Food/farm policy, Hawaii style

According to numerous reports Hawaii imports about 90% of its food and exports approximately $3 billion a year paying for it.

All will agree I hope, that reversing this statistic so that 90% of our food is grown in Hawaii, and all of that money is circulated in our local economy — is a worthy goal.

Clearly, we have the land and the water to support our basics — meat, vegetables, fruit, and starches.

Meat — Fortunately, due to the pioneering efforts of local ranchers, the locally grown grass-fed beef component seems to be on track. It goes without saying that the market for hamburger alone in the state of Hawaii is massive. Think of all the fast-food restaurants, think of all the hotels – and think about something the government has control over, which is the food purchased by schools, prisons, and state hospitals.

Vegetables — A wide assortment of green leafy and other veggies are also grown through-out Hawaii in back-yard farms and on larger tracks of land.

Fruit — In my yard, growing almost effortlessly on a quarter acre of land we have a consistent supply of papaya, banana, starfruit, mango, orange, lemons, limes, pineapple, and an occasional dragonfruit. There are few things more gratifying than eating something every single day that has been grown in your own yard. While I have some understanding of the challenges that commercial farmers face when attempting to grow and distribute larger quantities of fruit, clearly a wide variety of fruit thrive in our soil, sun, and water.

Starch — I am tempted to say forget rice for a moment, but I am fully aware this suggestion would not be a palatable one. However, without any hesitation at all, I give a full-throated shout out to ulu (breadfruit)! Trust me on this. My wife and I literally have our “picker” in the car at this moment preparing to head out to a couple of secret locations where the ulu is ready to fall to the ground. While there is a “learning curve” to its preparation — ulu has come to be one of our favorite foods. Taro is the other obvious starch that can be grown in abundance here in Hawaii, is a traditional food source, and highly nutritious.

What about fish? I purposely have left fish off the list. Personally, I have concerns about “fish farming” and even more concerned about the potential for over-fishing of our local waters. So for now, my practice is to buy fish, when available from my local fisher-friends.

So, what is keeping us from growing our own food and feeding ourselves?

Not a whole lot actually. There are really only a handful of core elements that need to be in place – and all can be achieved via basic changes in public policy. As is most often the case the policy changes can be phased in — 10% per year over 10 years and voila, Hawaii has achieved food sustainability.

Some stuff, we as individuals can, should and must do NOW.

If local residents made a concerted effort to ALWAYS shop at the local farmers market, and ALWAYS buy local beef and pork (and fish from local fisher-friends, and eggs when you can get them) — then small local farmers could and would be sustainable. If we who live here, purchased 100% of our fruit, veggies, meat, and starches from local farmers, it would make an incredible difference.

And if our state government required that all (or at least 90%) of food purchased for schools, prisons and state hospitals be locally grown — think what a tremendous market opportunity that would offer for local farmers.

Of course, if the visitor industry and a few fast food chains made a commitment to spend 90% of their budget on locally produced food – that also would be huge.

Local farmers on all islands are pretty much unanimous in their message to policymakers: They need a steady market for their products and they need access to farm-worker housing options, low cost and long term land leases, and affordable water.

Farm-worker housing — Policymakers can and must make this happen. Farmers and their workers need to be able to live on their land which is often-times leased and not necessarily zoned for residential use. Some progress has been made on this issue, but the process continues to be far too complex and unwieldy. The challenge for policymakers is to make this easy for “real farmers” but prevent the historical abuse that has resulted in a proliferation of “fake farms” and “transient vacation rentals”.

Land — Farmers need affordable and long term leases. Unfortunately, Hawaii’s largest private landowners are hesitant to grant the affordable long term leases needed by serious farmers. Policymakers could direct the Agribusiness Development Corporation (ADC), a state agency that manages thousands of acres of publicly owned agricultural land, to make local food production their top priority. Today the ADC’s largest tenants are the agrochemical companies whose primary products are not food for local consumption but rather genetically modified corn exported for the eventual production of high fructose corn syrup, ethanol and/or cattle feed.

Water — Access to affordable water is essential and government has a central role in managing and protecting this public trust resource. Historically large landowners have used agriculture merely as a “front” to preserve their control over water that is ultimately diverted for real estate development.

In addition, the negative legacy of pesticide contamination must be avoided. The sugar and pineapple plantations of the past are as guilty as today’s GMO industrial/ag companies. Recent testing of soils, surface streams, near-shore waters, and even our drinking-water aquifers, all show evidence of pesticide contamination caused by large agribusiness. Public policy changes aimed at both preserving water quality and ensuring water availability to farmers who practice regenerative farming methods must be a priority.

Simply making local food production a goal is not enough. Government policymakers must take action.


Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.

  1. Shelly November 20, 2019 8:31 am Reply

    Such a great article- I too really want to see more farm house options for farmers on ag land!!!

  2. Debra Kekaualua November 20, 2019 9:21 am Reply

    Government policy makers per return receipt mailings have been given notice to cease and desist as well as “taking action” to pack up all the regimes militaropoliticojudicio voting scams that continue to keep us slaves with these kind of slave drivers, as Niihauan are treated and every island corruption due to this regimes, many “stolen mailboxes” or having Zero jurisdiction. What part of GAME OVER do you all not understand. Aloha

  3. RG DeSoto November 20, 2019 10:16 am Reply

    “Simply making local food production a goal is not enough. Government policymakers must take action”
    This is always the bottom line for people like Gary. All of his proscriptions above depend on a good supply of young people wanting to farm and an inexpensive supply of good farm land…sorry Gary that’s just not going to happen. Farming is tough and not a very profitable endeavor…that’s just a fact and all the pie-in-the-sky talk from Gary and others is not going to change that.
    It boils down to one thing for Gary and other like-minded hacks: if it won’t happen spontaneously (voluntarily) then we’ll resort to government force…”government policy makers must take action”.
    Remember this: more government = less freedom.
    RG DeSoto

  4. amused November 20, 2019 12:16 pm Reply

    Once again Gary reminds us that he knows absolutely nothing about the challenges of agriculture and farming in Hawaii. If he thinks it’s so easy, let him go farm instead of lecturing others and criticizing the few legitimate and viable ag operations in the state. Like so many failed politicians, all he has to offer now is empty rhetoric.

  5. Gary Hooser November 20, 2019 3:49 pm Reply

    RG – please read. I am talking about leasing publicly owned lands at low rates to local food producing farmers. These is not private property. What is wrong with utilizing public lands for local food production? Would you rather it sit fallow? Or just lease this prime agricultural land to nonfood enterprise?

  6. Charlie Martin November 21, 2019 9:34 am Reply

    The Agribusiness Development Corporation (ADC) needs to send out invitations to large scale producers with a proven track record of responsible sustainable farm companies to avoid the pitfalls that small farm operations face in scaling up. One needs only to look in the produce section of the large supermarket chains/ big box stores to see evidence of imported organically grown produce, the common product label seen is Taylor Farms and that would be a logical company to be the first to invite:

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