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Common Ground: Advancing Agriculture in Hawai'i

(page 4 of 7)


Hawai‘i’s agriculture labor market needs to expand and strengthen.

An employee at Armstrong Produce, one of Hawai’i’s largest produce wholesalers.
Photo is courtesy Armstrong Produce.

An adequately sized and skilled workforce arguably is the most daunting challenge facing food and agriculture production and food security in Hawai‘i today and into the future,” says Dr. Charles Kinoshita, associate dean for academic and student affairs at the University of Hawai‘i’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR).

Unfortunately, in Hawai‘i, there is a shortfall in some parts of the workforce.

It’s not the salaries, says Kinoshita. “A few links in the supply chain are facing shortages because of low pay; however, most of the professional-level positions are compensated competitively.” And it’s not a lack of educational opportunities: Seven community colleges and two four-year institutions in the University of Hawai‘i system have programs in agriculture and food.

“The main reason for the labor shortage is insufficient interest in youth to enter agriculture and natural resource management fields of study and careers,” says Kinoshita.

Hawai‘i’s agriculture workforce is aging. According to the most recent Census of Agriculture done by the USDA’s Economic Research Service, in 2007, the average age of the principal farm owner had gone up, from 55 years old to 58.6, since the prior Census. Only half of those people were employed full-time as farmers to begin with, juggling, as many in the Islands do, multiple jobs.  

“Several years ago, we were awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a strategic plan for strengthening agricultural programs in higher education in Hawai‘i,” Kinoshita reports. Four initiatives were identified:

  • The need to create greater awareness and improve public interest in and support of the agriculture and natural resource management career fields.
  • Develop more effective partnerships between industry and academia, and use those partnerships to recruit and prepare more students. For example, some of the large, multinational agricultural companies, as well as some local companies, have provided funds to support graduate research assistantships at CTAHR. “Those graduate assistants will be able to study any aspect of plant science that they and their faculty advisors select,” says Kinoshita. “Funded graduate research assistantships will advance all of agriculture in Hawai‘i.”
  • Improve the preparedness of students in agriculture and natural resource management programs. “Many new farmers and some experienced ones fail not because of their inability to grow crops and animals well,” observes Kinoshita, “but rather because they lack sufficient experience and knowledge to market their product(s), deal with regulations and run their operations like true businesses.”
  • Develop articulated academic programs for students interested in agriculture and natural resource management careers.

“One piece of ongoing legislation that could expand and strengthen the agricultural workforce significantly is providing incentives for workforce development tied to lands designated as Important Agricultural Lands (IAL),” says Kinoshita. Possible incentives include providing stipends to students who serve as interns in local agribusinesses located on IAL, providing scholarships to qualified students enrolled in agriculture-related academic programs and repaying part of the education loans of graduates who are employed by agribusinesses on IAL.

Living Science

A number of creative programs work in or with Hawai‘i schools to get young people interested in and educated on food security, nutrition and career paths in agriculture.

For example, at 12 elementary schools on O‘ahu, children experience garden-based learning and gain agricultural literacy through the Kōkua Hawai‘i Foundation’s ‘ĀINA In Schools program. The program encourages healthy eating habits, and helps students connect to where their food comes from, via school gardens and field trips to farms, lo‘i and fish ponds.

On the West side of O‘ahu, nonprofit Mālama Learning Center has a Green Collar Institute for high school and college students. The program helps them discover and explore career paths in fields such as forest, coastal and ocean conservation; native plant propagation; sustainable agriculture; alternative energy production; and green design and architecture, and it also teaches Native Hawaiian values and traditions. This spring, the center partnered with Leeward Community College for a 3-credit class, “Exploring Green Careers in Hawai‘i.”

The Maui School Garden Network uses edible gardens in K-12 schools, both public and private. Students learn about the life cycle of seeds, for example, build raised beds for their school garden, get to try aquaponics, and even partner with local chefs.  

Shortage of Inspectors

Given the constant threat of new pest introductions to Hawai‘i, there is a shortage of agricultural inspectors working to prevent such introductions. “This is due to the state fiscal situation, and budget cuts both past and present,” says Dr. Ken Grace, associate dean and associate director for research at CTAHR.

“Once positions are eliminated, the best qualified individuals will search for jobs elsewhere, making it very difficult to rebuild the enterprise quickly, even when the budget situation improves and funds again become available. The same applies to agricultural faculty positions. Over the past two decades, CTAHR experienced an attrition of faculty positions, largely due to retirements. Although we are committed to filling positions to meet the diverse needs of the state, budget constraints are still very much a reality. Both CTAHR and the Department of Agriculture are definitely going in the right direction, but aligning the budget with client needs is always a challenge.”

Green Spaces

According to the State Dept. of Labor and Industrial Relations, the industries with most job loss (projected 2008-2018) include crop production, support industries for agriculture and forestry and food manufacturing. However, it predicts openings in the occupations of landscaping and groundskeeping.

The Landscape Industry Council of Hawai‘i promotes training and certification opportunities throughout the Islands, with sessions available on Kaua‘i, Maui, the Big Island and O‘ahu. There is even a fund to help applicants pay for the classes. Both new and experienced landscape technicians can take sessions for certification prep, landscape maintenance, and irrigation instruction and repair. A two-day training session for interior plant maintenance is offered annually. Aloha Arborists group offers self-study and study groups to help candidates prepare for the National Arborist Certification Exam.

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

Investments in the health of Hawai‘i’s forests, such as the watershed partnerships, also provide jobs, notes Suzanne Case, executive director of The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i. “The 11 watershed partnerships and five invasive species committees that are working to protect these resources across the state currently provide direct employment for approximately 125 staff.  This figure does not include indirect employment provided to a variety of contractors for such things as fencing and helicopter support.” She says that combined, these alliances have operating and capital budgets of approximately $8- to $10-million a year that is invested in wages, equipment, materials, and services in the Hawai‘i economy.

Any Volunteers?

Many of Hawai‘i’s crops are labor intensive, says CTAHR’s Dr. Ali Fares, a professor in Natural Resources and Environmental Management. Since we are on islands, “it’s hard to have access to agriculture labor that other states on the Mainland have, such as California and Florida.”

Hawai‘i’s beauty and lifestyle, though, are helpful in attracting volunteer workers  from around the globe, who participate in WWOOF—World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.

Two hundred and thirty farm hosts in Hawai‘i participate in WWOOF. Volunteers, who have come from 30 countries, work on organic farms four to six hours a day, five to five and a half days a week. WWOOFers must be at least 16 years old, and the average age is 20s and 30s, though many participants are in their 40s, according to Haikū-based organization WWOOF Hawai‘i. Many of the farms are small, about five acres, and each gets to set a minimum time, with many farms requesting at least a two-week-long commitment. Workers pitch in with chores such as feeding goats and chickens, or bigger initiatives, like planting a cacao orchard. In exchange, they get taught skills in sustainable agriculture, such as using tilapia to produce manure for vegetables, and receive accommodations and meals.


Homegrown Talent

For the past three decades, Alton Arakaki has worked with farmers on Moloka‘i and L-ana‘i, developing strategies to improve Hawai‘i agriculture and increase the state’s sustainable agriculture industry. He also works with new farmers to help them get established and continue the next generation of Hawai‘i agriculture.

“Education is everything in terms of being able to compete in this area,” he says. “We are finding a balance, looking at the optimum amount. At one time we had a strong production society with sugar and pineapple, and definitely the pendulum has shifted over to a service-based economy. We need to work with diversity.”

CTAHR's Alton Arakaki grew up on a Moloka‘i farm. Today, he helps farmers on Moloka‘i and L¯ana‘i, developing strategies to improve Hawai‘i agriculture and increase the state’s sustainable agriculture industry.

Arakaki’s a busy man. Often in the field, today he has some important business to attend to: Towing a small coop, home to more than a dozen chickens, to a fresh location on a Moloka‘i field to examine the use of chickens as part of a multi-cropping system.

“If I don’t show up on time, those wahine chickens can get impatient,” he says with a laugh.

Arakaki, who was raised on a small Moloka‘i farm and attended the University of Hawai‘i, started his work educating homesteaders on Moloka‘i. Today, he heads up CTAHR's Moloka‘i extension office and has worked on hundreds of projects exploring farming economics, such as ways of adding value to traditionally low-cost crops, including lettuce.

“Farmers are competing in what we find is a low-price area,” he says. “We import a tremendous amount of lettuce, and we eat about 27 pounds of lettuce each a year. So in Hawai‘i, we are looking at aquaponics and branding it differently than iceberg lettuce.”

Due in large part to Arakaki and his CTAHR team, a variety of crops have a promising future as viable food staples in Hawai‘i. Arakaki is exploring the planting of a low-chill peach variety, for example, as well as increasing the production efficiencies of everything from taro to coffee.


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