By PETER SUR
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Big Island farmers have more than 42,700 acres of land in crop production, but only a small portion of that product enters the local food supply.
That’s one of the highlights of a 118-page survey the county unveiled Thursday. The $65,000 study, commissioned by the Department of Research and Development, sought to establish the current baseline of food production and consumption on the Big Island.
“It’s really intended to create a more profound, more useful discussion on the topic,” said Jeff Melrose of Island Planning, who worked with University of Hawaii at Hilo geography students to develop the study.
The key to agriculture on the Big Island, Melrose said, is to identify different forms of agriculture in different areas of the island.
“It’s both a function of where we’re farming and why. And if we understand that why, then we’ll be much better at trying to figure out a way to blow on the ember, to kind of burst the next set of food production or farming activities. So it’s trying to lay down enough of that groundwork so we can all have a bigger conversation on that topic.”
It’s a serious topic for an island community that will live and die by the price of a barrel of oil. There are more than 210,000 people consuming some 630,000 meals a day on the Big Island, and based on estimates of national per capita food consumption, this is about 410 million pounds of food annually.
The study found that Hawaii Island produces nearly all of the fresh milk and significant amounts of seafood, vegetables and fruits that it consumes, a small portion of the fresh beef and none of the grain.
Of the 42,700 acres in crop production on the island, 21,000 acres are dedicated to macadamia nuts, almost all of which is exported. More than 6,000 acres are dedicated to coffee plants, and 1,700 acres are planted with flowers and foliage crops.
Fruit, vegetable and aquaculture crops account for 10,400 acres of active agricultural land use, but a significant portion of this is exported off-island.
The study found that agriculture crops are not spread uniformly across the island; instead there are 11 clusters of “core crop lands” that together include 94 percent of all existing farming.
These clusters are concentrated around Hawi, Waimea, Waipio Valley to Paauilo, Laupahoehoe, the rural Hilo coast, Keaau to Kurtistown, lower Puna, Volcano, Pahala, Ocean View and the West Hawaii area from Kailua-Kona to Honaunau.
Lower Puna is well-known for its papaya crops, for example, while the west side is better for coffee crops.
“We all know we have to support agriculture,” Mayor Billy Kenoi said. “We have to be able to feed ourselves, being able to be energy self-sufficient.”
“I think it’s reasonable and fair that we do provide incentives for agricultural production,” Kenoi said, citing the estimated $34 million in tax breaks that the county provides for agriculture production. “And it’s a good break. And we want to encourage that.”
The study also found 638,455 acres of open pasture land on the island, more than half of which was located in Hamakua, North Kona and Ka‘u.
“What we also want to do is see where is the availability of land, where do we have the potential to use county mechanisms, i.e. property taxes, to encourage investment and production of agricultural production in different parts of Hawaii Island,” Kenoi said. “I think that’s our greatest tool that was recognized: How do we provide a cheap, affordable access to water, and how do we incentivize our county property tax system so that we encourage more agricultural production?”
The County Council last year approved an Agriculture Development Plan, which included a recommendation to commission a baseline study for increased food self-sufficiency. The contract was awarded through the Research Corp. of the University of Hawaii to UH-Hilo’s Spacial Data Analysis and Visualization Lab, a part of the university’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies.
Principal Investigator Donna Delparte hired Melrose’s firm, Island Planning, and the students in the lab spent about eight months working on the project.
To download the report, go to http://www.hawaiicounty.gov/research-and-development/.
Email Peter Sur at firstname.lastname@example.org.