Hawaii – Agriculture

Picture of Pineapple Fields

By: T. Jeffersonian

Hawaii is home to approximately 3,600 crop farms and 1,100 livestock farms that include cattle, hogs, milk, eggs, and honey. The average agriculture sales per year in Hawaii are around $357 million dollars. Half of Hawaii’s lands are designated for agriculture, but only a fraction of the state’s 4.1 million acres is actually used for farming. About 1.93 million acres in Hawaii are currently zoned for agriculture but very little of that land is used for growing things. Federal data shows that in 2017 — when the most recent agricultural census was conducted — only 8 percent of the state’s agricultural lands were used for growing crops. Another 18.5 percent was
used for grazing animals, 8 percent was woodlands, and another 8 percent was categorized as other which usually means farmsteads, homes, buildings and livestock facilities. Not all land that’s labeled agricultural lands are actually farmable. Some of the land has steep slopes or is inaccessible. There is no data to quantify how much land is actually like that. There are also zoning and infrastructure issues hindering growing crops — sometimes for years at a time.

Part of the decrease in Hawaii’s agricultural land use is because of modernizations in
farming, which has increased efficiency and productivity through industrialized agriculture. Part of the reductions has to do with the end of large-scale plantation farming and the decline of agriculture as an industry in Hawaii in general. In contemporary society, agriculture has become much more commodity-based, with increased ability for crops to be imported and exported. Competing land uses — including from solar and residential development — also hinder more Hawaii agricultural land from being fully utilized.

In the distant past, Hawaii’s agricultural footprint looked dramatically different. Food
production was everyone’s practical consideration. Not farming quite simply meant not eating. Since then, the islands’ agricultural systems have undergone several transformations — from the indigenous system to the plantations and monocropping, and now to smaller-scale farms and diversified crops. Sugar cane and pineapples remain Hawaii’s most valuable crops. Figs are Hawaii’s most lucrative crop. Hawaii also produces large quantities of flowers, much for export. Coffee, macadamia nuts, avocados, bananas, guavas, papayas, tomatoes and other fruits are grown.

Coffee accounts for $55 million in annual Hawaii profits. Vegetables raised for local
use include beans, corn, lettuce, potatoes and taro. Cattle, both milk and beef, have been steadily declining in Hawaii during the 21st Century. Currently there are 76,400 beef cows; 600 milk cows; and 142,000 calves in the state. Domesticated hogs account for a 10,000 population. There are a few broiler farms in Hawaii, but not many. Poultry seems to be more of a backyard industry. Altogether, Hawaii livestock industries generate more than $150 million in Hawaii’s economy.

Coronavirus impacted Hawaii’s food supply chain and increased awareness for food
sustainability. Legislation introduced in 2012 acknowledged that Hawaii had become
dangerously dependent on imported food. In 2012, 92 percent of Hawaii’s food was being imported, which meant that in the event of a natural disaster or global catastrophe, the islands would have only seven days to survive. Today, the number stands between 85-90 percent of Hawaii foods still being imported. Hawaii thus remains agriculturally vulnerable to catastrophe caused isolation and starvation. It takes seven days for a ship to get to Hawaii from the mainland and this does not include loading the ship with supplies.

Hawaii is self-sufficient in some vegetable and fruit crops but has become less self-sufficient in eggs, milk, livestock, hogs, and pigs. Coronavirus has highlighted Hawaii’s agricultural vulnerability. The Hawaii community is again primed to embrace local farming and Native Hawaiian farming practices that prospered on these lands many years ago. The emerging understanding of Hawaii’s farming value is coming
back and must be capitalized upon to build a diversified, resilient economy post the pandemic.