A few recurring issues pop up when Hawaii Island farmers talk about the challenges of going organic.
“The first thing that always comes up for the farmers is access to affordable, local fertilizer and feed that are certified organic,” Melanie Bondera said. “These are so expensive to import.”
Farmers picking up organic fertilizer pay twice as much for half as much material, said Bondera, the Rural Cooperative Development Specialist for The Laulima Center. That means they’re getting about a fourth as much fertilizer for their money as farmers using conventional fertilizers.
The Laulima Center and The Kohala Center are seeking farmers’ and community members’ input on what issues face organic farmers in Hawaii, as well as what kind of help farming industry officials can offer to farmers, Bondera said.
High fertilizer costs aren’t the only issue farmers face, she said. Since 2010, Hawaii has been without a local entity to certify farms as organic. Right now, farmers can certify through one of six national organic programs, but to do so, the farms must pay for an inspector to fly to Hawaii from the mainland. The Hawaii Organic Farming Association, which used to certify farms here, is in the process of reforming, but won’t be certifying again, Bondera said.
About 140 farms statewide have been certified organic.
She would like to hear from farmers growing produce for the local market who are using organic practices, but haven’t completed the certification process. She and other industry officials wonder why those farmers haven’t gone after the official organic label and whether local farmers just don’t see a need to emphasize the organic nature of their products to a Big Island market, as well as what obstacles stand in farmers’ way.
Some crops — Bondera named coffee as one example — are easier to certify than others. Coffee, she said, requires mostly avoiding chemical pesticides, using organic fertilizers and finding alternative weed control measures, she said.
Organic farmers seem to be especially creative in solving issues around the farm, Bondera said. Conventional farmers often grow crops one way, but organic farmers, “they’ve got a hundred different ways of doing a crop.”
She wants to hear from farmers about what they’re doing and how.
Another area Bondera said members of the Organic Industry Advisory Group hope to get more information about relates to young farmers.
“We are really curious about what young farmers are running into for barriers for getting into (the organic market),” she said, adding the group would also like to hear from farmers of all ages who were unsuccessful becoming organic farmers. “What did they run into that was a wall?”
The Korean Natural Farming movement is one of the fastest growing segments of organic farming here, Bondera said.
Many farmers switching to that method are established farmers looking for a new way of producing food, she added.
The surveys, available at laulimacenter.org/organic_survey.html, opened Monday and are available through Aug. 2.
Different surveys are available for producers, processors, distributors, buyers or sellers at the wholesale, retail and restaurant level, consumers and agricultural professionals.
Participants are asked to select one survey that best reflects their affiliation with Hawaii’s organic industry.
The Kohala Center is funding the survey through a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant.