What it takes to have Hawai‘i agriculture

If you plan to eat something today, please thank a farmer.

Whether you enjoy beef, pork, poultry, vegetables, fruit, milk, cheese, butter, bread … virtually everything you eat came from a farm. Buying groceries or ordering take-out is part of our lifestyle. Rarely do we think about all the things that need to happen in order to get the food to the supermarket or restaurant.

Agriculture is not easy, but it sure is essential.

Farmers comprise about 2 percent of our national population. They feed the other 98 percent who don’t farm. These are some of the things farmers need to succeed:

•Affordable water and land. Water and land are critical, but they must also be affordable or a farm will not survive.

•Customer markets. Like any business, farmers need customers willing to purchase their products. Customers include supermarkets, restaurants and individuals.

•Multiple revenue streams. Hawai‘i agriculture can be more successful if farms can have more than one customer market or more than one source of farm income. The Mainland has value-added facilities to support agriculture. For example, a farmer who grows tomatoes in Hawai‘i sells all their best tomatoes to the fresh market, but they throw away most of their off-grade (roughly 20 percent of total production is off-grade) because they don’t have the facilities to turn their off-grade tomatoes into ketchup, tomato sauce, etc. So, unlike a farmer on the Mainland, who is able to generate revenue on his off-grade tomatoes, a Hawai‘i farmer simply throws his away. This makes Hawai‘i’s products more expensive than those same products coming from the Mainland.

•Affordable transportation. Agricultural products require special handling so that fresh products won’t spoil on their way from the farm to their customers. Transportation expenses can be a major cost for agricultural operations, and it’s important to keep them as affordable as possible.

•Supportive regulations. Government policies have a huge impact on agriculture. Some examples: Residential building codes can make it cost-prohibitive to build a simple greenhouse. Food safety standards are set far higher than the scientific data warrants, thereby driving up the costs to farmers. Small farmers tend to be especially hard- hit by such onerous regulations.

A hot topic in Hawai‘i lately is the need for self-sufficiency. It’s a good concept but a hard one to achieve. Local agriculture is a critical part of any discussion on self-sufficiency. Do you know why?

First, we import 85 percent of everything we eat, including many of our foods. If we want to be more self-sufficient, we need to support and grow local agriculture.

Second, production of biofuels in Hawai‘i can improve energy sustainability, but will improve self-sufficiency only if Hawai‘i farmers can successfully grow high-oil crops to supply the biofuel plants.

And third, increased globalization means we are importing more and more produce from out of the state. While this means we can enjoy, say, strawberries from the Mainland or New Zealand, it also means we are importing unwanted insects and pests that hitchhike in on the imported produce and escape into our environment. This increases our costs to grow that same strawberry. Invasive species is less of a problem if you buy local. So, Hawai‘i agriculture plays a key role in protecting our environment.

Agriculture is also integrally tied to a number of other important issues — issues that we all need to consider and address so we can preserve local agriculture:

Can we improve policies so agriculture and development can co-exist harmoniously, so we can affordably house as well as feed our residents?

Can we expand export opportunities for our local farmers so they can compete in the global economy?

Can we do a better job of embracing all types of legitimate agriculture? By doing so, we give our farmers the best range of choices and potential new niche markets. This includes embracing groundbreaking research and technology, which has been a part of Hawai‘i for decades but has been greatly under-appreciated as an important component of our local agricultural industry.

Can we conserve water? If we lose agricultural lands we affect our ability to replenish our water table. Agriculture is able to use water to grow something while putting enough water back into our aquifers for future generations.

Finally, can we do more to support local agriculture? Thank a farmer. Buy local agriculture products. Think about what it took for you to have your dinner tonight.

•Dean Okimoto is the president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation.

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