Aloha! I am on an agricultural tour of Hawaii. That, in itself, is about 50 percent bogus. But the challenges, faced by farming interests here, are far more intense than those felt by you, their continental brethren.
Hawaii is a part of the United States, and they've got over budget Interstate highways to prove it. The grass huts selling umbrella drinks even have fire suppression sprinklers sticking out the top. But the island state also has many remnants of being an independent Polynesian kingdom and the "grants and abuses" of being a U.S. possession. As a result, there are contradictions that favor the rich and influential, be they native or recent in their arrival.
This landscape is breathtaking. The tropical location, just 15 degrees north of the equator, makes it a perfect growing climate for any plant that is brought here. Hence, anything becomes an invasive species. The islands also have a windward side where the rainfall may be up to 400 inches per year and a leeward side where it is virtually desert. The range of plant species is staggering and literally all of them have been imported.
Original agricultural interests here were in growing sugar cane and pineapples. Sugar plantations were the source of the first great wealth from the islands; but, problems from competition, shipping and need for labor has diminished them to only one survivor on the island of Maui. It looks bad from the outside, but is modern in processing cane to brown sugar which is shipped to California for final purification to the white sugar we use. They also use the remainder of the sugar cane plant, called bagasse, to generate electricity for their use and for about 20 percent of the island's needs.
Here is the greatest problem for agriculture in Hawaii: cost of production. The farms, ranches, and processing companies are as remote as any place in the world--so their input costs are high.
A dairy goat farmer said she pays $33 for a 120-pound, double compressed bale of hay--about $600 per ton.
A cattle rancher can't afford to import grain so the calves are weaned, shipped to the mainland for finishing and the meat is shipped back.
A dairyman, who milks 600 head of cows, gets a state support price of $3.07 per gallon. Processing and retailing interests add their costs and profit and the milk costs $7 to $10 a gallon in the grocery store.
Foods that are imported have no tariff, so the milk from the mainland, even though it is pasteurized again after it arrives, goes for less than $6 per gallon. Meat and egg prices are undercut by imports from east and west.
The ultimate money challenge for Hawaii farmers is from those who own the land around them. "No one wants to live near a dairy," said the exasperated farmer. "Because of the outside pressures, I am one of two remaining dairy farms in the entire state."
On Maui, the agricultural land runs from sea level up to 4,000 feet with ranch land going up nearly to the summit of the large volcanoes that created the island. Land is valued at $1 million per acre on the leeward side that looks down at the ocean and beachfront resorts. Still, some small farms survive by growing unique products and marketing aggressively on farm and through the Internet. Coffee and macadamia nut growers in Hawaii are still able to make a profit.
One agricultural product does have a dominant place here: seed production. Pioneer, Monsanto, BASF, Syngenta and a few others have farms that expand new lines of corn plants. All the advances in biotechnology become bottlenecked unless generations of plants can be turned quickly. The climate on four of the islands is conducive to producing three to four crops of corn per year. Researchers lead an intensive effort to use science and technology to prove trait discovery, integrate traits and advance new plants toward commercial distribution. The seed industry in Hawaii is valued at $186 million per year.
As I listen to the birds sing and see the sun rise on my final day before plunging back into the snow and cold of the Midwest, I ask myself why I don't just stay here forever. The answer comes in the realization that everyone needs a break from their daily lives and a trip to Hawaii certainly gives one. But the land of lush forests and multimillion dollar hotels is as hostile to mainstream agriculture as a barren stretch of Arizona desert. So, at this stage of my life, I guess I'm like my father when he spoke of any place he ever saw: "Nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there."
Editor's Note: This is Ken Root's 35th year as an agricultural reporter. He grew up on a small farm in central Oklahoma and started his career as a vocational agriculture teacher. He worked in Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri as a broadcaster and was the original host of AgriTalk. He has also been the executive director of the National AgriChemical Retailers Association in Washington, D.C. and the National Association of Farm Broadcasters in Kansas City. Ken is now the lead farm broadcaster at WHO and WMT Radio based in Des Moines, Iowa. He has been a columnist for HPJ and Midwest Ag Journal for eight years.