The state of Hawaii needs to take a hard look at all its efforts to help farmers and bolster agriculture ,says University of Hawaii economist Sumner La Croix. And La Croix isn’t just talking about the Agribusiness Development Corp. — though he has few positive words for that state agency, which was created in 1994 to help the industry find a path forward during the collapse of Big Sugar.
The agricultural sector as a whole is becoming smaller, which doesn’t bode well for the efforts to grow it.
One big challenge, La Croix said, is that there isn’t much data about what crops are being grown in Hawaii. The agricultural department used to keep much more robust statistics, but much of that work was dismantled during the Great Recession. “We might as well be dismantling the automatic pilot on a Tesla as we drive down the highway,” La Croix said. “I mean, we don’t really know where we’re going.”
The agriculture department isn’t going to be able to resume the level of market analysis and data gathering that it conducted a decade ago, says DOA Chair Shimabukuro-Geiser. But the agency did make some new hires last year and has been collaborating with the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service to get more data.
Last year, it was able to analyze the production value of the coffee industry and some other specialty crops so those farmers could qualify for a federal coronavirus assistance program. But farmers say they need more information about what is being grown in Hawaii and about what people are charging for those crops.
“You know, we set these goals like double food production,” says Miyamoto of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, referencing Gov. David Ige’s call for the state to double local food production by 2030. “That’s great because it gives us something to reach for. But as for the double … double from what?”
Hawaii’s farms can make better use of limited land with controlled environments like shade houses — a structure to help protect plants from excessive heat or light. They need support using nanotechnology to control diseases. And they could use better access to the kinds of equipment that farms in Japan use on smaller plots of land. Federal environmental regulations make it difficult to import Japanese equipment, something the state could help with by providing money to bring in sample equipment to be tested by regulators.
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