricultural Lands" program, still in its infancy, needs improved incentives and county support to work. So far, Alexander & Baldwin is the only landowner that has dedicated land as such.

Kauai Coffee Co. farms 3,400 acres, but Kaua'i County wants to uproot the coffee trees and plant a landfill in the middle of the farm. That would be wrong we should not be taking productive land out of agriculture.

POLITICAL WILL

Hawai'i's Constitution supports agriculture, but the state could do much more to advocate for the industry. The Department of Agriculture is charged with both regulating and advocating for the industry, but it doesn't have the funding to do both.

The plantations built great irrigation infrastructure, but as they crumbled the infrastructure did, too. Agriculture requires water, but the activists on Maui insist that the water remain in the stream and flow to the sea.

The Water Commission should reject that demand. Maui and the Big Island have been declared drought disaster areas, and the farmers there are already suffering from the lack of water.

LET'S MAKE MONEY

The University of Hawai'i College of Tropical Agriculture teaches students how to grow crops but not necessarily companies. CTAHR should join forces with the Shidler Business College to train farmers as entrepreneurs.

You would expect environmentalists to support farming, but the activists haven't helped. Superferry was great for the farmers, replacing costly two-week barge shipments with same-day service. That benefit is gone.

The activist campaigns against genetically engineered crops also undermine our farmers. The state must reject any opposition not based on science. Genetically engineered crops are already feeding the world. The ancient Hawaiians themselves engineered kalo to where they could feed a million people.

NAMES TO WATCH

• The Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, with 1,600 member families, provides support to farmers throughout the state.

• The Hawaii Agricultural Research Center, which supported the sugar industry as the Sugar Planters Association, now conducts research on a wide range of crops.

• Haliimaile Pineapple, which recently rose from the ashes of Maui Land and Pineapple Co., will sell the fruit to local hotels, restaurants and markets.

• Darren Demaya at Kai Market in the Sheraton Waikiki and other prominent local chefs are preparing sumptuous dishes with local produce, and raising awareness and support for our farmers.

• The Hawaii Crop Improvement Association is the trade association for the seed industry, which has become a new leader in Hawai'i agriculture.

THE LOOKING GLASS

Even if produce from far away is cheaper, it's not as fresh, and it takes tons of fossil fuel to bring it here. As fuel costs escalate, the price of imported produce will increase. We'll be even more dangerously dependent on it, and we'll wish we'd done more to develop local agriculture.

Let's do more now. We could exclude food from the general excise tax taxing food is so regressive. We could also lease or sell state land to farmers after all, the state has lots of land, much of it suited for agriculture, and is already selling land to raise money for the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

We could better organize and fund the Department of Agriculture. And we could pass the barrel tax to provide funds for irrigation infrastructure. We could also revise the State Water Code to raise the priority for agricultural water.

Or we could do nothing and wait for fossil fuel, and the creek, to rise.