By Jay Fidell
The response to our ThinkTech agriculture program has gone off the chart. We drew back from the half day program we had contemplated and set it up on a more modest scale – a routine luncheon panel in a collaboration with the Hawaii Venture Capital Association starting 11:30 am this Thursday at the Plaza Club.
We're calling it “Can there be a Renaissance in Agriculture for Hawaii?” The idea was not to assume that there actually was or would be a renaissance happening but to raise the question and see whether people felt it should, could or would happen. No guarantees there.
The panelists we selected were Darren Demaya of the Kai Market Restaurant at the Sheraton Waikiki, Claire Robinson of Whole Foods, Andres Albano of CB Richard Ellis, who sells farmland, Richard Ha, a sustainability farmer on the Big Island, and Kyle Datta, of Ulupono Initiative, who’s trying to build a business network of new agriculture for Pierre Omidyar.
It’s actually a fabulous panel, well able to cover and exceed the essential points of the inquiry, public interest in local foods, competitive prices, reliability and the supply chain, the challenges of starting a farm and being a farmer, and how to be an investor and make money in the new agriculture.
That’s actually a pretty ambitious panel program for a given routine Thursday afternoon.
Our regular crowd of Hawaii Venture Capital and ThinkTech supporters could see it right away, and they signed up in droves. But the word got out beyond them, and lots of other people started to sign up also. I guess people think that agriculture has become more important to Hawaii, possibly because of sustainability, tech, jobs and the economy, and the linkages with aquaculture and biofuel, all relevant and powerful reasons. This is much more than nostalgia.
Whatever their reasons, they’re calling and writing and coming down in bunches. A number of legislators are interested and some candidates and other VIPs. Way beyond the normal crowd. What does this mean? I think it’s a credit to the Hawaii Venture Capital Association, which over the years has emerged in my view as the leading tech and capital trade organization. For its part, ThinkTech is delighted to be involved in the planning and organization of programs of this nature.
Public participation is of course voluntary, driven by a “need to know” in the business, academic and government communities. They want to know what’s going on. They know that we need to master these issues before jumping into the decision process that will hopefully take us to the next step.
They know how easy it is for us to make a monumental mistake. They know how dangerous it is to let government take the field on these things and without taking input from knowledgeable common sense constituencies.
What I’m saying is that people in these communities want to rub shoulders with colleagues and friends and grapple with the costs and benefits of our future. They know the best way to do that is to network up a storm at straight talk programs, and to bring out good speakers and test fresh ideas with them.
The bottom line is whether the crowd that shows up will be driven to action. Regrettably, that would be the exception not the rule. Lots of these programs are for the sake of interest or curiosity, and it stops well short of action. But others actually move people to do things, and that's far perferable.
In a best case analysis, what could the agriculture program do so move people to do things? Well, given that we’re going to hear from a really good restaurant and a high quality food store all touting local food, I expect more people will be eating local food. Longer lines at Kai Market and Whole Foods, but what about the families that can't afford to pay more than conventional prices?
The more pressing question is whether this program will motivate people, especially young people who have had training in both science and business, to get into farming as a career, and whether it will motivate legislators and managers to create incentives that will make it easier for them to do that.
Another issue that pops out at you is the land issue, an issue that touches everything we do, since as everyone knows, land is simply too expensive here and in the long run we cannot have a sustainable economy without coming to grips with this frightening disparity. At the base of it, you can’t farm without land, and land in Hawaii is scarce and embedded in a system that makes it too expensive.
What to do, what to do? One thing that might be considered is the idea of turning over state land to agriculture. That hasn’t happened. There was an article in the paper today reporting that the Obama administration will be turning over public land for energy projects. Can’t we learn from that? Is there any reason the State of Hawaii cannot likewise turn over land for good public purposes?
I’ve written about this before. The state has huge amounts of fallow and unproductive land. Why oh why can’t it make that land available for new businesses, especially farming businesses. There’s no good reason. The people on the beach could be middle class farmers today if we could only allow them some land. Would we rather let the state land sit stagnant and unproductive? Would we rather let them live their lives out on the beach?
Hopefully, this program will raise the larger issue of who’s going to take action to bell the cat for a better future, individuals, government or business. Yes, agriculture will ultimately be profitable because food shipped in will ultimately be too expensive. But who will own the farms and make the money when that happens? Will we be taking about charity and the common good, or will we have new monopolies.
The smart guys look ahead. The rest of us should too. Come to our program on Thursday this week October 28th, and see into the future of agriculture in Hawaii and thus also our own future. If we don’t do that, who will? Sign up on hvca.org or thinktechhawaii.com.