We had a very good program on agriculture at the Plaza Club on October 27th. We asked attendees to gave us what they thought were takeaway points. Here are some the points they mentioned:
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We need to put a younger face on agriculture, get governmental support on agricultural parks, infrastructure, nearby housing, farmers’ cooperatives. We need to show farmers how to make business plans. All sectors of agriculture should collaborate; no sector is mutually exclusive.
We need to develop a market for grass fed beef, expand land available for ranching and get stopgap government money to help build a slaughterhouse and processing plant.
We need collaboration. All sectors of the industry should collaborate and help each other. We need to develop public-private partnerships in this area. We need to relax the food safety rules to make it easier for famers. We need to integrate agriculture into residential communities.
We need perseverance. We need to find a methodology to enable distribution of small lots to farmers. We need to get government not to stand in the way of agricultural developments or delay the distribution of that land to farmers.
The time is ripe for a renaissance of agriculture in Hawaii, but we need to be realistic about our goals. Local agriculture is essential to our future. We need the reasonable and creative application of our laws to permit it to happen.
I’m bullish on Hawaii agriculture. The potential is there, but we need to make a strategic agriculture plan. We should integrate them with an energy plan. We need to diversify our crops, including forestry. We need to increase the number of farmers. We need to get the sectors to work together.
We need to take advantage of existing incentives and opportunities. We need to use Title III money to help bio-refineries.
Hawaii should look to solve global issues in agriculture. Agriculture companies in Hawaii should give back to the community, including public education and sharing and providing land and support to small farmers.
The magic word/words are Growth-Diversification-Innovation-Land. We should take advantage of Hawaii’s special brand for agriculture. Land is the biggest bottleneck, and land use policies have skewed the market. We must provide land and improve these policies. We should work together to identify important agricultural lands.
We must invest in the next generation of farmers and farm workers. We will need 3,500 new workers yearly, and we must invest in educating that workforce. It’s becoming more difficult to run a farm, and we have to invest in agricultural, infrastructure, education and R&D. We have to educate the workforce on all those new things. We need to do strategic planning for each of the diverse sectors of the industry.
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I am an MBA student at UH and an experienced Food Scientist. I recently had the opportunity to work on a collaborative project with CTAHR to determine the market feasibility of developing a global Specialty Tea industry here in Hawaii. See the report: http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/tea_2011.pdf
We found that there is growing demand for tea that Hawaii can supply. Tea grows well in agro-forestry systems and can grow in marginal agriculture land. There is opportunity for many farmers to grow tea which can be processed and marketed at centralized processing facilities. This will encourage farmers to diversify their land and the additional profits can help farmers focus on their core competency of enriching the state's food supply.
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So, do you think we panels answered the question "is Hawaii agriculture in a renaissance"? In my view, yes and no. I thought it was overly orchestrated and scripted to gloss over any dialog for real impediments and real improvements. The panels also seemed to confirm that all Ag segments have opportunity for growth: bio fuels, research, GMO seed, flowers, all except food.
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It seems to me people are ignoring the elephant in the room. Local food sounds great, and would be great, but is not economically viable. I think all the folks in this discussion would be well served by reading Charles Rappun's essay (UH Press) on agriculture in Hawaii. He had a piece in “The Value of Hawaii Book.” This Harvard educated farmer from Waihole valley makes the case that if the community wants fresh food we need to start a backyard gardening movement.
When the Lieutenant Governor says lets grow food not houses, someone needs to ask for the business plan to do that. There is no way to grow a tomato in Hawaii that can compete with one grown in California and shipped here. So we have a mom that pays $2,000 in rent and has a choice of a foreign tomato that costs a $1 or a locally grown one for $2. To bring the price down to $1.50, are we going to go back to the bad old days of importing contract slave labor to farm?
Making this whole thing even more complex is the anti-housing/growth folks along with the NIMBY people making the case that we can't have more housing because we need this productive farm land. They're using this feel good issue because their other arguments have no traction with the community. The irony is that if there were an economic model to grow food it would be on the outer islands.
So please ask your guests: with Hawaii's high cost of living, transportation, land, and union labor costs (and our lack of farm labor), will growing food For local consumption ever be viable outside the high-end boutique market?
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Do we really want food security? Is it more important than fuel security? Can we have both? People are doing fine with vegetables from South America. There are formidable barriers to local agriculture. We have big labor and immigration problems. We have big land cost, land use and water problems. We have malicious mischief problems about GMO’s. We have theft problems resulting in huge water loss here on Oahu, just last week on TV. Anthony Aalto of the Sierra Club would like us to save Oahu farmlands by redirecting housing to urban core. But save them for what? Is anyone lined up to farm them?
Farming is like running for office – you really got to want it, and when you get it you find out maybe you shouldn’t have wanted it so much. It’s not clear who does want it. Does your child want to be a farmer? Do you want him to be a farmer?
Sure there’s lots of talk about agriculture, but like so many things we have trouble getting together, staying focused and following through, not unlike Geothermal, SuperFerry, Rail, Big Wind and most recently Biofuel. Will we do better in agriculture? Or will paranoia, self-interest and divisiveness rule?
We need more than restaurant boutique food. We need to feed everyone everything, from soup to nuts, from fish to meat to milk, all the way up and down the food chain. We need excellent quality. In fact, we need to export excellent products, we need to be the Breadbasket of the Pacific. But we’re a long way from that. We don’t even have a ferry for Neighbor Island farmers to ship their produce.
How about getting together in a perfect universal focus on this critical issue? What’s the plan, the incentive and the timeline? Will there be a renaissance of the once great world class agricultural industry in Hawaii or will it go in the let’s-take-another-look-in-30-years category.
Can local agriculture build our economy? Can it provide decent jobs and middle-class careers when we are competing with cheap labor from around the world? Or should we just continue to rely on tourism as the better bet? If we are determined to rebuild agriculture, what do we need to do to get it to critical mass? Legislation, regulation, litigation, parades in the street, pitchforks at the gates, what?
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Here are my takeaways and comments based on my experience with aquaculture. The important themes and messages of the program were: Land, Water, and Parks; More Financing Options; Cooperative Formation; More Farmer Assistance; and Marketing.
Land, Water and Parks - Agriculture needs greater access to land (acceptable sites). Inherent in this is available and affordable land and water.
Government is not doing enough to actively facilitate this need, so the private sector has taken the initiative, but that is not nearly enough. The initiatives are having trouble with overcoming bureaucratic obstacles and financing issues caused in large part by the complicated permit/regulatory process. There is ample good land around.
Fred Lau suggested Agriculture Parks as a partial solution. Inherent in this suggestion is finding appropriate sites, crops, and financing; and building infrastructure so a reasonable return can be expected.
Government, that is DOA, is set up to do this, but some comments here: (a) existing Park sites were leftovers after all the good land went to private leases. This needs to change. There is an effort underway to move Agricultural land under DLNR to DOA, and this should be expedited; (b) Government, that is DOA, staffing and budgets for park development and management have been devastated by the previous administration and would need strengthening to play a greater role; (c) my understanding is the State Ag Park law can be used for joint ventures between the State and the private sector could be used to facilitate development if parks are a priority.
Not enough was said about water issues, e.g., access, cost, etc. Of course, the water discussion goes hand in glove with Agricultural food production. Repairing and using the dilapidated sugar water infrastructure is a big issue, and that must be front and center. These discussions can be centralized with DLNR and the Water Commission. Nobody knows more about the water issue than Bill Tam, the new Deputy for Water.
Ray Iwamoto discussed changes in the law (Act 271) that allow parks to be developed without adhering to subdivision requirements. It was not clear whether this was for a single project or could be a process for everyone. If the latter, then it should be publicized so others can use it. Being able to de-register from the Land Court sounded odd to me and should be explained further. Does one need an attorney?
Regarding the statements from Ka’eo Duarte of Kamehameha Schools, it sounds like they are on board and have identified 90,000 acres if I heard right. Everything should be done to facilitate and push them along to implement their plans.
More Financing Options - DOA staffing and budgets for the loan program have been hammered and could be strengthened to be more usable if demand is there. Looking at the Special Loan programs at DOA would be advisable; like young/new farmer loans, administratively approved loans, and the basic loan limits for agriculture and aquaculture. Look at them to see if they fit today's needs. The process for the Lender of Last Resort requirement, i.e., two rejections from commercial lenders, could be examined for improvements in today's market. Participation loans with private lenders could be used more, and we need to find ways to make them attractive.
I am not all that familiar with Federal, USDA, loan programs, but I feel that they can provide more money, longer term and lower interest. These are all good things. Diane Ley is very supportive of Hawaii agriculture as a former deputy of DOA. Getting the word out on these opportunities should be emphasized.
Cooperative Formation - Cooperatives are of course a good idea, when they work. They help small farmers band together and take advantage of economies of scale, among other things. My impression based on my experience with this issue is that getting professional management is the key to success. The Feds can help set up Co-ops too.
More Farmer Assistance - Farmers in Hawaii need development and technical assistance (extension). This has been the basis for successful U.S. agriculture. (a) Setting up mentoring programs is a great idea, if farmers are willing to create competition for themselves; (b) Generally I have found that technical assistance (e.g., production improvement) is different from development assistance (finding a site, marketing and helping with the permit process). The Aquaculture Program did both. Extension agents generally don't do development assistance, but are essential at suggesting crops and technology. I suggest DOA staff, given the resources, could be of greater help with development assistance. The hand-holding function by the State lead agency can be very valuable and sends a message; (c) Looking at UH Extension capabilities in light of present and future needs would be a good idea. My understanding is UH Extension is understaffed for the demands; (d) If there is "good will" to be harvested from the seed companies, then everything should be done to partner with them for whatever they are willing to do to help the industry develop to make Hawaii more food self-sufficient.
Market Help - If more of certain crops are grown and more kinds of crops are grown, then the small farmer will need help in marketing locally and exporting. Generally small farmers don't have the expertise. The State should help build on the successes of Farmers Markets. The State could, given the resources, do more with generic marketing and buying local campaigns. Also, making more funds available to local commodity associations for marketing programs could help the situation.
Conclusions - Hawaii is one of a few states with an entire department devoted to agriculture. So it’s a priority, although most of the functions are regulatory and not development.
I was in Washington D.C. last week and saw a friend in USDA who was there. He is fairly high up in NCRS and I noted that he frequently used the word "customer” when he spoke of the services they provided to farmers. This reminded me that during the Waihee Administration we were told the public were customers and we should treat them like that. The concept needs to return to State government for developing food self-sufficiency.
Someone reading this may think I am advocating a greater role for State government. I am. State government needs to be a leader and facilitator in implementing these actions. Government agencies were formed and empowered because the challenges were bigger and more complex than what collections of individuals or organizations could resolve. Clearly, the greater food self-sufficiency issue fits this definition.
To spur rapid progress and achieve this important goal, I believe government needs to lead, as well as collaborate and partner (according to Lee Iacocca: lead, follow or get out of the way). The goal is too complicated for a collection of individual companies pursuing self-interest to make the progress required.
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Want to know who wrote any of these remarks and takeaways? First try to guess. Then contact me at email@example.com and I’ll let you know.
Don’t forget ThinkTech on OC16. We’re making a movie of this program and will play it at 10:30 p.m. on November 13, 2011 and throughout the week to follow. Tune in then.