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Field of Dreams

Why Big Island farmers are key to a sustainable state economy

(page 3 of 3)

The Big Island is larger than all of the other Hawaiian Islands combined. The high cost to transport food and goods intraisland means locals pay significantly more than Honolulu residents for just about everything. Perhaps this, along with the massive hit they’ve taken in tourism, are the reasons Hawaii Islanders seem to have a heightened awareness of what can and needs to be done in order to be more sustainable.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a tough row to hoe.

The Kohala Center’s Whole System Project identified two main obstacles hindering local agriculture: the price of land and the availability of labor. Because of the high demand for prime Big Island property, the cost of undeveloped land is drastically higher than farmland in other parts of the world. In many cases, farmers can get a larger return by selling their land for development rather than farming it. However, farmland on the Big Island is still generally less expensive than in other parts of the state, giving Hawaii Island the most potential for growth. According to data from the state Department of Agriculture, about 60 percent of crop lands in the state is on Hawaii Island.

Dr. William Mokahi Steiner, dean of the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management, says the real dilemma isn’t lack of land; it’s the shortage of farmers. Last year, the program graduated just 36 students.

“So many things are stacked against them [local farmers], including the cost of land and equipment, the low returns for the hard labor … and policies that do not make it attractive to our students to try to continue,” says Steiner. However, he is seeing a rise in students dedicated to sustainable approaches.

Steiner says the farmer-shortage crisis is the result of a system that believes it is more important to spend millions of dollars to promote tourism than build sustainable communities in Hawaii by supporting appropriate education in the schools. “Tourism, remember, creates service jobs for the most part,” Steiner adds. “An education in agriculture, when coupled with the right incentives to promote its adoption in our communities, builds entrepreneurs and independent businessmen and women.”

Still, Kim reminds that there is only one irrigation reservoir on the island, located in Waimea, and that the Hamakua and Kohala ditches that carry water to many of the farms on the Hamakua Coast were damaged in the two massive 2006 earthquakes. According to the Whole System Project, it will cost about $30 million to rehabilitate some of the old sugar-cane irrigation structures, which, at present, seems like the most plausible solution to transport water to the farms.

And it always comes back to the people.

“Most of the time, [politicians] do what is popular, not what is right,” says Kim. “If they know that the public fully supports something, they’ll jump on the wagon real fast.”

Although there’s still much that needs to be done, Kim says he’s proud that Hawaii Island is leading the state in the movement to become less dependent on imported oil. No doubt, the Big Island’s upcoming mayoral election will have a huge impact on the island’s future and pending projects. With only a couple of months left in office, Kim recounts a simpler time when asked what his hopes and dreams are for the Big Island.

“I was blessed to be born and raised in the most beautiful place on earth — a place where the village took care of me. I was so lucky to be placed in jobs that I could try in a small way to help pay back the village, and that has been my life. What do I hope? I hope for more of that from other people.  I hope that regardless of where we go with technoligy and everything else, that we still remain a village of taking care of each other, our land, our environment, just caring.  And if that's what that buzzword sustainability means, then let's go for it.  We need to."

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