Just as Wisconsin has long been known as America’s Dairyland, so has Hawaii been known as the land of pineapple and sugar cane, but not so much anymore. The only sugar cane and pineapples grown in our 50th state are now to be found only on the island of Maui as the number of sugar cane plants has fallen from over 30 in the heyday of sugar cane to just one operating plant. For pineapples, a group of six local farmers have kept that crop alive in the islands by working out a deal with a large grower who went out of business and gave up.
Those are just a couple of examples of the changes in Hawaiian agriculture that a group of western Wisconsin farmers saw during a March visit to the islands. Other trends affecting Hawaiian agriculture and their ability to feed themselves is the availability of farmland. According to Jerry Arnellas, Kauai Farm Bureau President and a member of the Hawaii Board of Agriculture, massive amounts of land have been taken out of production in the past two or three decades. He told us that’s because “The rich people are coming here and buying large parcels of land and making big agriculture estates for themselves but they don’t farm the land so it lays fallow.” He said on Kauai alone there are about 136,000 acres of arable land “but most of it is in ranching or lying fallow.” Some of those estate owners would like to have their land farmed but Arnellas said the farmers can’t afford to pay the rent the owners are asking for.
On Kauai most of the farming operations are two acres or less as the natives try to find crops that are profitable. Larger tracts of land are being used by major companies like Monsanto and Syngenta for winter seed nurseries which Arnellas says is good for the land since those companies operate under very strict guidelines set forth by the state. But, he added, they like lots of native farmers are facing resistance from some of the locals who are against genetic engineering and would like to see those companies leave the islands.
Some of Hawaii’s major challenges in feeding itself, though, remain unchanged. The islands are some of the most remote in the world as they are about 3,000 miles from the nearest large land mass. Just about everything has to be shipped in and they have only enough food on the store shelves for five days, and it’s expensive. Milk prices are between five and siz dollars a gallon and a loaf of bread sells for almost six dollars as well. Gas prices are also high as a gallon of regular sells for between $4.60 and $4.95 a gallon.
As farming inputs become more expensive, Arnellas feels there is no way Hawaii can ever grow commodities like mainland farmers. Everything has to be for a niche market somewhere in Hawaii. Even the 1,200 acres of pineapple production on Maui is all marketed within the state.
Dairy farming is another example of a dying industry in Hawaii. Arnellas and his family milked cows for years on Kauai but eventually their land became more valuable as a resort site so they sold out and went to growing specialty crops on 15 acres on the other side of the island. Now there are only two commercial dairies left in Hawaii-both on the big island. They too are under financial pressure Arnellas told the group from Wisconsin since “you can’t grow corn and alfalfa in Hawaii for feed because it’s too wet and the crops won’t dry down enough to make good feed.” In fact, the group did visit the Surfing Goat dairy farm on Maui and workers there said they are paying $46 a bale for small square bales of alfalfa hay they import from the mainland. The owner of that farm jokingly said, “it’s easy to be a millionaire dairy goat farmer. You just have to start with five million.”
Arnellas said Hawaiian farmers are just like mainland farmers. He said they love what they as they face the same challenges all over the country. He alluded to “unfunded mandates from the federal government, environmental regulations and the EPA are making it harder and harder for our farmers to comply and make any kind of profit, but as farmers we’re still optimistic.”
Hawaiian agriculture leaders like Arnellas are currently working on a program to help get and keep more of their arable land in food production with a program called Important Agricultural Land. That would put most of the state’s most productive land into a special category of land use where, according to Arnellas, “they cannot be developed or sold off for those gentlemanly estates.” The program would give tax breaks for keeping land in production and tax incentives to bring the idled land back into production. Officials hope that will break up some of the large land holdings that are owned by the rich and some large corporations so that the small farmers may eventually be able to own the land they operate.