Going to Seed
A booming seed crop industry revitalizes west Kauai
Driving along Kauai’s rural western coast, you may do a double take at the cornfields waving before your eyes. But hold off on stopping to buy a few ears of sweet corn, as most of that Kekaha and Waimea corn – and some 85 percent of all cornfields in Hawaii – is grown strictly as seed crop for export. Corn accounts for more than 98 percent of all seeds shipped out of state.
Hawaii’s seed crops, which also include soybean, sunflower, wheat and cotton seeds, posted a record-high $50.47 million in sales in 2003, representing a 5 percent increase over $48.14 million in 2002. Seeds rank just behind pineapple and sugar as the state’s third most valuable agricultural commodity, and it’s the one growing at a faster rate, almost doubling in value in just five years, from $25.3 million in 1998. Seeds also account for 13 percent of diversified agriculture’s production value and ranks third behind flowers and nursery products and vegetables and melons.
Much of that growth can be attributed to the high farm demand for corn hybrids from the U.S. mainland and Hawaii’s year-round growing season, according to Cindy Goldstein, community outreach manager for Pioneer Hi-Bred International, one of three companies (the others are Syngenta Seeds and Monsanto) producing seed crops on west Kauai. Statewide, seven seed-crop farms operate on Kauai, Oahu, Maui and Molokai.
“Hawaii is one of the top growing regions for seed crops in the world,” says Goldstein. Her company was drawn to Kauai in 1968 to add a warmer-climate growing season to speed up its crop improvement research. Other pluses were Hawaii’s predictable weather; good ag lands and a skilled ag work force becoming available as sugar lands were converted to diversified ag; and strong legal protection under U.S. laws of proprietary plant material and purity standards of the “germ plasma” developed for commercial stock.
The state’s busiest seed-crop season is from October to January, when the U.S. mainland is too cold. A year-round season means Hawaii-based seed-crop companies can grow multiple generations or sustain research done in other areas of the country. According to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the improved seeds that have resulted over the past 70 years are a major contributor to crop yield gains of all major field crops in the United States. Hawaii also contributes to making the U.S. seed market, valued at $5.7 billion, the largest in the world.
While Pioneer’s top crop is the parent seed of hybrid corn for producing corn oil, corn syrup, cornstarch and animal feed, the company also does research and production of soybean and sunflower seeds and contracts all of the growing to local farmers. This allows local farmers to have a reliable income, to keep their labor pool fully employed and even allows some farmers to experiment and take risks with new diversified ag crops, says Goldstein.
According to Mattie Yoshioka, president and CEO of the Kauai Economic Development Board, collectively the three seed companies employ about 100 full-time workers and pick up around 250 seasonal employees annually. Those numbers are comparable to the 250 to 300 workers seasonally employed by Gay & Robinson, Kauai’s last remaining sugar company.
“[The seed companies] helped our displaced sugar workers and kept our ag lands in ag production, which has helped maintain the rural character of west Kauai,” she adds. About half of Pioneer’s seeds grown in Hawaii are biotech crops, which are genetically altered to offer farmers crops that are resistant to specific diseases or insects or that provide higher yields, shorter growing seasons or tolerance to temperature ranges, says Goldstein.
“Pioneer is a seed company,” she emphasizes, “and biotechnology is one of the tools used for plant breeding.” Pioneer uses both traditional and biotech crops in its seed cultivation, uses no animal genes in plants and produces no pharmaceutical crops, she adds.
With Hawaii’s seed-crop industry poised for continued growth, Pioneer plans to expand its Oahu operations, adding a second research center to join its current Waialua Parent Seed Production. Considered one of the first high-tech industries in Hawaii, seed crops are challenged to find technically skilled ag employees, says Goldstein. To this end, Pioneer offers a rigorous project-based internship program to 10 students annually and tries to fill those internships with students from Hawaii universities.