Harvesting the Potential: Sustainable Agriculture in Hawaii

by Ranwei Chiang, MBA ‘13 (1/4/12)

Ranwei Chiang, MBA ‘13

Prior to business school, I set out to learn what sustainable agriculture means.  I had heard a lot of buzz words and farmers talking about their growing practices, but I wanted to see for myself.

Prior to business school, I set out to learn what sustainable agriculture means.  I had heard a lot of buzz words and farmers talking about their growing practices, but I wanted to see for myself.  I left Boston, MA on a wintry March day for the island of Oahu, Hawaii.  I was starting a farm operations internship at ‘Nalo Farms, a local producer of baby greens and herbs.  Is it possible to have sustainable agriculture on an island of just 597 square miles and 2,390 miles from the coast of California? My hope was to get a clearer sense of how these factors play out and to answer these questions: Where does their food come from? What local foods are produced? What is the sentiment on the islands concerning sustainable agriculture practices? What are the market needs and demands?

Hawaii has a history of deep respect for land and water, and in Hawaiian culture these were a public trust.  Unfortunately, the arrival of others to the islands has diluted both the soil conditions and the culture.  Plantation farming stripped the soil of many nutrients, and took land and water away from many Hawaiians.  Since the decline in sugar cane plantations, Hawaii has been able to redirect streams and waterways to their original locations, as well as diversify crops to improve soil conditions.  At ‘Nalo Farms, caring for the land is integral to the success of the business, but equally important has been collaboration with other farms (both big and small), relationships with politicians and other community leaders, and product development and diversification. 

Currently, only about 15% of food consumed in Hawaii is actually produced there. The state hopes to increase this to 30% by 2020 however if agricultural food production is to increase on the islands, there needs to be increased collaboration between stakeholders.  Hawaiians have seen the negative impact of plantation farming so they are in a better position to advocate for improved farming techniques and are prepared to stand up to the political challenges that promote large scale production.  Although it is a competitive market, working together can ensure agriculture as a whole succeeds on these islands.  Allocating land for non-urban uses will be difficult, but ultimately it will be better for the community as a whole. Increasing the production of locally grown foods will benefit the Hawaiian economy – creating jobs and generating more income in the state.  Additionally, locally grown food has a much smaller carbon footprint, and retains more of its nutritional value and flavor, as its transport from the farm to the consumers is much shorter in duration and distance. 

Business at ‘Nalo Farms mirrors that of the state – its fortunes are based primarily on tourism.  Revenue increases or decreases depending on the number of tourists coming to the island.  For example, soon after the decline in Japanese tourism due to the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, restaurant orders decreased.  Increased local agricultural production will transition the industry away from its dependency on tourism as local agricultural products become more readily available and Hawaiian residents recognize the importance of eating local.  To create this market, government subsidies would be the most effective in helping local farmers compete with the price of imported food. 

There are some successful farms, such as ‘Nalo Farms, working within the Hawaiian system and these businesses can act as a guide as agricultural land use increases.  They know the land as well as the community where their farm is situated, and sharing this knowledge is important to protect Hawaiian resources. This will insure that Hawaii doesn’t have a repeat of the sugarcane plantation days – that this time expanding local agriculture will be a sustainable, collaborative effort.