Eat Your Veggies

To be truly sustainable, Hawaii agriculture needs more people to eat healthier

October, 2006

In 1990, Dean Okimoto was struggling to keep his specialty farm in business. Fatefully, a friend introduced him to local chef Roy Yamaguchi, who began incorporating Okimoto’s specialty greens from Nalo Farms into his menu. Okimoto soon became one of the local farmers synonymous with the Hawaii Regional Cuisine (HRC) movement, which was founded by Yamaguchi and 11 other local chefs in 1992 and brought international acclaim to Pacific Rim fare of Island-grown fish, beef and produce.

“I wouldn’t be around if it weren’t for them [the HRC chefs],” says Okimoto, who is also current president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation.

According to Okimoto, Nalo Farms does $700,000 in annual sales. He plans to expand from 4 acres to 8 acres as the farm adds local supermarkets to a current customer list of more than 80 restaurants on Oahu. He also owns a distribution business, with more than $2 million in annual revenue, to deliver his and other small farmers’ produce to customers, serving as the middleman between farm and restaurant. He recently invested $750,000 to build a small production facility for warehousing and processing.

Okimoto believes agriculture is critical to Hawaii for self-sufficiency, food security and green space for tourism. He supports Important Agriculture Lands (IAL), a designation approved by the Legislature and in the development process by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture. He admits the incentives under discussion are designed to encourage larger farms.

“Small farmers need to band together to become economically viable in the future,” he says. And long-term viability is crucial to sustainable agriculture in Hawaii.

Meeting Their Needs

According to the Office of Sustainability at the University of Hawaii, sustainable agriculture is defined as “living in ways that meet our present needs without limiting the potential of future generations to meet their needs.” It’s a broad definition for a far-reaching issue, in which agriculture plays a key role.

Sustainable agriculture is often equated with organic farming or ecological issues, such as fossil-fuel consumption, global warming and food safety. However, sustainability is more than just an environmental issue: it’s economic—if a farmer cannot stay in business today, there is no future for agriculture; and social—if consumers do not demand local produce, imports will continue to account for 90 percent of the state’s available fruits and vegetables. According to Duane Okamoto, deputy to the chairperson at the Hawaii Department of Agriculture (HDOA), Hawaii has only a three-to-five day food supply, in the event of a disaster or strike.

“People tend to glamorize sustainability, but never really get down to what it means,” says Linda Cox, an agricultural economist at the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources and proponent of the idea that sustainability requires systemic change—environmental, social and economic—over the long haul.

Since Hawaii is an island state, local farmers have to deal with limited supplies of water, labor and land. In addition, invasive plants and pests have had a devastating impact on Hawaii’s fragile, isolated environment. According to HDOA’s Plant Quarantine Branch, Hawaii’s agriculture producers lost an estimated $300 million in revenues in potential exports in 2005, because of pest infestations caused by past introductions of invasive species.

And as it has for the rest of the world, the recent rise in oil prices and instability in the Middle East have increased flight and shipping costs. According to the Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism, Hawaii is dependent on imported oil for more than 92 percent of its energy needs, making it the most vulnerable state in the nation to the disruption of its economy and way of life.

Yet, despite all these challenges, agricultural sustainability in Hawaii is rooted culturally and politically. The early Hawaiian ahupuaa, a system of land and resource management, was a self-sustaining geographic area from land to sea that emphasized the interrelationship between people and nature.

However, by the 1970s, modern land use in Hawaii had seemingly failed as Hawaii’s State Land Use Law (Act 187), enacted in 1961 as the first statewide zoning measure in the U.S., mainly served to contain urban areas without preserving prime agricultural land.

Between 1964 and 1975, conversion to urban uses occurred largely on prime agricultural land on the island of Oahu, prompting citizens to amend the Hawaii State Constitution. In 1978, the state adopted a constitutional amendment (Article XI, Section 3) to protect agricultural lands and promote diversified agriculture.

A 2005 legislative act recently required the Office of the Auditor to create the Hawai’i 2050 Sustainability Plan to deal with the long-term sustainability of the state. Agriculture is considered a major component, especially with the demands that tourism, a growing population and housing developments place on the fragile Island ecosystem.

A Tale of Two Farms

Adaptations, an organic farm and certified organic warehouse and processing facility on the Big Island, caters predominantly to resort restaurants with a variety of produce, including salad greens, specialty choys, herbs, fruits and edible flowers. Owner Tane Datta bought his 7.5-acre “raw jungle” property in 1980, in Honaunau, north of Kona. He describes the first five years as essentially “homesteading,” but says the farm took off in the late 1980s, when one of the HRC founding chefs, Philippe Padovani, took an interest in Datta’s organic produce and helped introduce it into the resort market.
To keep the local supply consistent for his customers, Datta started a distribution and warehousing business, which does more than $1 million in annual sales and distributes produce from about 35 local farms to almost 40 local resorts and restaurants.“We could not go through the regular produce brokers, who didn’t have the time, energy or vision for local produce,” Datta says. “It was the chefs’ willingness to be creative and use what we could come up with week to week.”

While organic farming has also proven to be more than environmentally sustainable for Datta, it has also made economic sense. Organic produce commands a price premium, up to 50 percent or more, at the market. Datta has also substantially reduced the cost of farm inputs, such as potting soil, by composting. He now purchases one pallet of potting soil every four months instead of every month.

Datta says organic farming “as a whole unit, with pest and disease control, has a tendency to match environment with growing systems. It is more sustainable, which makes it easier to grow in the long run.”

He notes that most of the farmers for whom he distributes have high productivity, with a large variety of crops that enables them to replant right away and keep the land productive year-round. Datta believes a farm needs to have around $75,000 in revenues to operate as a business, with health-care plans, larger capital investments, etc. One-third of the farms he works with are in the $100,000 range, but the rest are much smaller.

Still, Adaptations and its collective of small farms only supply a small amount of produce, and up to 70 percent of that produce never makes it to the local supermarket. Most of the state’s farms are extremely small, with close to 64 percent on less than 10 acres and almost 88 percent on less than 50 acres (see chart — on previous page).

Larry Jefts is not one of those small farmers, and has a distinctly different approach. The owner of Sugarland Farms on Oahu, Jefts has several thousand acres and sells his produce to the mass market, including local supermarkets. “I was told what I do [large, diversified farming], couldn’t be done in Hawaii,” he says.

Jefts comes from a family of Midwest farmers. He says he runs the farm as a business, choosing which crops to grow based on revenues and costs. “I look to interrupt the flow of money already taking place,” he says, meaning he looks at the purchase trends for imported produce, then increases service and lowers costs.

Jefts focuses on freight costs, since transportation is one of the highest costs of doing business in Hawaii. He says his ratio for success is one container of inputs to 10 containers of outputs (in tonnage), with an emphasis on produce, such as watermelons, whose freight cost is a high percentage of a product’s value. He says he now sells about 1 million pounds of produce per week, or almost a pound per resident.

He seeks to market his fresh produce against imported products, convincing consumers to choose fresh, reasonably priced watermelon over imported grapes, for example.

Eat Your Vegetables

Local agriculture cannot thrive without consumer demand, and Hawaii consumers are slowly demanding more local produce. Letitia Uyehara, director of marketing for Armstrong Produce, a major local produce distributor, says the proportion of orders for specialty produce has increased from only 10 percent five years ago to more than 20 percent of their business today. Armstrong has also been able to purchase locally grown crops, such as tomatoes, to cover 100 percent of its customer needs, at least during the summer, and that can reduce prices by almost 40 percent. She notes most local supermarkets have expanded their local and organic produce sections.

But tourists and the high-end restaurants that cater to them are still the main drivers for specialty farms, such as Datta’s Adaptations.

“The mainstream supermarkets are seeing that shelf space works,” says Datta. However, he says, high-end tourists are more health conscious and aware of foods and they have been the ones demanding quality, local produce.

One issue is price, with fresh produce typically costing 40 percent more in Honolulu than in metropolitan areas on the U.S. mainland. However, eating habits also play a role. U.S. consumers eat 60 percent more cane sugar, beet sugar and corn sweeteners than is recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture Food Guide Pyramid. In contrast, U.S. per capita fruit consumption is woefully low. Vegetable consumption, which comes closer to the recommended amount, is based on a very limited variety, 48 percent of which includes iceberg lettuce, frozen potatoes, fresh potatoes, potato chips and canned tomatoes. Most nutritionists consider potatoes carbohydrates, not vegetables.

“Most people know french fries are bad and that they should eat more fruits and vegetables. They just don’t want to,” agricultural economist Cox says. “It’s not fun to sacrifice. It’s a question of degrees, but true sustainability is a very difficult thing to reach. It’s going to take a lot of sacrifice.”

Down to Earth

“A farmer usually doesn’t factor in his salary as a cost, but he works 24/7 and, unlike a state employee, he doesn’t get vacation, he doesn’t get sick leave. His hourly is probably around 25 cents,” says Dang. “As a farmer, I would sell organic carrots for one dollar per pound. You can’t even deliver for that.”Gordon Dang was a successful foreign-exchange trader who fell in love with the dream of organic farming. He kept his day job, but purchased 6 acres of flat, dry land in Kamuela on the Big Island in the mid-1990s and set about composting his own soil from macadamia nut husks. Today, he’s still in the foreign-exchange market and still grows his own organic vegetables, but he’s out of commercial farming for both personal and economic reasons.

Dang estimates he grows 95 percent of the vegetables for his family from his Salt Lake home’s garden and says the time and effort are worthwhile, because he knows where his food comes from and what went into it. Just as importantly, he likes the freshness and taste.

“Growing one’s own vegetables is not cheap and is a labor of love,” he says. “And taking care of the soil is very important.”

Dang spends an average of 20 hours per month working in his garden, shredding mango leaves for compost, rotating crops to retain soil nutrients, seeding new crops and weeding his produce beds. He grows a wide variety of vegetables, including herbs, corn, papayas, asparagus, guavas, bananas, tomatoes and beets.

He has offered free help to friends who express an interest in organic home gardening, but no one has yet taken him up on his offer.

– KF

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