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Common Ground: Advancing Agriculture in Hawai'i

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Source: National Agriculture Statistics Service

When the public hears the word “agriculture,” most people envision a sunny field of lettuce, or the plump tomatoes they just brought home from the farmers’ market. Yet the agriculture system involves many functions—resource management, equipment management, agrochemical inputs, transportation, distribution and retail, just to name a few. Jobs in agriculture certainly include farmer, rancher, aquaculturist and nursery operator, but also chemist, market analyst, engineer, food scientist and broker.

In fact, agriculture affects all of us. It’s what you eat: a breakfast of Hawai‘i coffee or tea, dairy and eggs, honey. It’s the plants you buy at the nursery and the company you hire to take care of your lawn. It’s the local beef you grill for neighbors, the same neighbors who find employment in agriculture, at the irrigation and fertilizer companies, the lei makers and sellers, the shipping companies. It’s the employees at state and federal agencies, striving to keep our food supply safe, to monitor invasive species, to find new markets for our products and new ways of conserving resources. It’s the people enjoying community garden programs. It’s the third- and fourth-generation family businesses, and young people returning home after college to grow those businesses. It’s the science being taught in our schools, and the quality of life that comes with having enough rural and green space to visually and physically breathe.

It’s difficult to express just how vital Hawai‘i’s agriculture sector is. But in this special section of Hawai‘i Business, we’ll try.

Food Security

Source: US Census of Agriculture

Hawai‘i shoppers spend the bulk of their food budgets on imported, rather than locally produced, food. It’s a risky dependency for an isolated island chain, vulnerable to interruptions such as transportation strikes, and price fluctuations from fuel prices and shipping costs. “We learned in September of 2001 what just five days without incoming provisions did to our supplies statewide,” says Sarah Townsend, a specialist in Hawai‘i certification and customer care for International Certification Services, Inc., which provides organic and sustainable certification services to agricultural operations and the food industry. “We’re unlikely to produce medicines, oil, or toilet paper here, but we certainly can grow our own food.”

But isn’t agriculture in Hawai‘i naturally limited? Not according to the experts.

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. Department of Commerce.

Based on “current and historical agricultural land- and water-use data, it seems that Hawai‘i has substantial water and land potentials that can be used to produce more agriculture crops than its current production level,” says Dr. Ali Fares, a professor in Natural Resources and Environmental Management at the University of Hawai‘i’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR).

If the state addresses some of the obstacles facing agriculture, such as land ownership, labor and irrigation infrastructure, Fares says, “Hawai‘i could realistically become self-sufficient in producing most of its currently imported food supply such as poultry, livestock, fresh produce and fruits. It can also expand the export of many exotic crops to the Mainland and Asia.”

Economic Effects

Economic Issues-16, CTAHR, UHM, 2008

“Assuming that 85 percent of the food we consume is imported, this translates to $3.1 billion leaving our state to support agriculture elsewhere,” says the research from CTAHR’s Dr. PingSun Leung and Dr. Matthew Loke.

“If we could replace just 10 percent of these imported foods, assuming we have the available and appropriate resources and infrastructures for such an expansion, it would amount to some $313 million, or $94 million at the farm-gate, assuming a 30-percent farm share. Taking into account the multiplier effects, this $94 million would generate an estimated economy-wide impact of $188 million in sales, $47 million in earnings, $6 million in state tax revenues, and more than 2,300 jobs.”

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