Older farmers, more farms

  • Jessica Else / The Garden Island file

    The Kilauea Community Agricultural Center grows dozens of crops, including eggplant, left, allowing island residents to contribute to the work and get in on community produce boxes.

  • Jessica Else / The Garden Island

    Noni grows on a Kauai farm.

LIHUE — More people in Hawaii are digging into agriculture, according to a recent census, but market values are declining and farmers are getting older.

That’s according to the federal 2017 Census of Agriculture, which showed the total number of farms in Hawaii increased by about 5 percent from 2012 to 2017.

At the same time, total market value dropped from $661 million to $564 million. Changes in Maui sugar operations and the decline in value of the Hawaii seed corn industry contribute to most of those lower market values, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Census data showed the total number of farms in Hawaii rose from 7,000 in 2012 to 7,328 in 2017. To be defined as a farm, agricultural operations have to sell at least $1,000 worth of products.

On Kauai, those involved in agriculture say an increase in market vendors shows the island is following that upward trend of more farmers. They also say an increase in serious agriculture is needed to generate real, sustainable, local food production.

“I can’t tell you exactly how much, but our vendors at the farmers’ market have increased,” said John Gordines of the Kauai County Farm Bureau. “We had 80 vendors at the Garden Fair over the weekend, and it was the most we’d ever had.”

Kauai County’s Sunshine Markets have had an increase in vendors, too.

Records indicate that the County of Kauai had 62 farmers participate in the Sunshine Markets program in 2015. This year, that number is at 116 farmers.

“Because of Hawaii’s climate and fruitful growing conditions, farmers are able to grow an assortment of fruits and vegetables throughout the year. Dragon fruit, chocolate plum, longan, pumpkin flower, Buddha’s hand and custard apple are among some of the popular produce that are being sold at the Sunshine Markets,” said Robbie Melton, director of the county Office of Economic Development.

More farms and agricultural vendors at markets increases the state’s bottom line, keeping money in local pockets and fostering a strong economy.

And when it comes to the $97 million drop in Hawaii market values from 2012 to 2017, officials point to the closure of the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company operations on Maui as the driving factor.

They also point to seed corn values that dropped from $241 million in the 2011/2012 season to $121 million in the 2017/2018 season.

While those two parts of big ag received a hit over those five years, the report still delivers good information that Hawaii officials said was encouraging.

“The data in the agricultural census gives us a good snapshot of what was happening in agriculture in 2017,” said Gov. David Ige. “These numbers should reinvigorate all efforts to continue to increasing Hawaii’s food security and self-sufficiency.”

The biggest increase, though, was in the number of small farms that are between one and nine acres. At the same time, the average age of farmers has climbed from 58 in 2012 to 60 in 2017, meaning farmers are getting older.

“While the average age of farmers is slightly older, the increase in the number of new farmers is heartening,” said Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser, acting chair of the Hawaii Board of Agriculture. “We encourage local consumers to continue to increase their support of Hawaii farmers and ranchers and buy local because it really does have an impact on our community and lifestyle.”

Some say an advance in small farms is not enough to boost serious motion toward food sustainability and a stronger local agriculture paradigm.

“We do need more real farmers,” Gordines said. “We bring in 80 percent of food from the mainland, if not more. We can grow almost anything, and almost anything grown in Hawaii should be sellable.”

The need for Hawaii to grow its own food isn’t something new. Moving Hawaii’s meal ticket from the barges to their own farms has been a favorite topic of state leaders in the ag industry and others for several years.

Ige’s Sustainable Hawaii Initiative inks out the goal of a 100 percent increase in local agriculture production by 2020 from what it was in 2015.

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Jessica Else, environment reporter, can be reached at 245-0452 or jelse@thegardenisland.com.

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