The issue is a popular one that’s repeatedly surfaced over the years and this campaign season is no exception: How can lawmakers help the island’s farmers?
Candidates for the House District 5 and 6 seats discussed how they would encourage agricultural efforts that range from cattle ranches to coffee farms and diverse market-garden operations. The forum at Konawaena Elementary School on Wednesday night was sponsored by the Kona County Farm Bureau, the Kona Farmers Union and the Kona Coffee Farmers Association. About 35 people attended.
Asked if he would support disclosure of foreign coffee in blends that sell as 10 percent Kona, Dave Bateman, a Republican coffee farmer from Keauhou mauka, said he would support designating such blends as 90 percent foreign.
“I’d like to get all sides together and resolve this once and for all,” he said.
Bateman called for two-year agriculture degrees that would qualify young farmers for low-cost agriculture loans, and said the state should encourage farmers markets by keeping its hands off from a regulatory standpoint.
“This is one way to get our ag products out there,” said Bateman, who also supports a zero general excise tax on farm products, and more robust inspections at entry points and in the field to combat invasive species.
Bateman and four others are running for House District 5, which stretches from Naalehu north to Keauhou and Kahaluu.
Richard Creagan, the Democratic incumbent who was appointed to the District 5 seat in January to replace Denny Coffman, agreed the coffee labeling issue needs to be resolved.
“I’d be glad to sponsor and introduce such legislation, but it would require strong backing by the coffee industry if it’s to get any further than it has in the past,” he said.
To encourage young farmers, Creagan called for a “rural rennaisance” that would support dwellings for such farmers who are working to take over the land from older farmers.
Farmers market vendors should be exempt from the excise tax for unprocessed food sales, and markets should be allowed on agricultural land, he said.
By being slack in its fight against invasive species, the state has been penny-wise but a pound foolish, Creagan said.
“We’re heading for major disaster,” he said. “You can’t pick coffee in a field with fire ants. We need to jump on the fire ant problem immediately.”
Gene “Bucky” Leslie, a Holualoa businessman, said the purity of the Kona coffee brand needs to be protected. But until broad federal legislation can be completed, farmers need to exert their own strong quality control, he said.
Leslie proposed working with landholders to encourage a new generation of farmers, and called for better access to water and other resources, but said it’s not possible for the state to guarantee affordable lands.
Leslie said he got his start in business 30 years ago selling coffee and macademia nuts along the side of the road. Then the county got involved.
“They threw us off the road,” he said.
The state needs to add agricultural inspectors and restore inspection of green coffee, he said.
“We need to take mandatory inspections seriously,” he said. “We need ag inspectors at every port.”
Randy Ruis agreed it is important to protect the name of 100 percent Kona.
“I am in favor of labeling the source of the other 90 percent,” the independent from Ocean View said.
The state could amass an inventory of lands and offer long-term leases to young farmers, he said. It must also protect agricultural land from development, he said. Fewer permits required for vendors at farmers markets would be reasonable, he said.
“I believe the state must do a much better job to protect ag lands and residents from invasive species,” he said.
Ruis said he supports labeling of genetically modified organisms and that Monsanto and other large companies bully the farmers.
Jon Lalanne, a Libertarian from Ocean View, is also in the District 5 race, but was on the mainland did not participate in the forum.
House District 6 encompasses Kailua-Kona, Holualoa, Kalaoa and Honokohau. All of the candidates are from Kailua-Kona.
In that race, Republican Kelly Valenzuela said the area prides itself on the coffee.
“One hundred percent from Kona,” she said. “Anything less is deceptive. Put the blend on the package.”
Farms should be farms, not property with two plumeria trees and a 5,000-square-foot house, said Valenzuela, who called for bringing agricultural programs back into high schools and ag loans for the students emerging from those programs.
Valenzuela said that lawsuits have been the root cause of health regulations governing farmers markets.
“It’s sad,” she said.
Valenzuela said she had learned recently that private jets don’t go through agricultural inspections.
“Who is policing them?” she asked. “If I am elected, they are going to go through ag inspection like everyone else. This is our Hawaii. There needs to be an even playing field across the board.”
Democrat Kalei Akaka said there are deep concerns about fair labeling among coffee growers.
“This is our farmers’ livelihoods,” she said, but noted that it could be a hardship for farmers to have to change labels depending on what foreign brands are available to add into the mix.
“We need to support our strong legacy of farmers,” Akaka said, pointing to the island’s immense agricultural capacity in the past. “I will work hard to keep ag lands for the future.”
Akaka said farmers market vendors suffer from the high cost of meeting commercial kitchen regulations in preparing their products for market.
“We want to take care of our consumers, but to the farmers, is it affordable?” said Akaka, who also held that farmers need better education in their options for fighting invasive species.
Roy Ebert, a Republican, said that whoever holds the trademark to Kona coffee should set the standards, and whomever wants to grow and sell the coffee should live up to those standards.
“Whatever it takes to support that trademark,” he said.
Ebert said that onerous government regulations have beaten down farmers, and the children who witnessed this disrespect growing up now want nothing to do with farming.
“Treat farmers with the respect they deserve,” he said. “You have to encourage people by respecting the people who are already there.”
Farmers should be able to sell their products along the road without being encumbered by paperwork or tax, Ebert said.
“This is not processed food. It’s like trying to tax air,” he said.
A strong agricultural extension agency could combat invasive species without great cost, Ebert said.
“We need a coordinated effort to deal with invasives,” he said.
Nicole Lowen, the Democratic incumbent, said she’ll introduce a bill again for truth in labeling of Kona coffee. The last bill she introduced on the subject didn’t get a hearing, but hopefully there will be better results in the future, she said.
Lowen said the state imports at least 85 percent of its food. It the island could increase its own production by 10 percent, that would create $313 million in tax revenue and at least 2,000 jobs, she said. Possible boosts for an industry that is difficult, expensive and not always profitable include mentorship programs, lower electricity costs, subsidized leases and mobile slaughterhouses, Lowen said.
Lowen called for a robust inspections program to stop invasive species before they make entry and holding importers accountable for the pests they bring. She called for additional funding to fight invasives.
“The cost is going to be less dealing with it up front than letting it get really bad before we react,” she said.
Candidates supported Hawaii County’s right to ban open-field planting of new GMO crops and generally came down on the side of labeling. Ebert, however, said not all GMOs are the same and not all are dangerous.
“In some cases, GMOs are a good idea,” he said.
Bateman qualified his opposition to GMOs by saying that there may be a case of crop disease in the future that can only be combated using genetic modification. Valenzuela supported labeling but wasn’t sure she was against GMOs and said the food for a burgeoning island population must come from somewhere.