Common Ground: Advancing Agriculture in Hawai'i
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Strong market demand and new products hold promise.
By Kathryn Drury Wagner
Hawaiian papaya is making inroads for export into Japan and China.
It took 10 years, endless paperwork and multiple government agencies, but finally, Hawai‘i-grown Rainbow papayas can be bought in Japan. Rainbow papayas make up 80 percent of the 30.1 million pounds of papaya grown in Hawai‘i, but, because they are genetically engineered, it took time for Japan to deregulate the fruit, now available at Costco in Japan.
“This is a major breakthrough not only for Hawai‘i but also for the United States,” says Dr. Dennis Gonsalves, director of the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center, USDA. Gonsalves led the team that originally developed Rainbow, engineered to be resistant to ringspot virus. A private shipper, Diversified Ag Products Inc., arranged the import into Costco in Japan, he says. “Now, we have to figure out how to market the papaya in the best way.”
Gonsalves is eyeing a bigger market, collaborating with the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture (HDOA) and CTAHR to work toward deregulating Rainbow papaya in Mainland China.
Another researcher, Dr. Kheng Cheah, in CTAHR’s Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences Department, has been working to revitalize the Hawai‘i nursery industry with business management coaching and developing new markets for nursery products, such as China.
The USDA is also working on litchi, longan and rambutan, to maximize crops and make them more profitable. “We need to try to develop better, additional cultivars. For example, papaya that can ship better,” says Gonsalves. He adds that there is a need to create more quarantine programs that will allow farmers to ship their products outside of Hawai‘i. “It’s vital for export. Use of irradiation, heat treatments, soil treatments, that will allow folks in the ornamentals industry and farmers to address those [export] issues.”
The USDA’s Dr. Dennis Gonsalves and his wife, Carol, hold a box of Rainbow papaya at the U.S. Embassy during a September visit to Japan.
It’s not just international markets that hold promise for Hawai‘i agriculture, but also the local market. For the landscaping industry, for example, new housing and community developments, such as Kapolei’s Makaiwa Hills and Kapolei West, have volumes of open space and parks as part of the plan.
Aquaculture has increased greatly and still has growth potential; according to a 2012 CTAHR study, the local population’s per capita seafood consumption is roughly twice the national average, and there is also the tourist market, willing to pay a premium for fresh seafood. “The state has 135,000 acres of relatively flat lands with soils ideal for constructing ponds. Another 500,000 acres are suitable for high-intensity tank or raceway culture systems,” reported the HDOA.
Data from the Ulupono Initiative’s “Local Food Market Demand Study of O‘ahu Shoppers” showed customers willing to pay more for locally produced food staples, which also included apple bananas, Williams bananas and romaine lettuce.
One example of high-tech aquaculture can be found on Kaua‘i, where CEATECH has a facility that is one of the few commercial operations in the world designated as a Shrimp Pathogen Free (SPF) facility.
Buy local, it matters
This past December, a survey showed an overwhelming number of shoppers on O‘ahu not only think buying local food is important, but they are even willing to pay more for local products. The study was commissioned by philanthropic organization Ulupono Initiative, and conducted by the research group OmniTrak Group, which surveyed 1,200 shoppers. Here are some key findings:
- Shoppers strongly believed buying local food is important, and 80 percent of them didn’t think there was enough local food available.
- Shoppers say they are willing to pay more for some popular, often-bought items, such as beef, apple bananas, milk, tomatoes, eggs, Williams bananas and romaine lettuce.
- Consumers complained they want to buy local, but can’t always tell which foods are Island-produced. “It would be valuable to local growers to protect the ‘grown in Hawai‘i’ brand, whether through legislation, agreement within the local food industry on unified labeling and coordinated marketing and/or regulatory requirements,” reads the report.
Today’s visitors seek more than beaches and mai tais. They are increasingly “interested in learning more about the region they are visiting, learning about its local culture(s), traditions, environmental issues, and agriculture (including the regional cuisine),” reports the Hawai‘i Agritourism Association. “This ‘new visitor’ wants to learn about and experience regional characteristics that make a particular place unique.”
This desire has led to a growth in agritourism, which allows visitors to connect with Hawai‘i’s agricultural heritage, hear about cultivation techniques, sample fresh foods and have memorable, hands-on adventures. For example, tourists on Maui can sip tea at Ali‘i Kula Lavender farms, then help out with evening chores and learn about cheese making at Surfing Goat Dairy. Big Island visitors can explore coffee farms in Kona and Ka`u or get off the beaten path at the Kahua Ranch on the western slope of the Kohala Mountains, while on O‘ahu, they can sign up for a fruit tasting at at one of the island’s largest certified organic farms, Poamoho
Organic Produce. Many ranches, such as Kaua‘i’s Kipu Ranch, which raises Hereford, Angus and Brangus cattle, also offer tours. Visitors to Kaua‘i can also take a tour of Kaua‘i Coffee Co., the state’s largest coffee grower and, in fact, the largest coffee grower in the U.S., with more than 4 million coffee trees spread on a 3,100-acre estate.
The bottom line: Agritourism adds revenue streams, creates marketing opportunities and helps sell value-added products, like a mac-nut body scrub or lavender tea.
Intriguing new products
Olives. Tea. Blueberries. Elk. Many people in Island agriculture are responding to the need for diversification by pursuing new commercial crops and products. For example, the USDA’s Dr. Francis Zee has been researching culturing and raising the endemic ‘ohelo berry plant. It could be marketed as an ornamental plant, and the berries can be harvested for culinary purposes, such as making jams.
Cacao farming is in its infancy, but Hawai‘i-grown chocolate is already making waves. This year’s Hawai‘i Chocolate Festival, held in February at the Dole Cannery, touted cacao as the new “ambassador of aloha.” Vendors at the festival included Maile Kai Chocolates, Waialua Estates, and Hilo Sharks Chocolate, as well as added-value products from Kona Brewing Co. (chocolate beer) and the North Shore Soap Factory (mint-chocolate soap).
On Maui, Ulupalakua Ranch offers elk meat. Diana Azevedo, administrative manager for the ranch, says, “We are actively trying to grow the size of the elk herd because the demand and interest in the meat is growing. The herd is 120, up from 100. We serve it at the [ranch’s] grill but also get requests from chefs and restaurants, and we just can’t provide much supply beyond our own use in our deli.”
Imagine a system where the waste from a crop isn’t thrown out. Instead, using tanks and anaerobic digesters, the waste is turned into useful products: high-protein animal feed, fertilizer and methane gas.
“We’ve been thinking about how we can help rural communities,” says Dr. Gonsalves. “Picture this scenario where you utilize waste, produce energy, to let’s say, run a packing house. The packing facility now allows the farmers a place to pack their goods and market their goods, perhaps set up a certified kitchen. If we are moving toward becoming more self sufficient, in a sustainable manner, what is more sustainable than maximizing the use of waste products?”
Demand for Organic Exceeds Supply
“Local organic trumps just about everything,” says Maureen Datta, who owns Adaptations Farm on the Big Island with her husband, Tane. “On a business level, I see huge demands for organic in the state.”
Adaptations is a 7.5-acre certified organic farm, established in 1984, employing traditional methods, raised beds and greenhouses. It also serves as a consolidator/wholesaler for 100-plus Big Island farmers, supplying markets and restaurants with countless varieties of vegetables, fruits, herbs, medicinal plants and edible flowers. Its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) provides “Fresh Feasts” to subscribers, with select produce on a weekly basis. The couple also grows 100-percent Kona coffee on their one-acre farm, Oceanfire, in Captain Cook, along with yerba mate, a South American tea. Cinnamon is grown at Oceanfire, and plans are to add allspice, cardamom and other spices. Although the cinnamon has heretofore only been available on-island, the Dattas are working with Whole Foods to supply stores on Maui and O‘ahu.
“As far as agriculture is concerned, we should be looking to displace imports as much as possible,” says Maureen Datta. “Food security in general is a big concern to Hawai‘i residents.”
Adaptations is a member of Hawai‘i Organic Farmers Association (HOFA), a statewide nonprofit that provides education about organic certification and sustainability. “I am optimistic that the opportunities are endless when it comes to local food production and being able to meet hungry demands,” says Kelly Abbott, an independent organic inspector with HOFA. “In order to compete with the low cost of food being imported, Hawai‘i producers would do well to be creative. Add value by processing your produce into something else or growing specialty crops. Educate consumers about exotic fruits that grow superbly in our climate but do not transport well. Keep it local!”
Jurassic Kahili Ranch
“There’s a big buzz about local grass-fed beef, a lot of demand,” says Karin Carswell Guest, owner of Princeville Ranch Adventures on Kaua‘i. “People are searching for it, and they want to buy local.”
“We’re not organic; we’re natural,” says co-op partner Randall Cremer, foreman of Jurassic Kahili Ranch (JKR) on Kaua‘i. “Nothing that goes to market or goes on the plate gets antibiotics or growth hormones.” According to Cremer, for a ranch to be certified organic, they cannot use any herbicide for seven years, and JKR sprays its fence line to control weeds. “The demand is great for anything local—it is just going crazy. We brought in sheep (to trim the grass) and are starting to sell grass-fed lamb,” says Cremer. “Restaurants want it, farmers markets want it.” One customer, chef Jean Marie Josselin, buys a lamb every week.
As another way of generating profits, JKR provides natural film locations for Hollywood films, such as “Just Go With It.”
When Guest’s parents began horseback riding tours in 1978, they had permission to ride across Princeville Ranch, Kaua‘i’s oldest operating ranch. Today, the Ranch and Stables have merged and added ziplines, kayaks and kids’ adventures. They also partnered with JKR to produce All Natural North Shore Kaua‘i Beef.
“In busy times, we produce eight animals per month,” says Guest. “Even now, we put beef out Thursday and it’s gone by Friday mid-day.” The beef is sold at the local Chevron Station’s convenience store (their best outlet) and other niche markets on the island. “It’s so rewarding, as a rancher, to keep the animals here,” says Guest. “It makes more sense than shipping them off-island where you don’t know what’s going to happen to them.”
“We eventually hope to keep everything here,” says Cremer. “This is our first year we kept all of our calves back.” In the past, calves were shipped to the Mainland to be finished on commercial feedlots. “Forty animals kept from last year will be available in June 2012 and the rest in 2013.”
“Our goal is to continue to provide clean, grass-fed beef, and with JKR, to increase the supply even more,” says Guest.
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