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Editorial: Signs of hope for isle agriculture

The economic shock waves set in motion by COVID-19 have rocked Hawaii’s agriculture industry, with local farmers and ranchers suffering enormous declines in sales due to months of stalled tourism, restaurant closures and other pandemic-related factors. Even so, there’s reason for optimism that the industry can reset with a stronger foundation on which to grow food security in the islands.

One bright spot amid ongoing struggles: MA‘O Organic Farms’ plan for a new post-harvest processing facility along with expanded field operations and educational support, which will make the 20-year-old pioneering social enterprise in Waianae larger and more financially self-sustaining.

The nonprofit recently secured a total of $11.5 million for the effort from more than two dozen organizations, agencies and individuals. The infusion of funds is projected to yield a vast increase in food production, which includes more than 40 varieties of fruits and vegetables, including salad greens, root crops, cooking greens, herbs and seasonal tropical fruits. Also, there will be scores of new jobs. Both are welcome rebuilding blocks that can help stabilize the industry’s wobbly condition.

Further — and most heartening as Hawaii glimpses its ag future — is an initiative that will significantly expand youth training programs through which MA‘O pays the college tuition for young adults who work part-time on the farm as part of its Leeward community-based economic development model.

Given that Hawaii now imports more than 85% of its food — leaving us vulnerable to running out of groceries within a week or so should ports close due to natural disaster — we must strengthen our food security profile. However, despite widespread enthusiasm for a more sustainable supply of fresh produce and proteins, a dramatic ramping up of local ag production is rightly viewed as a tall order.

Farming in Hawaii has a longstanding reputation as a tough business. In addition to unpredictable weather, year-round pests and expensive land costs, there has been a shortage of people who want to work on farms. It’s a small wonder that Hawaii’s commercial farmers’ average age is roughly 60 years old, according to the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation.

Even so, given that the nearest landmass is some 2,500 miles away, these challenges and others must be tackled. To that end, it’s encouraging that since 2001 MA‘O has helped its student interns earn 120 associate’s degrees, dozens of bachelor’s degrees and three master’s degrees.

Through their higher-education degrees and farm work, in which interns get a hands-on education that connects them with Native Hawaiian culture, these young adults hold potential to help boost the count of local farms and food businesses. Moreover, while ag still involves plenty of field labor, it’s also evolving to include promising tech advances — monitoring drones and vertical farming techniques, for instance — and plant research to develop increasingly hardy and more nutritious crops.

From this vantage point, there’s a glimmer of hope for coming years — even as Hawaii continues to grapple with the economic setbacks tied to COVID-19. On a statewide scale, success will hinge, in part, on securing ample financial assistance and in-kind donations.

A recently formed group of ag stakeholders, dubbed the AgHui, is pitching a sensible plan that starts with stabilizing still-hemorrhaging parts of the industry with emergency loans and grants, loan and rent deferrals, direct payments to farmers, and assistance for community feeding programs.

The plan’s follow-up recovery includes updating aging infrastructure and supporting regional food hubs and producers contributing to food security. Successes such as MA‘O’s bolster confidence that a thriving, resilient food and agriculture economy is within Hawaii’s reach. It is attainable with deeply rooted, sustained support.

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