Hawaii lost its last sugar cane plantation in 2016, but the amount of land in farming and number of farms grew during the most recent five-year statewide census of agriculture.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture counted 7,328 Hawaii farms on
1.14 million acres in 2017, up from 7,000 farms on 1.13 million acres in 2012.
The two increases were cited by state officials as bright spots for an industry under pressure from urbanization, foul weather, pests and aging operators.
Gov. David Ige commented on the snapshot of Hawaii agriculture by promoting the need to grow more food for local consumption.
“These numbers should reinvigorate all efforts to continue to increasing Hawaii’s food security and self-sufficiency,” Ige said in a statement.
One major decline in Hawaii agriculture during the five-year period was the value of farm industry output, which fell 15% to $564 million in 2017 from $661 million in 2012. The number of farmworkers also decreased.
The state Department of Agriculture noted that the closure of Hawaiian Commercial &Sugar Co. by owner Alexander &Baldwin Inc. at the end of 2016 drove most of the decline in Hawaii farm output value. HC&S, which occupied about 36,000 acres on Maui, produced about $100 million in annual revenue for A&B in recent years.
Also contributing to the farm production value decline were seed corn producers that have been consolidating and scaling back operations in recent years.
New farms raising a variety of crops and livestock didn’t offset the production value decline, but they did help keep farmland productive and added to the number of farms statewide after a drop in Hawaii’s farm count from 2007 to 2012.
Small farms, those on less than 10 acres, accounted for nearly all the growth, with a 10% gain to 4,868 farms in 2017 from 4,412 farms in 2012, the census report released recently said.
The vast majority of new farms, however, generated less than $1,000 in 2017.
At the high end of farm production value, there were 19 Hawaii farms with $5 million or more in annual revenue in 2017, and they collectively generated
$230 million. In 2012 there were 21 such farms, which generated $343 million.
One local large farm operator that has been expanding in recent years and reusing long-fallow former pineapple plantation fields on Oahu is Larry Jefts, who in 2016 harvested an initial crop of watermelons and red bell peppers on part of a 250-acre parcel in Wahiawa that the state bought after Del Monte quit farming pineapple on 1,200 acres in the area in 2004.
Jefts, through Kelena Farms, leases his parcel from the state and earlier this year harvested more than 1 million pounds of cabbage on the land.
“The last crop of head cabbage was a dream harvest that I have not experienced in my years as a farmer,” Jefts said in a statement from the state Department of Agriculture. “We averaged 192,500 to 275,000 pounds a week for the February and March harvests.”
Jefts said that over the next few months he plans to plant 150 acres of tomatoes and 80 acres of watermelon on the land, which the state helped make productive with investments in irrigation and soil preparation.
The farm census said there were 930 Hawaii farms that produced $85 million of vegetables, melons and potatoes in 2017. However, the census didn’t disclose a comparable value for this category in 2012.
Categories of agriculture products with revenue increase during the five-year period included organic foods, aquaculture and products from plant nurseries and greenhouses.
Organic food sales more than doubled to $15 million in 2017 from $6 million in 2012, the report said.
Aquaculture sales expanded by 30% to $74 million from $57 million in the same period.
And sales of nursery and greenhouse products that include flowers and sod increased 25% to $100 million from $80 million.
The census report also noted that more farm products are being sold directly to consumers and that the average age of Hawaii farmers continued to creep higher.
Hawaii farmers sold
$28 million worth of products directly to consumers in 2017, which was more than double the $13 million in direct sales for 2012, the report said.
The number of farmworkers in Hawaii slipped 5% to 11,891 in 2017 from 12,492 in 2012, and payroll for those workers fell 15% to $230 million from $270 million in the same period.
The average farmer in
Hawaii was 60.1 years old
in 2017, up from 58.7 years old in 2012. Given that five years elapsed between
the census reports, the smaller change in average age suggests that younger farmers continue to enter the industry. In 1997 the
average age of farmers in Hawaii was 55.
Geiser, chairwoman of the state Board of Agriculture, said the increase in younger farmers is heartening, and she urged residents to support agriculture in Hawaii.
“We encourage local consumers to continue to increase their support of Hawaii farmers and ranchers and buy local because
it really does have an impact on our community
and lifestyle,” she said in a statement.