Rob Parsons

Eleven Ideas for Fixing Agriculture on Maui

Our ag sector is wilting on the vine. Here's how to get it growing

by Rob Parsons

December 17 , 2009

It's been distressing to witness the unraveling of once-viable agricultural operations over recent years and months. The old paradigm of large mono-crop plantations and export commodity crops is dying, but it still hasn't yielded to new models that favor local food security and sustainability. We spend about $4 billion annually on food imports (amounting to 85-90 percent of our total food consumption) in Hawaii, and yet the benefits of keeping even some of that money here continue to be ignored.

In the interim, Maui Land & Pineapple has announced closure of some 2,500 acres still planted in pineapple, entailing layoffs of nearly 300 workers, with some to be retrained to work in resort operations (similar to the island-wide shift in 1992 on Lanai, where once as many as 18,000 acres were planted in pineapple). Ironically, high-end tourism and resort housing have shown similar vulnerabilities, and ML&P's economic bleeding might not be over anytime soon.

Maui's largest ag operation, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar, is the last remaining sugar enterprise in the state. Kauai's Gay & Robinson plantation recently threw in the towel, abandoning a plan to modify sugar operations to ethanol production, which they believed would have doubled revenue. Instead, thousands of acres will be leased for production of genetically engineered seed crops, including corn, as well as possible woody biomass crops for electric generation.

HC&S, with 35,000 acres still cultivated throughout Maui's central valley, has launched a last-gasp, divisive PR campaign to retain century-old water allocations. They are claiming sugar's future—and 800 plantation jobs—depend upon their diversion of dozens of Maui streams, some reduced to a mere trickle, and that without water for sugar, Central Maui could become a dust bowl.

But let's save that discussion for another day, and instead look at alternative ideas that could restore Maui's connection with the land while simultaneously boosting our agricultural sector and increasing food security.

Maui produces a lot of green waste, including yard trimmings, grass clippings, branches and palm fronds. The state Department of Health has stringent rules about how these materials may be composted, and the permitting process for such sites is rigorous and restrictive. Existing operations are found only in Central Maui—EKO Compost at the landfill and Maui Earth Compost (which runs a satellite site in Kihei).

With County guidance and support, each community could create a regional operation, where truckloads of carbon-rich materials could be dropped off and recycled, and residents could drive home with a load of finished compost to nourish their home gardens.

Claims that Central Maui could revert to a dust bowl if sugar dies off are incorrect for a few reasons. Historically, the area was a dryland forest, and the introduction of grazing animals by Captains Cook and La Perouse, among others, altered the original ecosystem.

The sugar-or-dust ultimatum also ignores the reality that current industrial-scale ag practices already produce dust bowl conditions. Absent windbreaks, HC&S's standard practice of disking hundreds of acres at a time allows Maui's resident trade winds to whisk away any remaining topsoil and drop it unceremoniously on the dying reefs in Maalaea Bay.

Crop-rotation practices and tilling in nutrient-rich cover crops would help restore degraded soils, which require increasing chemical inputs after decades of mono-cropping. Adding more organic material into the soil would greatly improve its ability to hold and utilize the all-important water and, as one soil expert quipped, would restore our "sense of humus."

Lawns are a 20th century luxury and status symbol—the bigger and better manicured the lawn, the more prestige in one's neighborhood. Millions of gallons of treated drinking water are used daily for landscape irrigation, while millions more of treated "wastewater" from County treatment plants goes unused, pumped into injection wells that eventually bring excess nutrients into the ocean's near-shore waters.

Greater efforts should be made to amend County landscaping ordinances and neighborhood CC&Rs to allow for front lawns that feature fruit and vegetable production. County Parks and roadway right-of-ways similarly could benefit from planting food crops and fruit trees, not grass and thirsty ornamentals.

State budget shortfalls have brought a knee-jerk edict from Gov. Lingle to cut vital Department of Agricultural jobs for inspection of incoming shipments of plants, produce and other materials. This appears to be a classic example of penny-wise and dollar-foolish. We cannot afford to spend millions of dollars after the fact to try to contain accidentally introduced pests that hold the potential for crippling our existing agricultural operations.

Hawaiian sandalwood was rapidly plundered in the early 19th century. Today only tiny remnants remain of a once-thriving island-wide upslope dryland forest ecosystem. Native honeycreepers and other birds have retreated to wetter, less ideal habitats, and their survival is gravely endangered.

Native koa, coveted for its beauty in furniture, crafts and musical instruments, is similarly in decline. When biologist Art Medeiros conceived and founded the East Maui Watershed Restoration Partnership, he envisioned a growing, sustainable eco-forestry industry that would support local residents as well as indigenous birds, plants and creatures.

Bamboo is widely used in other countries as a construction material. Though Whispering Winds Bamboo and other Maui growers have made extensive plantings of construction-grade bamboo, the only approved material for bamboo housing must be imported from Vietnam. Maui imports virtually all of its home construction materials. Creative building code amendments and establishing local sawmills could create local jobs, and keep construction material dollars circulating within the state economy.

The wide-ranging benefits of the hemp plant have long been dismissed as a pipe dream of those who also advocate using its botanical cousin, marijuana. The plant that once produced numerous products in North America and elsewhere—paper, rope, textiles, protein-rich food, fuel—is illegal to grow in the United States. Consequently, hemp products are imported to the U.S from Canada, China and France. Over the past decade, state Rep. Cynthia Thielen has attempted to introduce legislation to test and develop a hemp industry in Hawaii. Perhaps its time to rehash those efforts.

Recent collection efforts by the Real Property Tax office have relied on a definition of agriculture that does not consider growing food for family consumption as sufficient to earn an agricultural tax rate. Every effort must be made to support political candidates who understand the vital connection between ag incentives and true sustainability.

Early residents of Hawaii devised intricate systems, greatly in harmony with natural processes, for raising fish in coastal ponds. These highly productive loko 'ia were community endeavors, and historical studies estimate that well over 300 ponds were constructed throughout the islands, with carbon dating going back eight centuries.

Modern attempts at aquaculture have not integrated emerging technology and science with traditional cultural knowledge. Proposals for open ocean feedlots could create dire problems, as happened with salmon cage operations in British Columbia and elsewhere. Restoring—and updating—our past may prove more viable than trying to reinvent our future.

Onshore systems for raising fish may also utilize the nutrients in the water for raising vegetable crops in hydroponic systems. Local sustainability for such systems could be achieved by developing a fish-food facility using local agricultural and packing house wastes for fish food, and using solar energy to dry the feed.

Stop the squabbling. Look to share, and to enhance all food production operations equitably. Plantation politics have sequestered our most valuable resource—water—for one company's near-exclusive use at a hugely discounted rate. Much like those values learned in kindergarten, the big landowners need to learn how to share.