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Editorial | Island Voices

Private research center abets isle food independence

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Recent announcement of acquisition of 1,743 acres of Galbraith Estate agricultural lands by a coalition of public and private organizations is certainly an achievement that merits kudos.

No one can doubt the precarious position of our Island state as it relates to food security, and the setting aside of this much prime farm land for food production is an important pillar of Hawaii’s long-term food self-sufficiency aspirations.

The occasion of this acquisition provides an opportunity to highlight other indispensable pillars of sustainable food production for the state and trumpet the visionary work of an equally important player in pursuit of the same objectives.

The Hawaii Agriculture Research Center, a local nonprofit, and its outgoing president, Stephanie Whalen, identified early on the needs of a sustainable food production sector in Hawaii. She foresaw this even as HARC transitioned from the research arm of the sugar industry and relocated its research and other facilities from Aiea to Kunia to serve an emerging food-production industry sorely in need of assistance.

Whalen’s vision was that while land was plainly the lynchpin of the industry, the land in and of itself could not produce sustainable crops without three additional pillars:

» Affordable worker housing;

» Accessible production and pesticide treatment facilities;

» And scientific research support.

When Del Monte announced the closing of its Kunia Camp and pineapple plantation in early 2000, an entire complex of processing and storage facilities, administrative offices and worker housing was slated to be phased out. Land owner James Campbell Co. approached HARC about acquiring the land to preserve some 121 agricultural worker housing units still occupied, in many cases, by family members of Del Monte plantation workers.

Knowing that such housing was vital to a viable agricultural industry, HARC accepted the offer in 2006 and with help from the county set up a mechanism to keep the housing in perpetuity for agricultural workers.

With U.S. Department of Agriculture financing, federal Section 8 subsidies and state housing credits, Whalen’s vision (now well under way) was to renovate and maintain the 121 camp residences to support the transitioning pineapple lands from "Big Ag" to truck farming such as envisioned for the Galbraith lands.

Her belief was that an emerging food production industry would not survive without readily available affordable housing for a rising generation of farm workers.

The deteriorating Del Monte agricultural processing and refrigerated storage facilities and administrative offices also provided essential infrastructure for the emerging industry, and Whalen was determined not to let land-use entitlements for these vital facilities lapse. She initiated a plan of redevelopment of these facilities with new agricultural lessees who made important upgrades and improvements.

A newly permitted irradiation facility now qualifies several crops for export to mainland and other markets and helps ensure viability for farmers who could not otherwise sustain their businesses solely in Hawaii.

HARC is the largest and most important private research concern in the state. Its staff of research scientists boasts a long list of successes with respect to crops of importance to Hawaii, such as papaya, coffee, stevia and sugar by-products.

Certainly the UH’s College of Tropical Agriculture plays an important support role, but to also have a private research facility with experimental stations deployed in the heart of the Kunia farmlands is a tremendous benefit to the industry.

The acquisition of the Galbraith lands is wonderful news for Oahu; the remarkable and visionary work of HARC in nearby Kunia will help make the dream of sustainable agriculture a reality in our lifetime.

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