The Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation took shape several decades ago, when sugar and pineapple crops dominated the fields. These days, while the state’s agriculture profile continues to undergo post-plantation changes, the nonprofit is pressing on in its role as an advocate advancing the interests of this diverse community in the islands.
Randy Cabral, who serves as the Farm Bureau’s president, said current priorities include: “Helping our local farmers to comply with stringent new food safety requirements, and helping them recover from recent natural disasters; finding solutions to the critical labor shortage; and maybe most importantly … helping people learn about the joys and challenges of farming in Hawaii so they can better understand what it will take to keep it alive and thriving here.”
The Hawaii island native grew up in a plantation housing “camp” bordered by sugarcane fields, just outside Hilo.
“Like most plantation families, we had our own home garden and raised all sorts of animals like chickens, ducks, geese, cattle, pigs, goats, sheep and even a couple of peacocks,” Cabral said. “As a teenager, I worked on a papaya farm and at the nearby ag research center, so it’s no surprise that I chose a career in agriculture,” which has included about four decades of employment with Royal Hawaiian Orchards — a Hilo- based macadamia nut grower and processor.
This weekend, the Farm Bureau is showcasing all things ag at the 57th annual Hawaii State Farm Fair at Kualoa Ranch. Among the highlights, Cabral said, “Kamehameha Schools’ Country Market and Plant Sale has some of the freshest locally grown produce from across the state, along with lots of interesting plants for sale.” Also, children can check out attractions, such as a life-sized milking cow (replica) and activities ranging from hands-on planting to mini-tractor driving.
Noting that the event has seen four generations of fairgoers, Cabral said, “It’s a celebration of a very important part of the state’s heritage, for residents and visitors to Hawaii. Our goal is to increase support for local agriculture and help move Hawaii closer to food security and self-sufficiency.” (More information is available online, www.hawaiistatefarmfair.org.)
Question: Hawaii now imports about 90% of its food. In the interest of fresher produce and proteins, reducing a carbon footprint as well as the presence of invasive species arriving with imported goods, Gov. David Ige wants to double production within 11 years. Thoughts?
Answer: I’m optimistic that we can expand local food production. To do that, we’ll need to embrace all types of farming and all sizes of farms using traditional, conventional, natural, organic and modern technology. Farming is more difficult here, especially since our costs are so much higher than elsewhere.
It’s a tough business. … Besides unpredictable weather, year-round pests and expensive land costs, there’s a severe shortage of people who want to work on farms. Without every available tool, we won’t be able to expand our farms or continue to provide our communities with abundant and safe food.
The success or failure of island farms depends on the wisdom of farmers, whose experience and love for the aina makes them the experts on how best to farm. Development of public policy, legislation and regulations must include farmers to ensure that policies make sense and are reasonable.
For example, although each of us likely uses pesticides (we may not be aware that some household products are classified as such), many people think that pesticide use in agriculture is somehow more dangerous, or is unnecessary. Most feel it’s OK to protect our homes by termite tenting … to eat at restaurants that use pesticides to minimize vermin, and to go to hospitals and clinics that use pesticides to maintain high standards of sanitation. … Farmers should be allowed to use pesticides judiciously; that use is heavily regulated with strict enforcement to ensure safety. …
Q:Do you think vertical farming techniques or any other tech-based innovations are a particularly good fit for Hawaii?
A: I definitely think new farming techniques could work well here. With climate change, indoor or “protected” agriculture may reduce the risk of crop failure from uncontrollable weather and destructive pests. Mechanization has really caught on in other countries where, like here, land is expensive and limited, and where there’s a shortage of workers. We need to produce more from less land, with less impact to natural resources.
Older farmers like me, who are used to working alone from sunup to sundown, in hot fields doing backbreaking manual work, are becoming outmoded. As in every other area of life, farming must embrace technology to stay viable.
Q: Overall, Hawaii’s agriculture industry has shrunk by nearly 70% over the past four decades?
A: Yes, a lot of that decline resulted from closure of sugar and pineapple plantations and a reduction in the farming of other crops such as macadamia nuts. On the plus side, there’s more land available for diversified crops. But there’s also a downside, of course.
Hundreds of farmworkers lost their jobs and many have not found similarly high-paying work. Also, other businesses had relied on the large farms and the spending of their employees. So, when farms closed, related businesses and restaurants folded. In addition, for smaller farms, the decline has made it more expensive and difficult to bring in equipment, fertilizers and other necessities because the larger farms provided the economies of scale for these materials to be imported less expensively.
Today, we have more “gentlemen farms” that don’t provide the production, number of jobs, comparable salaries and benefits, or the training for people — especially youth — to learn and develop skills, like those of electricians, welders, plumbers and agronomists. …
Q:What are your thoughts on the latest twists in the ongoing controversy over long-standing “temporary” permits for water rights affecting dozens of farmers and ranchers, electrical utilities and Alexander & Baldwin, a large corporation?
A: The public strongly supports local food production and, when people stop to think about it, everyone understands that you can’t farm without water. So it’s a really simple concept that gets complicated when there are competing needs for the water and people don’t think they’re being listened to, or think their concerns are being ignored.
We believe there is enough water for all constitutionally-protected water uses, including farming, and that allocations of this precious resource must be made carefully and fairly. The recent court ruling (Intermediate Court of Appeals) will hopefully provide water users the opportunity to complete the very expensive, complicated and time-consuming new state water lease procedure. This will not only give farmers more security and stability but will also ensure that watersheds and aquatic ecosystems are adequately protected.
Q: The average farmer age — in Hawaii and nationwide — has been going up. What’s being done to attract younger generations?
A: Hawaii’s commercial farmers’ average age is 60.4 years old. The state is actively seeking ways to encourage interest in farming through youth education and training. Programs such as FFA (Future Farmers of America) and 4-H expose young people to positive, hands-on ag experience, while also instilling leadership and life skills. Also, the University of Hawaii has developed a program, preschool through post-secondary, in agriculture education and implementation.
These are good programs, but without affordable land, long-term leases, reliable access to water and public support for all types of farming, potential new farmers may be discouraged.
Q: What advice do you give to students and workers interested in farm-related careers?
A: … It’s not easy to get into and there are many challenges along the way, but if you like being your own boss and making your own decisions, it can be a lot of fun.
These days, a career in agriculture can be everything from basic physical labor in the fields to ag technology with monitoring drones, to research work to develop more hardy, more nutritious and even safer foods and energy crops. It’s a real thrill to produce delicious food, beautiful flowers, and other farm products!