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Common Ground: Advancing Agriculture in Hawai'i

(page 6 of 7)


The roadblocks facing the agriculture sector.

Photo: Thinkstockphotos.com/istock

Hawai‘i’s agriculture community is under pressure from all fronts. Businesses have faced a U.S. and global recession; increased competition; threats from invasive species; high start-up and production costs; and shortages in labor, water and affordable agricultural land.


Hawai‘i is particularly vulnerable to invasive pests, due to its warm weather, all-year growing seasons and position as a human and freight hub between Asia, Central and South America, and the U.S. Mainland.

“Invasive pests increase production costs, reduce yields and result in quarantines prohibiting access to foreign and domestic markets,” says Dr. Barry Brennan, CTAHR’s agrosecurity coordinator.

Despite the high stakes, less than 2 percent of Hawai‘i’s imports are inspected for pests or diseases. “The most recent economic recession resulted in the loss of 73 positions in the Department of Agriculture’s (DOA) Plant Industry Division,” says Brennan. “Some of these were restored using temporary funding. Although Governor Abercrombie also restored several positions, there are still vacant positions in the Plant Quarantine Branch. I believe the DOA has noted an upturn in invasives. I don’t know if these are within normal fluctuations year over year, or if the upturn is due to fewer inspections being conducted.”

The state’s $83-million livestock industry could also be affected by any introduced pathogens, such as foot and mouth disease or avian influenza.

On O‘ahu “banana bunchy top disease caused a major problem” says Dr. Dennis Gonsalves, the director of the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center, USDA. Recent ag interlopers also include the nettle caterpillar and erythrina gall wasp, which affected the landscaping industry; the taro leaf blight fungus; basil downy mildew; and the fungal disease blueberry rust, which challenged what has been seen as a promising new crop.

The coffee berry borer (a beetle), has been reducing yields of coffee, says Dr. Ethel Villalobos, junior researcher in Plant and Environmental Protection Sciences at CTAHR. “It’s tragic, Hawai‘i is famous for coffee and has a reputation for high quality. This beetle is a major problem for Kona growers, and a threat to the rest of the state.”

Technology will be key to solving these problems, says Gonsalves. He is developing genetically engineered anthuriums, for example, that are resistant to bacteria and nematodes (tiny worms that can be detrimental to plants). “We have done trials with a number of genetically engineered lines and are selecting the few lines that we think are the best. Then we go toward more testing, deregulation and commercialization.”  

Food Safety

Safeguarding Hawai‘i’s food supply also means avoiding contamination during production and harvesting, Brennan says. “The Hawai‘i DOA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are primarily responsible for implementing regulations related to crop protection, such as pesticide use. Both agencies, along with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Hawai‘i Department of Health, have responsibilities for food safety regulations. If economic conditions limit the state’s ability to increase food-safeguarding resources, the biggest challenge becomes how to utilize existing resources more effectively. To that end I believe CTAHR’s research, education and extension resources must be more closely integrated with the state’s needs.”

Pollinators in Decline

Varroa Mite

Hawai‘i’s bees have been in decline due to the arrival of the parasitic Varroa mite and small hive beetle. “Hawai‘i never had a shortage of bees, of pollinators. Now we do,” says Villalobos. “The watermelon producers for example—and we’re talking millions of dollars—are concerned because of the number of bees able to work the fields.”

Vine crops, such as squash and melons, as well as tropical fruits, specialty fruits like rambutan and lychee, macadamia nut and coffee, are all very reliant on bee pollination. With insufficient pollination, Villalobos says, yields go down and fruit is misshapen. “You get bumpy zucchini with funny shapes,” she says, “and the value of these products on the market decreases.”

Hawai‘i is the main producer for queen bees, a $6- to $8-million-a-year industry for the Islands. “There are three main producers in Hawai‘i and there are some smaller ones,” says Villalobos. “The bees get sent to California for almond production, to other states for apples. Our bees can be shipped early because we have the perfect climate for this. We have six or seven months we can send queens, while on the Mainland you can only produce queens for three to four months.” But with infections, doors can close to our bee exports.  

Potato wilt is a destructive disease to crops
Photo: David Croxford

Honey production is also threatened. “Our high-end honey sells very well internationally,” says Villalobos. “We used to have some of the most productive hives, the highest-end honeys, such as the white honey or cream honey.” It’s not easy to treat bee hives, as “pesticide use and pesticide application makes the beekeepers really nervous. Some of them were certified organic, so pesticides would really be a problem. It’s a hard balance, the needs of farmers and beekeepers. My big pitch would be we have to be on the same side; there are ways to improve production.”  

She notes that on Moloka‘i, which has just seen the arrival of the Varroa mite, CTAHR offers extension programs to teach the farmers how to become beekeepers, so they can raise bees for pollination, increasing their crop yields, and also use organic ways to avoid the mites.

Limited Land

Despite an increased interest among chefs, restaurants and consumers for locally produced foods, and despite the desire among many to make Hawai‘i more self sufficient when it comes to producing its own food, there is less land used for agriculture than in the past.

Protecting the watershed is a key goal; in this photo, a staffer for The Nature Conservancy checks a West Maui fenceline.

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture done by the USDA’s Economic Research Service, the total land area used for farmland is 1,121,329 acres, or 27.3 percent of the total land area. In 1997, 35.1 percent of total land area was being used for agriculture. Average farm size decreased, from 263 acres to 149 acres. And the median farm size is quite small: The average U.S. farm is 80 acres, while in Hawai‘i, it’s 5 acres. Many of these small farms are on leased land, which can deter the farmers from making investments or improvements. According to the Hawai‘i DOA, lease rents for agriculture land in both the public and private sector average $200 to $500 per acre per year, and landlords often also require a percentage of gross sales, from 1 to 5 percent, or a flat fee.

Agricultural zoning is a complex—and sometimes contentious—issue. All land in Hawai‘i is designated by the Land Use Commission into one of four districts: urban, rural, agricultural or conservation. Some small farms fall under the “rural” category, while the “agricultural” lands are designated for the cultivation of crops, aquaculture, livestock, wind energy, timber cultivation, agriculture-support activities and land with significant potential for agriculture uses.

Some people abuse the law, which mentions a “farm dwelling” in HRS 2-5-4.5 (a) to build a home on ag lands. They may, for example, have horses on the land surrounding the home, rather than a farm dwelling, like a barn, that is a true accessory use to agriculture or agricultural land conservation.

In an August 2011 manifesto published in the Honolulu Weekly, organic farmer Al Santoro, who with his wife fromerly owned Po‘amoho Organic Produce on O‘ahu, wrote, “Much of our Ag lands are now up for sale or have already been sold to developers because our existing Ag land zonings and Ag uses are so broad they actually encourage fake farms. We need a two-year moratorium on subdividing any Ag lands … to give legislators and agencies enough time to redraft laws, rules, regulations and policies that not only preserve Ag lands, but also promote ‘Local Food, for Local Consumption.’”


Don’t let that rainy day fool you. Many parts of the Islands remain under drought conditions, according to a January 2012 statement by the National Weather Service. For example, Moloka‘i is still under a mandatory 30-percent cutback in irrigation water consumption for the Kualapu‘u Reservoir System.

It’s not much better on Maui’s Leeward side, reports Kaimi Konaaihele, who handles planning and mapping for the Ulupalakua Ranch. “Historically, we were averaging 30 inches of rain. But the conclusion we have come to is that the new normal is far less than that.” The ranch had to cut the number of cattle, from a former 2,500-3,000 breeding cows to 1,200-1,500. The drought is severe enough, he notes, that “a nearby ranch was losing cattle daily. They had to ship the cattle off.”

“We are having to share our pastures more,” he adds. Historically, he explains, weaned young cows would go into feedlots, but with the high cost of shipping feed to Hawai‘i,  the ranch is moving to grass-finishing the cattle, which takes more pasture.

In addition to drought, aging water delivery systems and pollution are significant concerns. There’s also the source of water itself, the watershed.

“Degradation of the native forested watersheds that capture and absorb moisture that seeps into our streams and aquifers is the biggest threat to our water supply,” says Suzanne Case, the state director of The Nature Conservancy Hawai‘i Program. “The biggest threats to our forests are introduced non-native invasive animals and plants that graze our intricate, diverse forest to the nubs, or crowd out, displace and destroy them, converting this lush absorptive cover to bare ground or single-plant systems that don’t capture or absorb rainwater. Protecting this natural function is an essential action to mitigate recurring drought and the anticipated drought-intensifying effects of climate change.”

Hawai‘i’s watershed partnerships and invasive species committees include more than 70 public and private entities, says Case, from federal and state agricultural agencies as well as private farms and ranches. “These public and private partners also work collaboratively to prevent invasive species introductions at our borders through enhanced regulatory regimes and inspections at our air and sea ports. While we have tremendous foundations in place, there is still an enormous amount of work, and significant funding, needed to realize the potential of these partnerships in actually protecting our forests.”

Case gives credit to the landscaping and nursery industries, noting that many in the conservation community have worked over the years with these industries “to reduce the introduction and use of landscaping plants from other parts of the world that are likely to be invasive in Hawai‘i and escape to and degrade our forests,” says Case. “Preventing the introduction of new invasive plants is critical to the future of our watershed, and we are gratified by the commitment to this ‘green landscaping’ by many in the industry, including the members of the Landscape Industry Council of Hawai‘i, among others.”

Developing plants that use less water will be a major contribution to the agriculture sector, says Gonsalves. For example, in December, Monsanto received deregulation from the USDA for MON 87460, the company’s first-generation drought-tolerant trait for corn.

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