DeCoite: Hawaii farming suffers from lack of state support

Department of Agriculture receives less than 1 percent of state budget

State Rep. Lynn DeCoite speaks during Wednesday’s Hui Holomua Business Fest at King Kamehameha Golf Course in Waikapu. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

Hawaii’s only farmer serving as a lawmaker at the state Capitol is questioning Gov. David Ige’s pledge to double local food production by 2020, and Rep. Lynn DeCoite believes legislators should be shifting more taxpayer dollars from tourism into agriculture, which makes up less than 1 percent of the state’s total budget.

DeCoite, who represents East Maui, Molokai and Lanai, also called for the University of Hawaii to compile and release agriculture data to help residents looking to start their own farms — a suggestion one school official is seriously considering.

DeCoite provided her thoughts during Wednesday’s Hui Holomua Business Fest at King Kamehameha Golf Course. The third-generation Hoolehua farmer served as a moderator for a panel of farmers from Maui, Molokai, Kauai and Big Island.

“Tourism money should be used for agriculture and not strictly tourism,” DeCoite said after the panel discussion. “When people come to Hawaii, they like eat what’s in Hawaii. They no like eat the apples imported here or the almonds. They want to eat local taro, ulu, sweet potato, the fish. We cannot showcase tourism if we cannot showcase what’s grown here.”

DeCoite owns and operates L&R Farms on Molokai with her family, which is the largest sweet potato farm in Hawaii. She said support for farming has decreased over the years with budget cuts to the state Department of Agriculture.

The department has not published a comprehensive agricultural statistics report since 2011, when revenues totaled $720 million. Seed revenue that year also hit a record $243 million as companies were expanding their Hawaii-based operations.

Seed revenues dropped to around $180,000 the following year, however, and have continued to steadily decline with the shutdown of companies such as Mycogen Seeds earlier this year on Molokai. A survey published in June by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service reported Hawaii’s seed industry is estimated at $121 million for the 2017 to 2018 season.

DeCoite said she believes Hawaii can increase its local food production, but she’s unclear where it currently stands. She said farmers have not received much guidance from members of Ige’s administration and how they plan to double production.

“That has been his biggest push, but his biggest downfall is they don’t know what is base production,” she said.

Ige’s office and Agriculture Chairman Scott Enright did not provide comments Friday.

Hawaii has about 7,000 farm operations covering a little over a million acres, according to the USDA’s Hawaii Field Office 2017 state agriculture overview. Those farms account for only about 10 percent of food consumed in the state, while the other 90 percent is imported.

DeCoite believes Hawaii would be “lucky” if it were to hit 25 percent local food production due to the high cost of doing business on the islands and other barriers. The Molokai lawmaker said she is doing what she can to reduce expenses, including a bill for cost reimbursement, but she does not see the agriculture industry taking over as Hawaii’s primary economic driver.

Mounting pressure and criticism from the public on farming methods also have discouraged people from entering the industry, DeCoite added.

“I’ve questioned so many (Future Farmers of America) groups and asked do you look at farming the future and asked for a show of hands and not one of the hands went up,” she said. “I said, ‘You guys gotta be kidding me.’ They say there’s just too much opposition for us to farm and how to do it.”

More money dedicated to agriculture by the state, though, could broaden the appeal of farming in Hawaii.

A little more than $50 million is set aside for the state Agriculture Department — or 0.4 percent of the state’s total fiscal year 2019 budget. Meanwhile, state lawmakers allocated $79 million to the Hawai’i Tourism Authority, despite a scathing audit in February that revealed “extravagant” spending such as $50,000 on first-class airfares, hotel rooms that cost more than $400-per-night and a one-day chauffeur service for $369.

“Why is it $80 million is dropped to appease tourists,” DeCoite asked. “Appease your baseline. You gotta feed your people first. Keep it vibrant, keep it healthy. Only then can you go out and move farming forward. If not, people not running to the front of the line to farm. They’re like, ‘I’m going to get a 9-to-5 job with benefits.’ “

Another way DeCoite proposed to help farmers is providing them data on what crops grow best in certain areas. She said the University of Hawaii already has the data, but it has not provided it to farmers in an easily accessible manner.

“It’s hard to encourage farmers when you first set somebody up for failure,” she said. “Why have them grow something that cannot be grown. You wouldn’t grow Kula onions in Lahaina. That data should be given first to people who are considering farming.”

Nicholas Comerford, dean of UH’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, said he spoke with DeCoite about the idea and agreed that the university’s web system is difficult for farmers to navigate. He said the university has thousands of publications online so farmers can research everything there is to know about various crops, but the school “probably hasn’t done the best job in corralling” the information.

“Her idea is excellent, and we probably should’ve done it by now with the amount of information we have,” Comerford said. “With new funding from the state, we might get some agents to put that together.”

Comerford said the state Legislature funded 10 agricultural agents for the college last session to join its 50 agents statewide. He said the additional agents, which include an economist and financier, could help compile key data for farmers.

“We used to have that information in the state, but a series of budget cuts meant economic positions were vacated in DOA,” he said. “Even in our program, our ag economist has been nonexistent until now.”

The college is in the process of interviewing for the new agent positions and hopes to have them hired by January, Comerford said. The economist would help farmers figure out how to spend their money, and the financier would help farmers find money to finance their operations.

“We are completely excited about getting economists, and that they can work directly with farmers and help them decide how to make money,” he said. “The first rule of farming is how to make money, and the second rule is do no harm or improve the landscape. They have to make sure they’re managing land and improving the health of the soil.

“The third rule is that not only you benefit from the farm, but the community benefits.”

Aside from increasing funding for the Agriculture Department, DeCoite said the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, Kamehameha Schools and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs need to provide further support. She said DHHL is “land rich, cash poor,” and could be the driver for future agriculture along with funds from OHA and Kamehameha Schools that could “infuse farming cooperatives.”

She also hopes to see more farming programs in schools and support from her fellow lawmakers.

“We know where the downfalls are, and that’s the deterrence for farmers,” she said. “They give up on the government already. This is the last straw and once these guys leave and retire they’ll never come back.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

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