Hawaii’s economy heavily depends on the success of their agriculture. Raw sugar, pineapple, and molasses are the state’s primary source of income outside of tourism. However, the recent boom of corporate farming has threatened the livelihood of smaller, local farms. Coupled with the daunting downslide of the economic collapse, native Hawaiian farmers --with crippled means -- are competing for vital market space against massive corporations with mega budgets.
INFRASTRUCTURES' GIANT SHADOW
In particular the corporate farm’s developed infrastructure -- which is professionally engineered for the mass markets -- dominates over the simplistic design scheme of traditional farms. Many of Hawaii’s staple agriculture industries including the pig, chicken, and livestock industry cannot keep up with the rapid development of slaughterhouses, and processing facilities, which process livestock faster while better meeting rigorous health standards.
The FDA’s cost increases in operational and licensing fees also keep many small farmers out of the mass market game. Larger corporations not only have the developed infrastructure to keep their prices cheap, they also have the fiscal room to pay off the daunting expenses of government permits.
In a roundtable discussion with Hawaiian Business Magazine, Dean Okimoto, the owner of Naio farms, and former president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation explained the huge pricing wall native farmers are up against, “I talked with some people about bringing back chickens [to Hawaii]. Just for the processing facility you’re looking at $30 million and you need an FDA inspector in there at all times,” Okimoto laments, “That’s what makes the system not work for small farmers. Corporate farmers are the only ones that can afford this infrastructure. And that’s what we lack here in Hawaii. Agriculture is going to need that help going forward.”
AN ISOLATED ISLAND
In addition, Hawaiian farmers face the dual challenge of having to retain domestic buyers, while committing to the fiscal burden of exporting local produce in order to appeal to a larger buying demographic. With recent technologies in hydroponics farming emerging on the U.S. mainland, vital produce like pineapples are being farmed in new locations that were previously unfeasible for such produce due to insurmountable weather conditions. Now mainland retailers no longer need to import their Hawaiian produce, as they can find much better prices locally.
However, even some big corporations are leaving Hawaiian agriculture. After ninety years in Hawaii, Del Monte Produce Inc. left Hawaii, citing the expense of growing pineapple in Hawaii as their main reason for closing their operations. While Hawaii offers an idealistic growing environment, companies simply cannot justify the high cost of FDA fees and exportation costs, when they can produce cheaper pineapples in minimally regulated places like Thailand, and the Philippines.
While Hawaii historically was one of the top producers of pineapples and sugar cane --in the 20th century Hawaii grew over 80 percent of the pineapple in the world -- many of the island’s lush farms have been replaced by hotels and condominiums, or left bare and vacant, unable to lease to farmers wary of production cost risks. For instance, currently only 1,200 workers are employed in the pineapple industry in Hawaii, that is one third the employees that the 20th century boasted, despite the drastic peak in island population.
A SHIFT IN DEMAND
When Hawaiian tourism found its peak in the last century – the island draws over seven million visitors a year – the initial draw to the island was the strong native culture, mainly marked by the luau feast. Tourists were in awe of the island’s natural splendor, intoxicating scenery and exotic foods. This rich feeling of Hawaiian authenticity matched the integrity of their native’s simplistic and meditative way of living. Hawaiians lived in connection to nature, respecting the abundance of produce they farmed. However, outside business and touristic demands have stripped this fertile culture of many of its vital assets. Perhaps the Hawaiian farming dilemma can illuminate our society’s need to nurture or food, as much as we consume it, before our culture is as barren as the lands we over farm.