Rebuilding Local Agriculture Should Be A Top Priority
Today, Hawaii spends $billions to import about 85% of the food we eat, and in the event of an emergency our food supply will not last long. Most importantly, our economy is reliant almost exclusively on tourism, whose volatility we unfortunately all continue to hurt from, yet we have an industry that can fix all of this.
Hawaii can no longer afford to compete globally exporting products like sugar and pineapple. Too many other places can do it cheaper than we can. However, if we can rebuild a local agriculture industry centered around local food for local consumption, we will create new permanent jobs, feed ourselves fresh local produce and meat, and keep $billions circulating in our local economy instead of being lost to foreign markets. It’s a win-win-win for Hawaii, in an industry with the greatest potential to truly diversify and stabilize our local economy.
Most local farms in Hawaii are small – under 50 acres. Most farmers rely on a variety of specialty value-added exports such as high-end coffee mixed with real estate or ag-tourism to make ends meet. It’s incredibly difficult to be a farmer in Hawaii today. Land, labor and feed are expensive, water is often scarce, and the average age of farmers in Hawaii is older than 60. Despite this, there is much we can do to push local agriculture forward, but we must begin today.
The Hawaii Food Security Initiative
Hawaii has set targets for becoming energy independent. One of the first things we should do to pursue food self-sufficiency and a rebirth of local agriculture is to write into law goals of locally growing a rising percentage of the food we consume. These targets will allow state and county policies to be crafted with a broader goal in mind, and set a definitive timetable for rebuilding our local agriculture industry, creating new jobs, and diversifying our economy.
The New Mexico Model: Using the State to Build Markets
I recently returned from New Mexico where I spent a week touring agriculture operations and meeting with industry players. New Mexico is similar to Hawaii because it has a tremendous lack of water, and imports 97% of the food the state consumes. The state recently passed groundbreaking legislation that will change their local economy by instantly creating a local market for food grown locally. Senate Bill 63(2011) mandates that food purchased by state and county agencies is grown and purchased locally. This creates an instant market that gives local farmers certainty to begin growing food for local consumption knowing there will be a market to purchase it. Such a measure will jump start local food production for the broader public market.
Here in Hawaii the Department of Education alone serves nearly 250,000 meals every day. If we want to promote local food production to keep local money flowing in our economy, getting the state to begin purchasing local food is a good first step.
Recovering From The Recession
Agriculture in Hawaii faced one of its biggest hurdles when the last Administration decided to cut 52 of the 112 positions in the Department of Agriculture’s Plant Quarantine Branch, representing 54 percent of the state’s agricultural inspectors. Many businesses and exporters in the industry were stunned, and with fewer inspections of outgoing commodities, other states began taking action to block the import of Hawaii crops and produce out of fear of contaminated goods.
By January 2010, the situation had come to a head, and my colleagues and I on the House Finance Committee set aside $1 million dollars to restore 25 plant quarantine inspectors. However, that was just the first step to get our local agriculture back in gear. We wanted to go further, and with limited funding we decided to attack the root of the problem – the invasive species themselves.
With funding limited in the tight budget situation, we passed Senate Bill 2523, which strengthens and clarifies the state’s law regarding pest inspection, plant quarantine, eradication of invasive species, and biosecurity. We also passed House Bill 1684, which establishes new fines and penalties for the intentional spreading or introducing of invasive species, causing harm to Hawaii’s natural environment, economy, and quality of life. These measures will begin to attack the spread of invasive species, and the next step will be to find new funding to expand personnel and get boots on the ground to eradicate our invasive threats before they get out of control and destroy crops and impact our agriculture industry and natural resources.
In the long run, we are going to have to commit real resources to our local farmers and ag industry if we want to see it thrive. We will have to address the high cost of land, feed, availability of water, and market reach. The state has the resources to do this, but we will have to convince our political leaders that this is a priority, and we should commit the resources and effort to make it happen.