Hawaii Grown: The pastures and arable land of the islands

N.The early half of Hawaii’s land is used for agriculture, but only a fraction of the state’s 4.1 million acres is used for agriculture.

Federal data shows that in 2017 – when the last agricultural census was conducted – only 8% of the state’s agricultural land was used for growing crops. Another 18.5% was used for grazing animals, 8% was forests and another 8% was classified as “other”, including homesteads, houses, buildings and ranching facilities.

While access to land is one of the biggest challenges for aspiring farmers in Hawaii, analysis of state and state data shows that there is no shortage of agricultural land.

But not all land marked as agricultural is arable, said Matthew Loke, an administrator with the Department of Agriculture. Part of this land has steep slopes or is inaccessible, although there is no data to quantify how much land is. There are also zone and infrastructure problems that can hamper the cultivation of crops – sometimes for years.

Almost half of Hawaii’s land is designated as agricultural land. But only a fraction is used to grow crops, state and federal data show. Cory Lum / Civil Beat

Part of the decline in agricultural land use was due to modernizations in agriculture that increased efficiency and productivity, he said. Part of this has to do with the end of large-scale plantation agriculture and the decline of agriculture as an industry in general.

According to local experts, competing land uses – including those from solar and residential development – also prevent more agricultural land from being fully used.

In recent years, government programs such as Major Agricultural Land have attempted to address these issues by providing tax incentives to owners of valuable arable land. However, data and reports show that not many farmers have benefited from the program.

In the distant past, Hawaii’s agricultural footprint looked dramatically different, said Kamuela Enos, director of the Office of Indigenous Innovation at the University of Hawaii. Food production was everyone’s kuleana and a “practical consideration”. No work meant no consumption.

Since then, the islands’ agricultural systems have seen several changes – from indigenous systems to plantations and monocultures to smaller farms and diversified crops.

In today’s society, agriculture has become much more resource-based, and it is more possible to import and export crops, he said.

More recently, as COVID-19 impacted the Hawaiian food supply chain and raised awareness of food sustainability, Enos said the community was prepared to embrace local agriculture, and beyond, the practices of the Hawaiian indigenous peoples that lived in those countries many years ago thrived to promote.

“The emerging understanding of the value of agriculture is returning,” he said.

Here is a series of maps showing how Hawaii’s agricultural land is zoned and how it is actually used:

Approximately 1.93 million acres in Hawaii are devoted to agriculture. Very little of this land is used for growing things.

According to a 2015 study commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture, around 39% of this land – around 761,000 acres – is used for grazing.

This study, which will be updated this year, was more comprehensive than the 2017 USDA Agriculture Census.

Only 8% of the land is devoted to agriculture – 4% Hawaii’s land as a whole – is used to grow crops that span all categories of plants – from food to commercial forestry to flowers.

With the exception of Kahoolawe, Oahu has the smallest total area used for agriculture.

For an interactive look at all of the islands, click here to use this web app.

Federal data from 2017 suggest that the area cultivated for crops has increased. However, local experts say that does not necessarily mean that the land is being actively used for growing crops.

“It could just lie fallow,” said Loke of the state Department of Agriculture.

Some large farms have ceased operations since 2015, which may have contributed to even lower land use, says Jesse Cooke, vice president of the Ulupono initiative.

“When I look at local production, I still see it on a slow decline,” he said.

A prime example is Maui’s last sugar mill. It closed in 2016 and took 36,000 acres out of production.

Here’s a closer look.

Federal data from 2017 shows that most of the farms in Hawaii are located on small tracts of land.

Many of these small farms lease land from a handful of companies that own large swaths of the state.

Major agricultural landowners include the Kamehameha Schools, the State Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, the Parker Ranch, and the Robinson Family.

The Robinson family owns the entire island of Niihau.

Some areas in Hawaii are designated as Important Agricultural Areas. This is a government program created by the 1978 Constitutional Convention to promote diversified agriculture.

It is a voluntary program that grants agricultural landowners tax credits that meet the criteria, including whether the land is capable of sustained high agricultural yields.

Only about 136,000 of Hawaii’s 1.9 million acres of farmland are designated, and many of those acres are owned by large landowners, including Alexander & Baldwin and Grove Farm.

A recent report by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization described the IAL program as “deeply flawed.” The promised advantages did not materialize.

Hawaii’s main crops have also changed dramatically as well-known plantations have left the state.

Harvests have become much more diverse, as state and state data showed. It is no longer just sugar and pineapple that dominate.

Much of the data shown in the maps is from 2015 and 2017, which were the last available years. Ulupono’s Cooke said there had not been many revolutionary changes with a few exceptions, including the Maui sugar operation.

“Agriculture moves slower than most other industries,” he said.

The amount of land used for agriculture in Hawaii has decreased dramatically over the past century. These historical maps from the Statewide Agricultural Land Use Baseline 2015 report show the state’s shrinking agricultural footprint between 1937 and 2015.

Studying land use patterns of the past can help us prepare for the future, says Natalie Kurashima, sustainability scientist and integrated resource manager at Kamehameha Schools.

Climate change, the pandemic and other global events underscore the importance of local food production and sustainability.

Kurashima and her colleagues examined how three traditional Hawaiian native farming systems – arid, agroforestry, and lo’i, an irrigated pond farmland – can contribute to Hawaii’s food needs in the face of climate change.

“Our ancestors were experienced cultivators,” she said. “They have fed huge populations for generations.”

This map below shows the distribution of three native Hawaiian agricultural systems prior to 1977.

This shows areas on the islands that are suitable for traditional Hawaiian agriculture under the current climatic conditions.

The interesting thing about the maps is that these areas exist in areas that are currently being used for agriculture, Kurashima said.

The data we have now could look vastly different after COVID-19, Ulupono’s Cooke says.

COVID-19 has changed the reality of agriculture, he said. Many Hawaiian farmers struggle or shut down altogether.

But the pandemic also caused many people to reevaluate why grocery store shelves were suddenly empty and food banks were out of canned food, he said.

“We have to look at local food production like a police force or a fire department,” said Cooke. “You have to be able to feed your people.”

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