In a recent post, I referenced a blog entry by Luke Evslin, who raised a number of good questions about the future of farming on Kauai after visiting Pioneer's seed farm in Waimea:
What is the barrier to increasing local food production on Kaua'i? Access to land? Capital? Lack of a market? Lack of willing farmers? How do we utilize that information to reverse the trend of declining farms?
Are the seed companies a barrier to local food production? If so, why?
At the time, I'd already interviewed lifelong Kauai farmer Jerry Ornellas for a worthwhile new publication, Farmers & Friends, and I knew he'd answered many of Luke's questions. Now that the issue is out, I'm free to share with our Q&A session with you.
I'll excerpt from it here, but I urge you to read the entire interview if you're at all interested in understanding agriculture in Hawaii, and how the anti-GMO fight has affected real farmers.
Let's start with the concept of increasing local production. As Jerry notes:
We fed ourselves before and we can do it again. But is that our goal? To feed ourselves? Or to have a healthy robust agricultural sector and support one another? Ironically, we had a lot more diversified ag and even rice exports when we had all the sugar cane and pine.
If the goal is to feed ourselves, Jerry is optimistic:
We've got such a gap between what we consume and what we produce here in Hawaii. That's a good jumping off point. We've got room to grow in replacing those imports. If we can replace even 10 percent over 20 years, that would be huge for Hawaii. We're spending $3.3 billion annually on imported food.
There's also an argument on “can we feed ourselves?” and I think we can. If Hawaiians could do it without modern tools, then I believe we can do it. No question we're going to have to change our diets and that could be a good thing. We can start by replacing wheat and corn with sweet potatoes, taro, breadfruit and possibly soybeans, to produce tofu, a good protein source. It's a really tall order, because people don't like to change. But from a theoretical viewpoint, it's do-able. We have the resources to do it, as far as land and water. Whether we have the political will is another story.
Regarding the barriers to increasing local food production, Jerry observed:
I don't see capital as a really huge hurdle. Marketing is a big hurdle, creating a demand for local products is really where we need to focus our energy. A good example is breadfruit. It's a a great product, but very little demand. Even chefs aren't using it. I always prefer the private initiative, but farmers don't have resources and expertise.
We need to start by identifying demand for local markets. We're going to saturate the farmers' markets at some point, and it's a major source of income for many farmers. Eventually we're going to have to move into the grocery stores. It's a matter of convincing the consumers that our products are superior, and they are. They're fresher, and they're local. Milk is a perfect example. Do you want something shipped from California, or produced locally?
Since many of the newbees who are trying to influence farm policy in Hawaii lack any historical perspective, I asked Jerry to discuss some of the major shifts that influenced modern agriculture in Hawaii, aside from the decline of the sugar and pineapple plantations:
The major shift came in the late '50s, early '60s, with the advent of refrigerated containerized cargo and jet travel. In the past, Hawaii only shipped in commodities like wheat, rice and animal food. But with refrigerated cargo, we could get California produce to Hawaii relatively quickly and inexpensively, so we lost our competitive edge. Jet travel led to mass tourism in Hawaii, which created a job market for farmers and agricultural workers. It's often easier to work in hotels than fields. And with the rise of tourism, we saw a huge rise in construction and other sectors, so labor became a problem. Those are still issues we deal with today.
I then asked Jerry if the future of ag is on Oahu, the Neighbor Islands or both:
Oahu is ramping up its ag production, but also losing its ag lands. Traditionally, the model was the Neighbor Islands, being more rural, would grow the food and ship it to Oahu. But no county is more dependent on tourism than Kauai. That wasn't the case even a few decades ago, when ag was the driver. I still see the potential of Neighbor Islands feeding Oahu, but that's not what's happening. The markets are on Oahu, so if you can produce there, you have a tremendous competitive advantage over someone who is shipping in. It's the same with imported inputs. Oahu can get them cheaper because they're shipped there first. Oahu also has a large immigrant population and many are involved in ag. I don't see it as Oahu vs the Neighbor Islands, but Oahu does have advantages.
On Kauai, and the other Neighbor Islands, we've been seeing a proliferation of gentleman's estates on ag land. Indeed, real estate companies that cater to these uses, such as Hawaii Life, have been major supporters of the anti-GMO/anti-ag movement and its candidates. I asked Jerry how gentrification is affecting farming on Kauai:
It obviously has a huge impact on local ag. It's driving up the cost of land for one thing, and it's not always compatible. Everyone wants to live in the country, but not necessarily next to a farmer. It's changing the complexion of our rural areas, and not in a good way. These people often have a very idealized view of what living in the country is all about. The reality is a lot different.
Having farms embedded in our community is going to be a big issue. It already is, with the call for setbacks and buffer zones. For the smaller farmers, that's not do-able.
Again, this goes back to political will and proper land management.
So twice the topic of “political will” is raised — political will that could be used to reduce the CPRs and vacation rentals that take farm land out of production and drive up the cost of ag land. Political will that could go toward allocating funds for farmer training, marketing, restoration of irrigation systems. But on Kauai, we haven't seed “political will” used for those purposes.
Instead, it has been used to try and destroy the seed companies, even though they are not creating barriers to local food production. In fact, they're actually supporting it by fixing irrigation systems, subleasing to farmers who work their land when it's not in seed production and providing jobs that maintain a valuable agricultural labor force.
As Jerry pointed out, diversified ag co-existed alongside monocrops like sugar and pineapple, so it's pretty hard to claim the same can't occur with the seed companies.
Yet this ad — produced by the HAPA group that Kauai Councilman Gary Hooser leads — makes it clear that extermination of the seed companies statewide is indeed the sole focus of his political will.
Not helping farmers, not improving local food production, not protecting ag land — just getting rid of the seed companies through fear and disinformation, while calling it "fair." No details on what will happen to all that ag land if the seed companies go, no viable plans or even ideas for any kind of agricultural transition or farming in the future.
Just get rid of them, and let the chips fall where they may. Which we all know means more gentleman's estates, more money for Hawaii Life and the other high-end Realtors who are salivating at the prospect of converting farms into opulent hideaways. Is it any surprise they're backing the candidates who want to destroy the largest agricultural sector in Hawaii?
I hate to keep bringing up Gary, but it astounds me that people are still so blind as to believe he's not a one-trick pony, a single-issue candidate with a serious, self-serving ax to grind and no interest in the many other issues facing this county.
As a friend observed: "Giving money to Hooser at this point should be a Class C felony."
But then, stupidity and short-sightedness have never been against the law.