Kauai needs farmers now more than ever

I came to Kauai around 16 years ago and somehow managed to get myself involved with the Kauai County Farm Bureau. I had an extensive marketing background and had this idea about creating a program called “Grow Kauai.”

I ended up writing a monthly column in the precursor to For Kauai, called “Grower of the Month.” For over a year, I got to talk story with some of the old timers, like Mamo Kaneshiro, a true gentleman. I began to develop an incredible respect for our island farmers and felt privileged to be able to meet many of them.

During my years at the farm bureau, I befriended Jerry Ornellas. I found him to be very articulate and someone with a profound sense of agriculture’s history on Kauai. He was also incapable of turning down any request to speak on behalf of the significance of agriculture, the true fabric of this island.

He was born a farmer and will die a farmer, because that’s who he is. I was surprised to read his story about the looming water crisis on the Eastside (forum, Other Voices, TGI, Nov. 12). He has never been one to seek the limelight and heaven for him is being out on his land, doing what he has always done.

I know we have a very serious water problem for our farmers, because Jerry would simply never do anything like this. While this might seem naive on my part, you don’t know him the way I do and there is no one anywhere on Kauai more credible in these matters, period.

As a result of my history here, I probably know more than I ought to be about how small farmers all over this state are continually pushed aside and taken advantage of. Frankly, they are lousy politicians and joy for them is preparing their soil, planting their crops and working their hearts out for a good harvest. They are a special kind of angel and they are a dying breed.

Agribusiness has been pushing them to the brink of extinction and their loss will do irreparable harm to every one of us. We rely on water for life, because it is our life blood. It is exactly the same for small farmers. Water brings their crops to life and, without it, they die.

Talk of sustainability has become very fashionable these days. It is a wonderful concept that makes so many people feel good about themselves. Politicians and power brokers are particularly in love with the idea.

When you mix in the looming threat of climate change it becomes even sexier for those people to bandy it about. We are a small island in the middle of nowhere, and if you think we will be top of mind on anyone’s agenda on the mainland, you are seriously delusional.

In the years ahead, we are going to need our farmers and we will need more of them. I believe with all my heart the survival of Kauai is going to be based on our ability to feed ourselves.

The reservoirs and ditch systems throughout the island were brilliantly designed and done so by the incredibly hard work of people who lived with the land and understood its ways, just like Jerry.

Farmers are much happier talking to the land than writing articles or lobbying politicians. We are the ones who need them desperately, and they are the ones who need the water.

Please read Jerry Ornellas’ article, “East Kauai irrigation system reverting to DLNR,” and know he is speaking truth to power.


Larry Feinstein, a self-described “Kauai lover,” is a resident of Lihue.

  1. Rudolph November 17, 2019 5:53 am Reply

    Is farmland available to purchase on Kauai? Also I’m wondering how the farmers are getting the short end of the deal? And what water are they needing? I thought Kauai was the wettest place on the earth?

    1. Chris November 19, 2019 8:08 pm Reply

      Irrigation provides water when plants need it. We have plenty of water in stream beds but not as rainfall on makai fields. In 1850, a drought all but killed the sugar industry then located on windward acres. Farming is not a gurantee of success. Irrigation helps big time. . Hawaiians were masters of irrigation.

  2. manawai November 17, 2019 11:32 am Reply

    “In the years ahead, we are going to need our farmers and we will need more of them. I believe with all my heart the survival of Kauai is going to be based on our ability to feed ourselves.”
    Great! But sadly this thinking has not produced more than a handful of farmers. We have plenty of farm land with water; enough to produce most, if not all, of our essential foods. There are lots of people who would love to make a life in farming. We offer agricultural education programs to teach would be farmers.

    So, why isn’t there more farming? Simple answer: The farmer needs to be able to make a reasonable living off of his/her farm.

    By and large, farming in Hawaii cannot compete with farming in the mainland and other countries that enjoy much lower operating costs. Big Save and Costco, etc. can buy food produced in the mainland, pay to have it shipped to Hawaii, and sell it at prices lower than a local farmer needs to be economically viable. Sure we see some local produce selling Costco, such as Kamuela tomatoes, but I’d like to see their tax returns to see if they’re actually making a living solely off of their farming. And while there are lots of folks that love to, and do, support local ag, the vast majority of Hawaii consumers choose to buy the lowest-priced food possible. That’s a fact of life. Just like farmers, most people are concerned with meeting their own living expenses and will shop where the prices are lowest. And the segment of the populace that is willing and able to pay higher food prices is not a large enough consumer base to support large-scale commercial growers who are the ones we need to make us food independent.

    Larry, this is the larger problem that impedes your admirable vision of a “food secure” state.

    If economically viable large-scale local food production is possible here, then no one has figured it out yet.

    PS – You weren’t here when Ewa and Iniki hit us. Food and other supplies were flown in from the mainland. There was substantial business, non-profit and government support for its distribution. Everyone pulled together and no one went hungry. Maybe you didn’t see any pictures of Kauai after Iniki when all the leaves were blown off the trees and bushes. It looked like a nuclear winter. When a sizable hurricane hits us, the food crops are wiped out as well.

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