Maui needs farmers and to grow what we have the capacity to grow

Our County

According to the state Department of Agriculture’s “Statewide Agricultural Land Use Baseline” study, released back in 2015, prior to the sugar cane industry shutting down Maui had 44,360 acres in total area of crops being grown. This included seed production, commercial forestry, sugar cane, bananas, tropical fruits, pineapple, flowers, taro, macadamia nuts, coffee and other diversified crops.

As you can imagine, most of those crops consisted of sugar cane, some 36,000 acres out of the 44,360.

Alexander & Baldwin has been looking at different crops to replace sugar. In the meantime, the County of Maui has received a $5 million appropriation from the state with a $1 million match from the county to expand the Kula Ag Park onto former plantation land.

Currently, the Kula Ag Park consists of 445 acres and supports 26 farmers off of Pulehu Road. There are a multitude of crops grown in the ag park now, including Kula onions and other vegetables, turf grass, flowers, bananas, dry-land taro and landscaping nursery products.

We are hoping that the expansion to these lands will at least double the size of our ag park. Understandably, some people pointed out to me that even this addition would be a small drop in the bucket out of the 36,000 acres.

I don’t disagree, but it is a start. And quite frankly, finding the solution of which crop to grow next in our central plain is not simple.

Soil, climate, elevation and access to water all play a part in what a farmer decides to grow in his or her field. By all accounts, Central Maui is a desert. The only reason sugar cane grew so well there is because it is a flexible, adaptable crop.

Look at all the advantages of growing sugar cane: It’s a crop that didn’t need to be harvested every 90 days or even a year, but every two years, which cost less for Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.; it was adaptable and grew in different soils and at different elevations; you could irrigate sugar cane with fresh and brackish water and it didn’t significantly affect the crop; it could even go without water for a week or two, an important advantage in a challenging area with little rain, lots of wind and desert-like conditions.

This is why we’ve seen a multipronged approach from A&B. A map that it released in April showed where it thought different crops would grow in different areas: coffee crops makai of Omaopio, cattle ranching near Hamakuapoko, biogas feedstock crops in Spreckelsville, etc.

This is a good, diversified plan, but in response I keep hearing quips from people saying that they don’t want the land to feed cattle, that we should only be growing “food” and that it has to be “organic” or nothing at all.

This is a needlessly self-destructive overreaction to what is our agricultural industry’s reality on Maui. We have to grow what we have the capacity to grow. It’s that simple.

Look at it this way: On any given day on Maui we have roughly 200,000 people on island (165,000 residents plus tourists). To feed them, we would need around 3 pounds of food per person per day.

That’s 600,000 pounds of food. Even if we farmed all 36,000 acres of A&B land, we could not produce that much. On the Mainland that’s just a small farm in Texas.

And yes, there are all kinds of farming techniques that we can and should look into, including composting, greenhouses, aeroponics, hydroponics, aquaponics and vertical crops, just to name a few. We are considering everything. If people are serious, come to the Kula Ag Park and apply, we welcome both old and new farmers.

We want more community farming. More importantly, we need the next generation of farmers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average age of farmers has gone from 50 to 58 over the last 30 years.

We need to cultivate the next generation of farmers, just as we would cultivate any crop.

What we don’t need are people who have no intention of farming telling the farmers what to grow and how to grow it. That doesn’t add anything to this important conversation.

* “Our County,” a column from Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa, is about county issues and activities of county government. The column usually appears on the first and third Fridays of the month.

COMMENTS