Dean Okimoto, Owner/President, Nalo Farms
There is nothing more important than food, but farmers get little respect and support from government and the community, says Dean Okimoto, who gave up law school to work on his family farm in Waimanalo. “When you get a shipping strike, that’s the only time ag has high value. Then people realize,” Okimoto says in this month’s Talk Story.
Photo: Olivier Koning
How has the agriculture industry in Hawaii changed from when you first started several decades ago?
A: I think the rules, regulations, food safety issues — the problems are different — and they’ve morphed into money issues for farmers. To do processing facilities and things like that, it takes money. For me, I’m putting up a food-safety facility right now, but this thing has taken me three years to put up. It’s just a wash and a rinse to make everything food safe. That’s why I’m having a hard time now, because I’ve invested a million dollars into this facility, but with the hopes that I can do processing for other farms. No question about it, things have definitely gotten a lot more regulated, that’s why we all have to work together to make sure that we’re compliant so we can keep doing business.
Q: When did people start demanding that produce be food-safety certified, and do you think it’s justified?
A: All of this is a result of the different food scares that we’ve had in recent years. The strawberry, the spinach, the tomatoes — even though the U.S. food supply system is probably the safest in the world. When you think about it, your parents, they didn’t grow up with these kinds of strict rules and restrictions. I mean, my dad, he ate all the same things as us, without all these extra certifications and protections, and he lived to be 87 — not having any organic foods. I can understand some of the scares, because things just aren’t like they used to be. But some of these rules and regulations go above and beyond what is realistic and feasible. I don’t fight it because it’s consumer driven. It’s driven by people who don’t really understand ag, and they demand a product that they think is more safe, but isn’t in all cases.
Q: What does the agriculture industry in Hawaii need to do to survive?
A: The cost of water, the cost of land — the fight for water — that’s why we have so many farmers quitting. The thing that people have to understand is that you have to have large ag to have small ag survive. And when I talk about large ag, I’m talking about folks like HC&S [Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company] and Maui Land and Pine. They have large tracts of land and when they bring in fertilizer, for example, they bring in by the container load. So the small farmers are able to add on their orders to that larger shipment and that brings down their costs. Without these big ag companies, the cost of bringing in fertilizer would skyrocket to where we couldn’t farm. It is key to keep them around because they do a lot of the research; they’re the engine that drives a lot of the ag. Every time we lose a farm, we lose capacity, and when we lose capacity, that either drives prices up or drives other farms out of business. There are a lot of ag businesses right now that are getting really close to going under. Plenty. It’s scary times right now. It’ll be interesting to see how many small farms are going to be forced out of business.
Q: Do you think agriculture gets the respect it deserves, or is it overshadowed by larger revenue-generating industries such as tourism and energy?
A: The government wants to give tax credits to high-tech companies, but they don’t want to give them to ag. I cannot believe that. Ag is food. And it’s not the Legislature’s fault; it’s our fault. Everybody talks about high-tech and education, but why doesn’t anybody think ag is good for their kids? Sure, high-tech jobs are great, but food is not important? What’s up with these choices here? It’s all a matter of choices and putting things into perspective. A lot of people, they’re not willing to buy lettuce for $2 to $3 a pound, yet they’re willing to pay almost $10 to go to the movies — and that’s only for two hours. Where is the value here? That is wrong! When you get that choice to buy that tomato, are you going to buy the one from Canada, or are you going to buy the local one? I guarantee you the local one tastes better anyway. But the bigger question is what’s more important: to keep one of our local farmers employed or keep that guy in Canada employed? It’s simple when you really consider what’s at stake. When we get a shipping strike, that’s the only time ag has high value. Then people realize.
Q: We all know the state is really tightening its belt and there are going to be cuts all across the board. How will this affect the agriculture industry?
A: I just got word this morning that the budget for the state is worse than we thought. You know what three areas they’re looking to cut in the state? DLNR [Department of Land and Natural Resources], the Department of Agriculture and the [University of Hawaii] College of Tropical Ag. What does that tell people? What does that tell farmers? That was straight from the Legislature, this morning. I got a call saying, “What programs do we absolutely need?” We can’t cut anymore! They give money to high-tech, they give money to tourism, but without us [the agriculture industry], there is no tourism. There’s no green space; there’s no Alan Wong’s and Roy’s — all the places the tourists love to eat at. Don’t get me wrong, they’re [lawmakers] starting to come around, but there’s a $60 million marketing budget for tourism and they give jack s***, excuse me, to agriculture — not one dime. In the long run, if you let all of that land go fallow and let all of those farmers go, what’s going to happen then? How beautiful is Hawaii going to look?
Q: I think we all want to support our local ag industry, but the reality is that, in most cases, it’s cheaper to buy imported food. What would you say to convince consumers that buying local is still the best way to go?
A: People are not necessarily making the most nutritious choices; they’re making the choices that reflect what they can afford. And it’s hard to blame anyone at this time. We’re all struggling. I think the only way to come out of this is we have to give people confidence that it’s going to get better; we just have to survive the now part. If we don’t support our local growers and businesses now, we might not have those same choices down the road. By then, it’s going to be too late.
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