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Q&A

Local Economic Development Leaders

Paula Helfrich, CEO, Economic Development Alliance of Hawaii; former president, Hawaii Island Economic Development Board

Jean Skog, President, Maui Economic Development Alliance Board

Mattie Yoshioka, President, Kauai Economic Development Board

What is special and unique about agriculture in your county?

Helfrich: As the largest of the Islands, [Hawaii Island has] more than 250,000 acres of prime ag lands, 11 of the world's microclimates, from subarctic to subtropical, and ambient rainfall, from 80 to 120 inches per year. We also have traditional land-management and agronomics know-how, and new knowledge and technology, through the University of Hawaii Cooperative Extension Service, the Hawaii Ag Research Corp. and hundreds of ag entrepreneurs doing the only tropical/subtropical ag in the United States, plus more value-added ag products and services, such as new waste-management technology and energy production.

The shutdown of sugar plantations was the best thing to happen in the past 50 years, because it forced ag to develop a new competitive edge and new national and international markets.

Skog: [Maui] is the only county where sugar continues to be viable, with Hawaii's largest producer of raw sugar, HC&S, accounting for 80 percent of the state's sugar production. Diversified ag is succeeding, from vegetables and flowers to coffee, wine, lavender and goat cheeses. There's also seed-crop development by Monsanto, which employs more than 300 people, from field workers to scientists; and BioReal's (formerly Microgaia) antioxidant astaxanthin dome "farm," which produces microalgal products for uses ranging from cosmetics to nutraceuticals (often referred to as phytochemicals or functional foods, which are natural, bioactive chemical compounds that have health-promoting, disease-preventing or medicinal properties).

Maui Community College's Culinary Arts Academy is working with local food-product development groups and collaborating with the Maui Farm Bureau to host a weekly farmer's market. Our new Maui Food Technology Center is in development to provide food-science laboratory and food-product business support services and to assist with optimal sensory results for food products and marketing assistance.

Yoshioka: Kauai is now home to the largest coffee drip-irrigation plantation and guava farm in the United States and produces two-thirds of the state's taro for poi. Former sugar and pineapple lands have been converted to exotic tropical specialty fruit crops (rambutan, lychee and low-acid pineapple), to cattle, goat and sheep pastures, to the potentially promising hardwood tree industry and to several large research seed farms bringing the benefits of new biotechnology to the state. Aquaculture, particularly shrimp production, is still seen as potentially viable, despite recent setbacks. The newly formed Kauai Agricultural Tour Operators Association is organizing and marketing our emerging ag- and ecotourism industries.

What are the major problems facing agriculture in your county?

Helfrich: We are affected by the lack of political will statewide, with no consensus to "Buy Local," to provide incentives for more production or to provide support for agricultural tourism operations. We are a risk-averse society, [but] fascinated by "high-tech," such as IT, when, in fact, agricultural technology (biotech, environmental management, energy development) has far more sustainable potential. We lack capitalization, making it] difficult to secure financing for farm/ranch operations. We have insufficient infrastructure (processing facilities, transportation) that need political will and financing to succeed. We're still using "horse-and-buggy economics" and continue to rely on old plantation models of mono-crop corporate agriculture, [when we have] new multicrop/product/processing/market needs.

Skog: The GMO (genetically modified organism) issue is an undercurrent in the community. Water-resource development and distribution are major concerns. And enticing our youth to realize the potential of agriculture as a career and sustain agricultural ideals is a challenge.

Yoshioka: Our recently completed (October 2004) Kaua'i Economic Development Plan intended to serve as a road map for economic development for the next 10 years, outlines the top priority challenges for our Agriculture and Food Industry cluster as: 1) workforce development, including finding affordable housing (a double-edged sword as land for affordable housing directly competes with land suitable for agriculture); 2) our zoning code, which allows increased density or condominiums (CPRs) on prime ag land (commonly known as "gentlemen farmers"), without going through subdivision approvals; 3) ag infrastructure maintenance and development, particularly water and roads; 4) access to capital (grants and low-interest loans); 5) restructuring ag taxes/credits; 6) obtaining favorable, long-term leases; 7) training in business/marketing strategies; and 8) high cost of transportation and shipping. We currently lack a treatment, packing and handling facility to export both crop and value-added ag products, or a slaughter facility for our livestock.

What's on the horizon for agriculture in your county?

Helfrich: We'd like to realize agriculture's highest and best use, which is revitalization of the lands, by utilizing waste stream (sludge, grey water or wash water from laundry, kitchen and bath) to create soil amendments, recharge the aquifier, clean up the environment, eliminate landfills, recycle and produce new products from the waste stream to increase sustainable (farm) operations. We'd like to see land-use reform and incentives for ag use and "Buy Local" import substitutes and export production. We need to move to "back-to-the-lands" sustainable economics, home grown, organic and slow food (dedicated to the enjoyment of wholesome foods, not fast foods, and the stewardship of the land and ecologically sound food production) movements, and ag-tourism opportunities to help keep [farm] families and communities intact.

We'd like to see more care with food and product safety, with incentives to again buy local, since the food chain of custody can be confirmed and controlled locally. We'd like to see more knowledge-based production and entrepreneurship, with our local research and education institutions all contributing to international and national knowledge bases for new ag initiatives. We'd like to see more energy production with an ag base, such as ethanol/methanol from bagasse, and island-wide energy self-sufficiency by the year 2020 and statewide, or nearly so, by 2040.

Skog: In the 2004 report of Focus Maui Nui, a community visioning process involving 1,700 residents, our county articulated agriculture as a priority for balance of cultural, environmental and economic development values. Sustainable agriculture is seen as a strategy and a significant contributor to our economy. Specifically, we will be exploring water-source and distribution development to support ag needs; resolving the demands for land between agriculture and housing; supporting ag entrepreneurism; and robust nurturing of future agribusiness through agriculture academies in schools.

Yoshioka: The Agricultural Preservation Initiative, proposed last year by the Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands and approved by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, preserves approximately 5,000 acres surrounding the base for ag use for the life of the base's state lease till 2029. This will increase farming opportunities for west Kauai. A new Kauai Agriculture Development Program, funded by the USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service, is currently being developed to assist Kauai farmers and stimulate an increase in ag entrepreneurship. Work is also underway to create a "Kauai Brand" to be marketed on island at retail outlets and via the Internet to stimulate production of more value-added products. Finally, the introduction of the Super Ferry in 2006 offers the possibility of more reliable/reduced shipping, thus opening up new opportunities in ag development on the Garden Isle.

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