Of all the challenges Hawaii’s organic farmers face, one kept coming up during a daylong growing organics workshop as a definitive barrier to entering the market: lack of land.
Kyle Studer, who owns Paauilo Forest Farm, said he can see plenty of arable land in the Hamakua District. But much of it is owned by Kamehameha Schools and already in long-term leases for cattle ranching.
“A lot of the best land is taken by what, in my opinion, is not the best use,” Studer said during The Kohala Center’s workshop at King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel Monday. “The best land should go to the best crops.”
But when Studer and other small farmers approach Kamehameha Schools or other large landowners, those property holders don’t want to take a chance on a new crop or farm, or take the leases away from their longtime lessees. He said cattle would be better suited than vegetable crops for the hilly, difficult to access land those landowners are offering.
Brooks Wakefield said she used to grow papayas on a neighbor’s property in Kona. When that arrangement ended, she was unable to find any land with water and drainage she could lease to continue that crop. It’s an issue that will extend beyond the current generation of farmers, she added.
“They’re teaching ag in high school,” Wakefield said. “The kids get out and they can’t afford land.”
Max Bowman, a Paauilo farmer who sits on an advisory board convened earlier this year to study the state’s organic agricultural industry, suggested farmers not try to buy land, but stick with leasing, despite the challenges in finding open land to use. He and several other farmers said they would like to see more incentives offered to landowners to open up land for farming, especially for organic farmers.
Bowman posed questions about those incentives to Department of Agriculture Deputy Director Scott Enright.
“It’s doable,” Enright said. “As an industry, you ask and I’ll work on it.”
The advisory board reviewed about 350 surveys from farmers, consumers, agriculture professionals, food distributors and processors to come up with 10 recommendations to improve the organic industry in Hawaii. There’s room for the industry to grow, organic and natural food store chain Down to Earth CEO and CFO Mark Fergusson said.
“We can sell it and market it,” Fergusson said. “We just can’t get it.”
Other distributors agreed, according to the survey. University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Associate Specialist Ted Radovich, providing preliminary survey results Monday, said the lack of supply is the top barrier to selling more organic products in Hawaii, according to food processors and distributors.
Challenges to the industry’s economic viability include laws that make it difficult for farmers to process products they grow on their property, to create more value-added products. Kona coffee farmer Colehour Bondera, who serves as one of 15 representatives on the National Organic Standards Board, said possible solutions could be enterprise zones and tax breaks for farmers. He would also like to see more case studies of organic farms, to show that organic farming, while more expensive, can also be profitable.
In a later panel, Bondera also addressed some of the challenges facing the broader organic industry, as more companies seek exemptions for certain ingredients so they can label new processed foods as organic.
“We’re getting a lot more petitions for a lot more synthetic products to be allowed,” Bondera said. “There’s a lot of demand for more of those.”
That is shifting the national standard board’s focus away from produce farming to looking at food handling and processing, he said. The question facing the board is whether to focus on organic integrity or creating more organic products.
Farmers also raised questions of rule enforcement, noting that some farms opt out of certifying themselves as organic because they can use the label without fear of fines or sanctions. Bondera said people who see farmers using the label without authorization can file a complaint with the National Organic Program.
The problem, farmers said, was that no state entity is investigating or enforcing those standards locally. Enright said his department wants to see more enforcement.
State Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, Ka‘u, said he has a package of food security related rules he intends to introduce next legislative session. Some of the bills were introduced, unsuccessfully, last session, during Ruderman’s first year in office. He said this year, he intends to market them differently, hoping to gain more traction. Ruderman is also keeping some of the more controversial issues, including genetically modified organism-related bills, in rules not included in the package, “so it can have the broadest possible support.”