In keeping with my practice of occasionally turning over the blog to guest writers, today we have a post on the obstacles to local food sustainability written by Les Drent, a 46-year-old Kapaa farmer. Les moved to Kauai in 1991 with a car and a couple of credit cards, then went on to build three successful brands under his company, LBD Coffee. Les owns and leases 34 acres on Kauai, where he grows several boutique crops, including organic coffee, fruit, corn and tobacco.
I am as concerned about the future of these Islands as anyone, and it is my sincerest wish to foster a stable and sustainable way of life for my family, and our community. Sustainable agriculture of the kind that is being discussed today is a beautiful ideal. Everyone wants food grown locally. Everyone wants to keep money here in the Islands. Everyone wants food sovereignty and independence. These are unassailable virtues. But they are, I must report, practical improbabilities—if not impossibilities—for Kaua‘i. The numbers simply do not add up.
We are faced with a number of obstacles, any one of which by itself makes sustainable local agriculture nearly unachievable, but when faced together put it completely out of reach.
First among these obstacles is the skyrocketing cost of land, which is well beyond the reach of most small farmers. The greed of real estate speculators, the mortgage companies and the Federal Reserve who backed those lending institutions have created a situation in which land in Hawai‘i is overvalued.
In the current market, furthermore, development is far more profitable than agriculture; local planning commissions, which have been overrun by lawyers exploiting loopholes in zoning laws, have allowed prime agricultural lands to be developed. While it is possible to lease land and grow food, there is little if any chance that the profits from such a venture will ever be sufficient for the farmer to buy land. And as any experienced farm owner will tell you, the land beneath your feet is the only equity you will ever have towards retirement.
Second among these obstacles is the simple reality that we consume far more food than we can ever hope to produce locally. The population of Kaua'i is roughly 67,000. Based on my estimates of how much the average omnivore American consumes in one year, we would have to produce the following every year to achieve complete food independence:
10,050,000 pounds of wheat, rice, or corn
9,045,000 pounds of potatoes
6,700,000 pounds of vegetables
5,695,000 pounds of fruit
1,750,000 gallons of milk
These numbers are for Kaua‘i residents only; they do not even begin to account for the demands of part-time residents or the resort industry. Even at their most conservative, these numbers clearly illustrate that the rate of consumption far outpaces what our Island can produce.
A third obstacle is the high cost of living in Hawai‘i as a whole and on Kaua‘i in particular. Agriculture simply isn’t profitable enough to attract small farmers. Let’s suppose that it takes a combined net income of $100,000 before taxes for a couple to sustain a modest living on Kaua‘i. There is no food crop—not even boutique crops like coffee, chocolate or vanilla—producing enough per square foot to support the purchase of land, home construction and the cost of operating a farm while providing for that modest living. Many farmers who undertake such boutique crops come to the effort with a large capital investment, and many have had successful business careers outside of Hawai‘i. These farms may succeed despite the odds, but don’t be fooled by the romantic notion that these gentleman-farmer estates are either the norm or economically viable.
At this point you might be asking, “Well, if you came to Hawai‘i with nothing, Les, and became a successful small farmer, can’t anyone do it?” It’s a legitimate question, and the answer will illustrate why local sustainability initiatives are not practical.
My business looks like an industrialized, successful farm with greenhouses, a certified kitchen, a roasting facility, tractors and other implements, but the truth is that I rely very little on my farm to create the final products I sell. And what my farm does produce is subsidized with profits from other parts of my business: I operate a consulting company that provides various farm services to a foreign entity conducting research in Hawai‘i.
I consider myself to be a well-rounded agronomist and businessman; I have followed the USDA National Organics Program for eleven years while also adhering to the strict permitting standards established by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Both require extensive permitting and conduct routine audits that make an IRS audit seem effortless. I play by the rules, even going above and beyond what’s required.
And I speak from experience when I say that sustainable food-based agriculture is not financially possible on Kaua‘i at this time without huge government subsidies. The costs make it impossible for farmers on this island to earn a modest living let alone to compete with corporations importing food to Hawai‘i.
It gives me no pleasure to state these facts and the conclusions they logically lead to. I, like everyone who lives in Hawai‘i, would love to see an agricultural utopia created here, one in which we grow our own food, generate our own energy, treat the land with respect and offer farmers the hope of a decent life. But those who push for sustainability have so far not dealt with the obstacles in an honest and clear-minded way. Sustainability has become a political brickbat to throw at corporate agriculture or a soapbox for politicians pandering to the electorate’s romantic notions about food sovereignty.
Sustainability can be a wonderful thing in concept, and there’s no harm in supporting efforts to produce as much food here as we can. Backyard gardening should be encouraged and local farmers should be supported in every way possible. Agricultural land should be protected from development. Best practices should be researched, shared and implemented locally. But we should not labor under the misapprehension that such measures can replace the systems of food production on which we rely. Unless we reduce the population of the island, and unless we change our diets to fit what and how much our island can produce, sustainable agriculture and food independence is a quixotic dream.
And in tilting at windmills by focusing on localism and sustainability we risk losing sight of the bigger picture. If we invest more of our limited resources to this effort than it can ever return, we are moving in the wrong direction. I do not believe sustainable agriculture is achievable or economically viable for Kaua‘i, and any suggestion that it can be is a misconception that demonstrates the disconnect between the well intentioned idealism of government leaders and the economic reality for Kaua‘i’s working farmers.
So where should our focus be, then, if not primarily on local sustainability initiatives? We should be strengthening our ties with those nations that do supply our food. We can best assure sustainability through improved international relations. My company, for example, is fortunate to have manufacturing partners in Nicaragua and China that help me produce many of the wonderful products we enjoy; without them, it would simply be economically impossible for me to create those products.
Additionally, I encourage political leaders, educators and economic drivers to emphasize educating our youth in bio-science, math, technology and business management. The United States has positioned itself as a world leader in those areas, and as much as the romantic notion of returning to Thoreau’s Walden harkens us, we cannot afford to ignore this future. We must embrace it, push into new endeavors, and show those that produce for all of us, we care about their livelihood.