Can We Ever Eat All Local in Hawai‘i?
Governor Ige set a goal of doubling local food production by 2020. So how do we measure up?
MA‘O Organic Farms stands for Māla ‘Ai ‘Ōpio, or “youth food garden.”
Alternately fought over and forgotten, land in Lualualei Valley, once home to Wai‘anae Sugar Co., has served as a barometer for Hawai‘i’s appetite for agriculture. From the 1960s to ’80s, when the state grew much of its own food, the Araki family and then the Higas grew onions, watermelon, cantaloupe, lettuce, daikon and mustard cabbages there. In 1987, Japanese developer Sanjiro Nakade bought 236 acres in the valley to build a golf course. “No can eat golf balls,” protested the Higas, facing eviction, and the Wai‘anae community rallied in droves behind them. Nakade put the project on hold, only to bring it back four years later, this time offering an undisclosed payment to the Higas and a “community benefit package” to Wai‘anae. Nakade successfully rezoned the land from agricultural to preservation—the idea that a golf course could somehow preserve land against more concrete development.
But the golf course was never built, perhaps because of Japan’s recession. The land sat untouched for nine years until developers acquired it and tried to rezone, once again, this time to light industrial. During a 2011 planning commission hearing, where the audience was almost evenly divided among supporters and opponents of the project, Gary Maunakea-Forth, who started MA‘O Organic Farms nearby, said, “If you pass this, it’s missing an opportunity to plan for agriculture for not only this area, but for the whole state.” Patty Teruya, then-chair of the Nānākuli-Mā‘ili Neighborhood Board, said that Nānākuli had been rural for too long and “keeping the country country … did not bring jobs or economic development.” By the end of the year, the project was dead, one vote shy of approval by the state Land Use Commission. And for almost a decade after, it lay forgotten. Again.
MA‘O began in 2001 with 5 acres in Lualualei Valley—by January of this year, it had grown to 281 acres.
Then, at the end of 2019, MA‘O Organic Farms bought the land. Maunakea-Forth says that when he and his wife, Kukui, first started MA‘O (an acronym for Māla ‘Ai ‘Ōpio or “youth food garden”) with 5 acres in 2001, they didn’t expect to be growing farmers. The goal was community development and to provide college scholarships in exchange for internships on the farm. “The idea was that working on the farm for some period of their life would be a really fruitful experience for them,” Maunakea-Forth says. “They could have worked at 7-Eleven, but what would they learn there that they wouldn’t learn on the farm?” Farming as a career wasn’t the goal, “partly because we only had a small bit of land, and there were all kinds of impediments for someone young to be a farmer. So we didn’t force that side of things.”
But that was before MA‘O’s newly acquired land and the advent of programs like GoFarm’s statewide farmer training program. And in the two decades since, Maunakea-Forth has seen the rise of the “star farmer,” alongside the celebrity chef.
Growing food for Hawai‘i is so hot right now. And I’m not even talking about climate change, though I’ll get to that in a bit. In the past decade, not unlike the recent restaurant explosion in Honolulu’s dining scene, farms of unprecedented diversity have spread across Hawai‘i. Large businesses grow next to expanding family farms, much like how San Francisco-based Michael Mina, with more than 30 restaurants across the country, opened Stripsteak in the new International Market Place at the same time as locally owned Goma Tei, which began as a single ramen shop at Ward Center in 2006.
There’s Larry Ellison’s Lāna‘i Farm, a $15 million solar-powered, automated hydroponic greenhouse system, which calculates nutrition rather than yield per acre. And there’s the nonprofit Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi, steward to about 400 acres in He‘eia; its goal is to restore half of those acres to productive lo‘i, and another chunk to other culturally significant native Hawaiian crops. Smaller farms have expanded, including Ho Farms, which recently leased 63 acres in Wahiawā’s Whitmore Project, owned and managed by the state Agribusiness Development Corp., and is now up to 100 acres. Established businesses are venturing into growing food: Kualoa Ranch now cultivates oysters in its fishpond, which for decades was little more functional than its Jurassic Park props; and Mari’s Gardens in Mililani, once primarily an ornamental nursery, now also raises fish and vegetables through aquaponic systems. Even ‘ulu’s time has come—the Islands are now reaping the harvest of decades of efforts: the Hawai‘i ‘Ulu Producers Co-op moved more than 18,000 pounds of ‘ulu in 2016, when it started; in 2019 the co-op had ramped up to processing 92,000 pounds of ‘ulu and 55,000 pounds of other crops such as sweet potatoes, grown in concert with ‘ulu trees. And after years of endeavor, public schools are serving more locally grown food to students—100% of all fresh beef in schools statewide, or about 28,000 pounds a month, comes from ranches across Hawai‘i.
It’s a perfect storm: Hawai‘i’s food obsession reaching new levels, plus growing clouds of environmental guilt, exhorting that everything from your shoe to your salad should help save the world, forming over thousands of acres left by the sugar and pineapple plantations. Not since those businesses entered the landscape has there been such a widespread shift in agriculture, a shift caused by their very exit. The plantations reshaped Hawai‘i politically, geographically and culturally, underscoring that what we grow is just one part of a complex system. How will the next hundred years be shaped?
More than 250,000 acres were thrown into flux with the cascade of plantation closures that began in the 1990s and ended in 2016 when the last sugar operation shut down. A lot of the land went to seed corn and cattle grazing, both still primarily export crops. Pockets, like the Ka‘ū region, pivoted to the coffee industry, emerging as rivals to Kona, while other tracts, such as on Maui, were subdivided and sold into gentleman estates. Sensing a business opportunity in growing food locally (it’s widely assumed that around 85% of Hawai‘i’s food is imported, though it’s difficult to verify), a number of large companies plunged into the field. In the past few years, they’ve included Mahi Pono, which pledged to grow food for local consumption—in the form of crops including potatoes and citrus—on 41,000 acres of former sugar cane land; Kalona, which plans an agroforestry model with a focus on cacao and hardwoods interspersed with fruit trees and produce for the local market, on 222 acres of Kamehameha Schools land; and Hawai‘i Island’s Parker Ranch, one of the country’s largest cow-calf operations (in which calves are shipped away to be fattened on other pastures and feedlots), now finishes a portion of its cattle in Hawai‘i and distributes it through Safeway stores statewide.
Some of the larger farms, such as Costco’s planned greenhouses and an in-process million-egg farm by Indiana’s Rose Acre Farms and California’s Hidden Villa Ranch, two of the country’s largest egg producers and distributors, show that even when we shift production to the Islands, outside companies reap profits. And looking at Mahi Pono, a joint business between a California investment firm and a Canadian pension fund manager, it’s crazy to think that how well some people in Canada live in the future will depend on how well some potatoes in the ground will feed Hawai‘i now.
With the launch of these large farms, it seems that what Larry Jefts said in a 2014 Hawai‘i Business article is coming to fruition. Jefts owns the 6,000-acre Sugarland Growers, one of the largest farms in Hawai‘i. The article reads: “If Hawai‘i is really going to grow its agricultural base, Jefts says, it’s going to be because of people like himself—people with the capital to invest in technology and large-scale operations. ‘We’re not going to build that kind of agriculture with 800 small farmers,’ he says. ‘It’s going to be commercial operations with state-of-the-art agriculture. This is not a popular position, but we have to be efficient at what we’re going to do or we’re not going to be competitive.’”
We are gaining farms, but we are also losing farms. Among them: Nalo Farms, which Dean Okimoto closed and sold to hemp seed growers when storms wiped him out four times in 2018, and Hāmākua Springs Country Farms, which was the largest banana operation on Hawai‘i Island when it closed in 2016 (owner Richard Ha went on to help start a medical marijuana dispensary). And Glenn and Amy Shinsato, ready to retire and finding no takers for their pig farm, closed it and sold the property to a construction company in 2016 (though 2 Lady Farmers in Wai‘anae helps fill the gap).
Dairies in particular have been having a rough time. Idaho farmers bought Big Island Dairy in 2012 and more than doubled its herd, but the operation outgrew its wastewater system. The dairy was fined multiple times by the Hawai‘i Department of Health for contaminating state waters with manure. It shut down in 2019 after a lawsuit by community and environmental groups. There’s also the dairy that never was: Hawai‘i Dairy Farms was slated for Kaua‘i and was to be modeled after New Zealand’s method of grass-fed dairy farming. It faced lawsuits by a community group and the owner of Grand Hyatt Kaua‘i and Po‘ipū Bay Golf Course before it even opened. After a five-year effort, it announced in 2019 that it would cease trying.
“The realities of farming are, if we want to be food independent and food secure, we have to make trade-offs,” says Amy Hennessey, spokesperson for the Ulupono Initiative, which had committed $17.5 million to the dairy. “There was a time where it was very desirable to have a farm or a ranch as your neighbor because it was a lot of open green space. If done right and managed well, and taking into account best practices that allowed you to be environmentally sustainable, then farming has a real place in our community and we should not attack farmers.” (Most people I talked to in agriculture agree with Hennessey, but they also say it was hubris that felled the dairy, along the lines of the Superferry fiasco—if Ulupono had engaged earlier and more with the community, it might have been able to build community support and better weather the attacks by the visitor industry.)
MA‘O Organic Farms provides college scholarships in exchange for internships on the farm—so far, it has produced more than 130 college graduates.
But what are the trade-offs? Pushing aside the farm-to-table propaganda, how much do we really care about growing our food locally? When the Honolulu Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency (created in 2016 by a city charter amendment approved by voters) polled people, their stresses over cost of living, aging infrastructure, climate change impacts and lack of affordable housing far outweighed their concern about an overreliance on imports.
When Sarah Rehkamp, an agricultural economist recently hired by UH’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, first came across the goal of doubling local food production, her first thoughts were “why?” and “how?” She says, “What would the food system impacts be? How can we support our local producers and, at the same time, meet consumer demand? Based on my training in economic theory, it makes sense to specialize in areas where you have a comparative advantage and trade for efficiency in resources.” Part of her work is to better understand issues relevant to Hawai‘i “from an economist perspective and quantitatively thinking about the trade-offs.”
There’s a difference between food self-sufficiency and food security. A 2019 Global Food Security Index by The Economist Group ranks countries based on three core factors: affordability, availability, and quality and safety. But when you factor in resilience, which measures how well a food supply can weather disasters and climate change, the first-place country, Singapore, drops 11 places in the rankings because of its import dependency and susceptibility to rising seas (sound familiar?).
Albie Miles, a professor of sustainable community food systems at UH West O‘ahu, argues that we are not currently feeding ourselves by either measure: security or resiliency. The USDA estimates that 8% of Hawai‘i’s population is food insecure, though the Hawai‘i Department of Health puts the percentage much higher: 16.7% for the general population and 35.7% for Native Hawaiians, which equates to about 237,000 people who don’t have access to healthy food. In cases of disruption, the state estimates it has only enough food to feed the population for five to seven days.
“If we face a similar hurricane to the one that hit Puerto Rico [in 2017], the outcomes would likely be similar,” Miles says. “I think we have been lulled into a certain kind of complacency.” Research from the climate science community shows that as climate change advances, storms will become more frequent and more severe. “You see how all these things can add up to the inability of Hawai‘i to feed itself adequately.”
It’s for these reasons that Honolulu’s sustainability office created a food sustainability and security position, tasked with building a resilient and accessible food supply. “The whole reason we were able to create civilization is because of agriculture,” says executive director Josh Stanbro. “Our civilization is based on predictable ag, which is based on predictable weather. We are leaving the envelope of predictable weather: What does that mean for ag anywhere on the planet?”
Even on a relatively blue-sky day, while I was writing this article, disruptions to both food imports and our local supply were apparent. Mechanical issues on a Matson ship prevented 300,000 pounds of produce from arriving in Honolulu, leaving many grocery shelves sparse; meanwhile, fishermen were hindered by windy weather—I stopped by a poke counter and found only a quarter of the usual varieties for sale, and all of them made with marlin, as the ‘ahi supply was scarce. What, I wondered, would—or will—happen as our weather gets worse? or will—happen as our weather gets worse?
Gabe Sachter-Smith of Counter Culture picks some papayas.
In 2016, when Gov. David Ige announced the goal to double food production by 2020, the last statewide agricultural land use baseline study was in 1980. In other words, nobody knew what we were doubling. But Ige says, “Anecdotally, in talking to farmers, we see that production is significantly higher in a lot of different things.” (In his Sustainable Hawai‘i Initiative goal in doubling food production, he said that while growing food is an objective, there isn’t an explicit priority on growing it for local consumption versus for export, or having it grown by local or outside businesses. “There’s so much land that’s not in production, and … we want to create jobs here rather than somewhere else,” he says.)
The Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture commissioned another baseline study in 2015, which helped give a snapshot of agricultural land use and water resources, but the data was still spotty. The baseline did not address crop production numbers, consumption patterns or food imports “because Hawai‘i no longer makes a sustained effort to collect this important data,” wrote the authors. “This lack of basic agricultural data makes it easy to pronounce new local food goals, but there is no real way to measure progress toward successful agriculture or enhanced local food self-reliance.”
Some existing data seems to support anecdotal evidence that new farms as well as new farmers are on the rise. According to the 2017 agricultural census, in the five years prior, there was a 5% increase in farms in Hawai‘i, mostly in large and small sizes (more than 2,000 acres and fewer than 9 acres, respectively). Hawai‘i ranked fourth in the country with 32% of producers having fewer than 10 years of farming experience; the national average is 27%.
Rob Barreca, who started Counter Culture in Hale‘iwa, is one of the new farmers. As I drive up to the North Shore to visit the farm, the pineapple fields and ruins of Waialua Sugar Mill are easy to spot. Harder to find is the mango tree that serves as my marker for the road to Counter Culture. I pass Hale‘iwa Elementary School a few times before finally seeing it. As I head down an unmarked gravel path between houses, it feels like passing through the hidden Hogwarts train platform. I’ve entered a world largely invisible to city life, but one that feeds it: There’s Twin Bridge Farms, best known for its asparagus; herbs harvested by Waialua Growers; land leased by Pūpūkea Greens; and Hawaiian Shochu Co., fermenting locally grown sweet potatoes into a spirit. This, all wedged between the two main roads that run through Hale‘iwa.
Barreca leads me through Counter Culture, which he started in 2015 with a five-year rent-free lease and $20,000 from Kamehameha Schools’ Mahi‘ai Matchup agriculture business plan competition. Last year he leased an additional 30 acres from Corteva, an agriculture and seed company, the largest stand-alone agricultural company in the world. Barreca, a former web designer in San Francisco and then in Honolulu, left his job “to broadly do something in food and find some meaning in my life,” he says. He enrolled in the GoFarm program, where an instructor, Jay Bost, got him excited about growing. Barreca shows me a fresh harvest of ginger, and we drive past a small flower patch planted by his partner, Laarni Gedo, experimenting with amaranth varieties Love Lies Bleeding and Hot Biscuit and debating whether she can sell her tangy roselle (an edible hibiscus) seasoning under the name Pacific Rim Job. We pass a test plot of corn bred for disease resistance, a banana grove that Barreca says contains a hundred different varieties of bananas, plus a plot to supply Banán, which loaned Counter Culture $10,000 to grow bananas for its banana soft serve. “It’s not just like this is a production of sustenance material,” Barreca says. “This is a really dynamic part of our existence in life.”
BANANAS FOR BANÁN, WHICH LOANED COUNTER CULTURE $10,000 TO GROW BANANAS FOR ITS SOFT SERVE.
For Barreca, growing is the easy part; getting what he’s growing to people was the struggle. To address that, he also founded FarmLink, an online platform that connects farmers with buyers, around the same time he started Counter Culture.
“Dealing with restaurants and grocery stores every week is an oppressive amount of work. It’s the communication—when is [the produce] going to be available, what’s it look like, when do they need to order by, what’s the case size, can you get there by the time their receiving closes? Every restaurant is different and has different specifications.” It seemed like a giant mess, but a solvable one. In 2019, FarmLink connected 109 suppliers, ranging from small farms to backyard growers, with 118 commercial buyers, from Fête to Foodland, and 180 households. It moved $400,000 of produce, and in 2020 Barreca estimates it’s on track for $750,000.
Both Counter Culture and FarmLink, however, operate at a loss. Barreca remains optimistic: “I think it’s viable, not easy, but doable. Every quarter, we’re doing better and better, and all the graphs are moving up.” And not just for Counter Culture, but with the other farms participating in FarmLink. “It doesn’t feel like we’re alone in this. We’re seeing a ton of other people that are slowly incrementing their production, finding better opportunities, getting more efficient and developing more relationships with buyers that are more predictable and financially beneficial for the farmer. Each round makes it easier for the next round of farmers to enter.”
“We can feed ourselves for sure, but the goal doesn’t have to be 100%,” says Gary Maunakea-Forth, echoing what most farmers I talked to say. No one wants to give up their cheesecake, Champagne and caviar, as UH West O‘ahu’s Miles says. Not to mention wheat, which doesn’t grow well in the tropics. “But we can get to a really happy place where agriculture is really supporting some of the economy, where we’re not missing the boat on some of the things,” Maunakea-Forth says. “Tourists eat a mango and nine months of the year, it comes from Mexico. Let’s turn our 10 million tourists to the way it should be. Increase the amount of mangoes we grow. We still have french fries, why not ‘ulu fries?”
MA‘O Organic Farms is the largest organic farm in Hawai‘i, producing about 80 tons of produce annually, and with its new land acquisition, Maunakea-Forth estimates ramping up to 1,400 tons (for scale, this is almost half of Hawai‘i’s entire production of green coffee beans in 2014). It is also a nonprofit: Maunakea-Forth sees MA‘O as community-level farming and trying to effect systemic change by integrating farming, education, Hawaiian culture, food security and health. “Our version of health is not just giving people free vegetables. It’s getting kids to college so that they’re more educated. When they’re more educated, they cook better, they eat better food, they’re more aware of diet and exercise. At the same time, we’re pumping up local farmers markets with affordable organic veggies and getting our food into our neighborhood, like Tamura’s and Sack N Save in Nānākuli.” So far, MA‘O has produced more than 130 college graduates with associate or bachelor’s degrees.
Gary Maunakea-Forth, who founded MA‘O with his wife, Kukui, remembers in his youth, “when we went to the farm, it wasn’t about the work, it was about the food and big farmer meals. … It was freakin’ fun, man. I would like for Hawai‘i ag to be really good fun.”
Its measure is not one farm’s or one owner’s profits, but a community’s health. While MA‘O anticipates that the new land acquisition will allow it to grow its percentage of earned revenue from 35% to more than 90% of its operating budget, it will still require grants and donations. It is not unlike the media industry, its business model drastically changed in the past decade, and has seen a rise in nonprofits and individuals stepping in to support what they believe to be a public good. What’s different now, though, from when MA‘O first started, is the nature of its support. The new land purchase is in part financed by donations from foundations including the Sullivan Family Foundation (started by the founders of Foodland) as well as a low-interest loan by Central Pacific Bank guaranteed by Kamehameha Schools. “There are some local businesses that understand that large investments are required to solve societal problems—more and more they are partnering with community-based organizations like MA‘O, and that’s a breath of fresh air,” Maunakea-Forth says. Whereas before, giving back to the community might have entailed end-of-year donations or raffles, he sees that more businesses are folding community development into their core missions.
What’s also changed is how he’s practically mobbed when he goes to the farmers market: “People are just super motivated to get local food.” He says the overall environment has improved so much that now he’s “unabashed” about trying to get some of his interns to become farmers.
Maunakea-Forth started MA‘O for social justice, but he farms “because I love food, because I love the mountains, the soil, water, plants; I’m excited and inspired when a seed germinates, when I harvest a carrot I farm, when someone shares how they cooked our kale and our beets. I farm because I love eating long meals of great local food with good ‘ohana (in the broadest sense of the term), because I want justice for the earth and for people—because I want to live aloha ‘āina on a daily basis.”