KAHULUI - There is enough fertile land in Hawaii to feed the state's entire population, but it will take even greater plummeting economics to force Hawaii residents, farmers, businesses and the government to make seismic shifts in their approaches to food and fuel, a Pacific islands expert said Saturday.
"I don't know how you would induce it," said Michael Hammett during his keynote address for the first Maui Island Sustainable Living Expo. "The problem is that the farmers and landowners would have to want to do it, and the people would have to want to pay higher prices."
The expo continues today in Maui Community College's Pilina Building. Fees are $60 for the public, $50 for teachers and $30 for students. The topics will include sustainable living and economic development education. Saturday's sessions focused primarily on sustainable farm and energy issues, including discussions of efforts to preserve farm land.
Clarita Cabusas is part of a crew picking beans at Otani Farm in Omaopio on Saturday. Locally grown produce struggle to compete with Mainland products that are shipped with at lower prices but are not nearly as fresh. For isle-grown products to succeed, shoppers need to be persuaded there is a higher value in the fresher products, speakers said at the Maui Island Sustainable Living Expo.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Hawaii has two million acres classified as agricultural land, said one of the day's many speakers, David Arakawa, executive director of the Land Use Research Foundation of Hawaii. But much of the land is not used successfully for farming.
"Agriculture is not a viable industry in Hawaii right now," Arakawa said.
Only 147,00 acres are considered prime for food cultivation, said Hammett, who is executive director of the University of Hawaii's Research Corporation. He estimates that it would take just 143,000 of those acres to feed the population, not including tourists, he said.
ISLAND SUSTAINABLE LIVING EXPO
The first Maui Isle Expo on sustainable living continues today at Maui Community College.
Events will be in the Pilina Building, except where noted:
8 a.m. Check-in and continental breakfast.
9 a.m. Panel on "Connecting Sustainable Living Education to the Native Hawaiian Cultural Context"
10 a.m. Panel on "Building Community Consciousness Around Sustainable Living"
11 a.m. Panel on "Best Practices in K-12 Sustainable Living Education"
12 p.m. Presentation on "Education and Workforce Development for the Wind Industry"
12:45 p.m. Lunch / Exhibits on Great Lawn
2 p.m. Presentation on "Sustainable Economic Development and Community Education -Programs That Stick"
2:45 p.m. Panel on "Developing a Green Workforce and Green Entrepreneurship on Maui"
3:45 p.m. Presentation on "Working Towards Food & Energy Security - Possible Models and Low Hanging Fruit"
4:55 p.m. Presentation on "Maui K-12 Sustainable Living Education Working Group"
5:15 p.m. Closing speakers
Organizers: Sustainable Living Institute of Maui, Maui Community
Dale Bonar, executive director of the Maui Coastal Land Trust, explained how the Legislature is attempting to persuade landowners to turn over more of Hawaii's most fertile acreage to farmers by passing the Important Agricultural Lands Act 233 this year. The law provides for landowners with prime ag lands to designate 85 percent of the land as prime agriculture, protected from development, although some employee housing can be built there.
However, in return, the landowner can get the remaining 15 percent zoned for urban or rural use, Bonar said. Under the law, the state the landowner can also receive tax credits and loan guarantees.
But Bonar also noted that the zoning changes would also require the approval of county planning commissions and councils.
"There are some real benefits," he said.
Bonar added that if the landowner also establishes a permanent easement for agriculture or ranching, with the oversight of a nonprofit, that the owner can receive even greater tax benefits. For instance, establishing an easement also lowers the value of the property, so the taxes are more affordable, and the land is easier to keep in the hands of a family, Bonar said. Outright donation of land is an income tax deduction, he said.
Meanwhile, Hammet said, Hawaii imports 85 percent of its food and 90 percent of its energy, which is mostly fossil fuels.
"We're extremely vulnerable to price fluctuations," he said. "It will take even higher costs to push us to widespread sustainable practices."
Small-scale organic farming can be profitable, said panelist Steve Quirt, organic and sustainable agriculture coordinator for the University of California.
He shared a story about a neighbor of his who nets $36,000 an acre for growing organic strawberries. The farmer requires little special equipment, uses no refrigeration and just delivers his berries directly from his small fields to the market, Quirt said.
Clark Hashimoto, a persimmon farmer and Maui County agricultural specialist, said the county Office of Economic Development and Maui Farm Bureau are seeking to persuade chain grocery stores to set aside areas in their aisles for locally grown produce.
"We put our 'Grown on Maui' stickers on our fruit by hand," Hashimoto said. "We want to stress that it's a lot fresher and to buy local."
However, he said, it's difficult to deal with competition from large international or California growers who can ship in persimmons that sell for as little as 79 cents a pound, compared to Hashimoto's price of $2 a pound.
Peter Merriman, owner and executive chef of Merriman's Restaurants, said he does business with 30 different local farmers daily, a result of the 20-year Hawaii Regional Cuisine project to link isle growers with chefs who want the freshness of locally grown produce.
He prides himself on the quality they provide his dishes and features photos of his suppliers as part of the decor in his restaurants.
"This is really my life," Merriman said.
Now when it comes to the energy crisis, Hammett said that resorting to biofuels is not feasible or economically attractive with today's technology. By his calculations, if Hawaii utilized all of its sugar cane fields, plus another 83,000 acres, to produce ethanol the result would supply just 20 percent of the island's current fuel needs.
"The good news is that if the price of oil stays high, it will drive us to discover new alternative forms of energy," Hammett said.
He went further, calling on the federal government to install a carbon tax to help address gas emissions and global warming.
And while Hawaii's tourism-based economy is suffering due to sky-rocketing fuel prices, the good news is that the state's science and technology industries have been growing at a rate of about 3 percent a year, Hammett said.
"But ultimately, if we're going to solve this problem, we really need to import less food and use less fuel," he said.
Chris Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.