Farming and agriculture have been steadily declining in Hawaii in recent decades, but Brian Miyamoto, executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, has a vision to rejuvenate the industry.
On the latest episode of “Hawaii Together” on ThinkTech Hawaii, Miyamoto joined program host Keliʻi Akina, president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, to discuss the barriers to farming in Hawaii and what he thinks can be done about it.
As a nonprofit entity, HFB advocates at the state level on behalf of local farmers and ranchers. Miyamoto said that like any business, farming faces many obstacles.
In particular, he said, “The cost of production is very prohibitive for agriculture.”
He said the high cost of land, water, energy and labor in Hawaii have meant that roughly 25% of farms in the state make only $1,000 in sales annually.
And with such low profit margins, farm owners and operators “find it difficult to pay these higher wages that other industries can pay,” he said. As a result, attracting young people into the labor-intensive industry has been a challenge.
Miyamoto said Hawaii may never be 100% food sustainable, but setting realistic and achievable goals can help grow the industry.
“Let’s focus on what we can grow, what we can grow well [and] what we can grow competitively,” he said.
Miyamoto also emphasized the need for the industry to adopt “21st century technology” to increase efficiency and attract the next generation of farmers.
On the legislative front, Miyamoto said the Bureau introduced eight bills this past session to support local agriculture, including HB1382, now Act 54, which allows nonprofits to donate wild game meat to under-resourced communities.
Miyamoto said another legislative achievement was the allocation of $4 million for a new small animal slaughterhouse in Kalaeloa, and he hopes the state will spend more on helping agriculture in the future. He also urged consumers to “buy local ag when they can.”
“It’s gonna take all of us working together to try to find solutions to support agriculture,” he said.
To watch the entire interview, click on the image below. A complete transcript follows.
7-4-23 Keli‘i Akina: hosts Brian Miyamoto on “Hawaii Together”
Keli‘i Akina: Aloha, and welcome to “Hawaii Together” on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcast network. I’m Keli‘i Akina, your host and president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.
Hawaii is a center of agriculture, yet we don’t always think about that. A lot of times, we are unaware of our agriculture capacity and our needs as we go into the future. Hawaii’s culture is very deep in its roots in terms of farming and ranching and fishing.
There’s a push going on now to rejuvenate our agricultural industry, but it’s facing a lot of challenges. Today, we’re going to discuss some of the barriers and some of the possible sources with our special guest today.
Joining me is Brian Miyamoto. He’s the executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation.
Brian, aloha. Welcome to “Hawaii Together.”
Brian Miyamoto: Aloha, Dr. Akina. Thank you for inviting the Hawaii Farm Bureau back on ThinkTech. Really appreciate the invitation and a chance to talk about agriculture here in Hawaii.
Akina: Well, it’s always great to talk with you. In fact, I really appreciate the work your organization does. Would you tell our viewers a little bit about what you do?
Miyamoto: Absolutely. The Hawaii Farm Bureau is the largest general agricultural organization here in the state of Hawaii. We’re affiliated with the American Farm Bureau, which is located in Washington D.C.
There are 50 farm bureaus across the [country], and essentially, our role is to advocate for farmers and ranchers of the voice of agriculture. We’re the trade group for farmers and ranchers who are busy out producing our food, feed, fiber, fuel and floriculture. They’re a little bit busy out on the farms and ranches, so the Farm Bureau advocates.
Here in Hawaii at the Hawaii Farm Bureau, we advocate at [the] state level, meaning we spend a lot of time with our state Legislature and policymakers, the administration [and] the state departments, advocating and pushing policies — positive policies — for farmers and ranchers.
Our American Farm Bureau does that in D.C. And we have 11 county chapters across the state, and they will advocate at the county level with the county mayors and the county councils, again, for the benefit and well-being of farmers and ranchers here in Hawaii.
Akina: Now, we run into you all over the place: in policy settings, at the state Capitol, at special events. Recently, I saw you folks at the Convention Center.
You’re not a government agency, and you’re not a private business. What kind of organization are you?
Miyamoto: We are a not-for-profit. We’re a 501(c)(5). But we also have a 501(c)(3), our Farm Bureau Foundation. And again, the (c)(5) designation allows us to advocate at the Legislature.
Akina: Well, Brian, let’s start with a very big, broad perspective right now. How is Hawaii’s agriculture doing? A former governor had said that when he started — and that was over eight years ago — he wanted to see agriculture output doubled in our state.
That didn’t happen under his tenure, and I’m not pointing the finger at anyone. I just wonder what your thought is as to how we’re doing in terms of agriculture as the 50th state.
Miyamoto: Well, that was an ambitious goal, but it was at least a goal — to double our food production. So, it wasn’t necessarily agriculture. Gov. [David] Ige had set a goal to double food production. Unfortunately, the date wasn’t necessarily set; it changed a couple of times. But we didn’t know what we were doubling from and I think that was because of lack of data.
So, in general, agriculture has gone down. What has gone up — what we saw in the last census of agriculture — is actually the number of farms: a little over 7,300.
We’re waiting for the next census of ag [agriculture] to come out to give us a better snapshot of where we are today. But that was a pleasant surprise to see that the farm numbers have gone up.
However, a majority of those farms are small farms. The farm gate value had actually gone down. I think we’re about $550 million right now. So, we are very small as far as the economy — our contribution to the economy here in Hawaii. And that’s something that we’d like to work on, something that we’d like to grow. We’d like to grow the industry.
As such a small part of Hawaii’s economy right now, agriculture as an industry, as a sector has opportunity for true growth and that’s what we like to see.
So, agriculture isn’t where we want it to be. We want to grow it. We don’t want to just survive; we want to thrive. We are kind of working towards that right now to build our agriculture sector.
Akina: Well, Brian, that’s exciting to hear. And yet as we look over the history of Hawaii, especially in the 20th century, we see a major decline in the role of agriculture here in our state. What are some of the reasons that you can attribute to that?
I think on a grand scale, we’ve seen the shift out of some of the mega agricultural industries: pineapple, sugar and so forth. But beyond that, in terms of subsistence farming and farming that meets our needs here, what has been the largest reason? What are some of the reasons why we’ve seen a decline in agriculture?
Miyamoto: So, thank you for bringing it up, Dr. Akina. I think everyone’s familiar with the shift that we’ve gone from plantation agriculture to a more diversified agriculture. In fact, I believe the last sugar plantation closed around 2016, and we’ve diversified to a lot more diversification and diversified crops.
The cost of doing business, production costs in Hawaii, is one of the biggest hurdles for our farmers and ranchers across the state. We need to increase yields while reducing the cost to produce those goods.
We all know the numbers. We’re 2,500 miles away from the mainland. We import 90% of our food. But we import almost everything else. All of the inputs — or majority of the inputs that it takes for farmers and ranchers — we also have to ship in.
So, just the cost of doing business itself is one of the high costs for farmers. The cost of our land. The cost of water. Labor costs. The lack of labor. Energy costs. Fuel to run your tractors, and your refrigerators, and everything else that goes along with farming. You know, energy to pump your water or if you were doing indoor farming. All of these costs. The cost to combat invasive species.
So, the cost of production is very prohibitive for agriculture. So, that’s why we do need some scale, at least some level of scale to reduce — with these economies of scale — the cost to the individual farmers and ranchers.
Akina: Well, in 2020, the [U.S.] Department of Agriculture did a survey here, and it showed that the profit margins of our farmers in Hawaii are amongst the lowest in the nation. And that would certainly reflect what you’ve said about the costs.
How hard is it to be a farmer here in Hawaii? And maybe we have to kind of define what it means to be a farmer.
You talked about scaling operations, and there are certainly a large number of farmers out there who are not at the level at which they’re scaling. And then, of course, there’s large agricultural business.
But just in general, why is it so hard for farmers to make a go of farming here?
Miyamoto: You know, it brings me to one of the famous quotes from one of our farmers: Richard Ha.
Akina: Yes, Richard.
Miyamoto: “A farmer who farms is a farmer who makes money.” I think you’ve heard that many times, Dr. Akina. I say that quite a bit.
Even former Nalo Farms owner Dean Okimoto used to say, “Farming is first and foremost a business.”
Again, just doing business in Hawaii — as we know — is very difficult.
So, the farmer … it’s taking a risk. You know, the upfront capital, the cost of land. I mean, we start a lot of times with land. The cost of the lease — if the farmer doesn’t own their land, the cost of the water. All of these things, again, a lot of it depends on external costs. All of these production costs make it very difficult.
The cost to produce something on the mainland — say California — may be 40% less than Hawaii, even with those transportation costs [to] ultimately bring the goods here. So, just the sheer cost of everything it takes for a farmer to farm makes it very difficult for farmers.
The last census of ag … I think I said we have about 7,300 farms. The last census of ag reflected that 25% of those farms have $1,000 of sales annually. So, because of the cost of doing business or the difficulty in farming, many of them have to have other jobs in order to support their farming endeavors.
Akina: So, what you’re telling me is that a large portion of our farms are not really making a living for the farmers. In some instances, they’re almost like hobbies for people, not necessarily out of intention, but because of the challenge of being able to keep a business going in that field.
Miyamoto: Absolutely. I mean, you know, many of these [people] — if not all — want to be full-time farmers. They love farming. They love getting their hands in the soil, working with their livestock, or working outdoors, but it’s very difficult to make a profit. Farming isn’t very profitable. We also talk about the razor-thin margins, if any. You referenced the survey; many farmers operate at a loss.
So, you know, we need to find ways to lower their cost of production, to assist the farmers. We’re not looking for handouts; just hand-ups to help farming be successful.
And when I say successful, meaning be profitable. There needs to be income — positive income — in order to keep farming. I don’t know any business that can survive without income, without profit.
Akina: Absolutely. And in the classic business school model — land, labor and capital — certainly in farming, you’re challenged on all levels, but particularly in Hawaii, on labor, today. How easy is it to attract new labor into the farming industry today? What about our young people? Are they moving toward agriculture or moving away from agriculture?
Miyamoto: I would say the latter. I know there’s interest. There are ag-education programs, and I think we’re doing a little bit better today than we were doing five, 10 years ago. But we don’t see a lot of folks — a lot of our keiki — wanting to get into farming.
You know, there’s some programs out there that are really doing well and educating them or giving our keiki a foundation in agriculture, but we’re not seeing them ultimately become farmers.
Labor is extremely difficult. Farming is a tough job. And farm laborers, they work outdoors, they work in all types of weather: in the rain, they work in the hot sun. Out in the rural areas, lots of times, some of the folks don’t have public transportation … I mean, they don’t have their own transportation, so they rely on public transportation.
But for example, I’m here in Kunia where there’s a lot of farms. I don’t see the city bus run. I don’t see public transportation, so it’s very difficult. Most of our farms are in the rural areas.
And our farmers, again, with the razor-thin margins, if any, find it difficult to pay these higher wages that other industries can pay.
So, you put all that together, you know. You have someone, again I’ll use the example, but being out here in Kunia, having a farm out here, and maybe being able to pay $13 an hour, which is very difficult for farmers these days.
For someone who lives in Kaneohe that maybe is going to take two hours, an hour and a half each way to get out here and work out in the hot sun versus McDonald’s right down the road paying the same amount or even a little bit more, working in an air-conditioned establishment indoor restaurant, might be a little bit more attractive.
So, just in itself, working out on a farm is hard work. Farmers have difficulty paying higher wages to attract the labor force.
So, that’s why looking at technology and more mechanization is something that we really need to look at.
Because of our aging farming population, because of our lack of a farm workforce, these are things that the Hawaii Farm Bureau looks at when we go to the Legislature, or we look at our partners in the federal government to assist our industry here in Hawaii.
Akina: Well, I want to go back just a step before we start talking about technology, but I’m so glad that you have raised that.
There is this ideal now that’s being popularized about farming or about sustainable agriculture. I’ve been on a great number of visits to farms across the islands, to tours that take me to loi patches and other places where local food is being grown by locals. And there’s certainly this ideal. Whenever I’m out there, I feel as though I’d love to devote my time and energy to growing my food for my home, my ohana and so forth.
And yet, when I put that together with what’s going on economically in terms of the survival of the industry, there seems to be a bit of a disconnect between this ideal image and the actual reality you described of the hard work and difficulty and low margins for doing actual farming.
Do you sense that too sometimes — this disconnect? And do you have any ideas as to how to craft a realistic vision of what it is to enter the agriculture industry today? One that will attract people?
Miyamoto: Again, make farming profitable.
Some of these programs … or there’s room for all types of farming. So, the farms that you visit or going up to loi are absolutely critical. We need all types of farming in order for us to be successful.
Will we ever be 100% food sustainable? Probably not. We should focus on what we can grow, and what we can grow well and what we can grow competitively. At the end of the day, from the Hawaii Farm Bureau standpoint, we believe food needs to be affordable. So, we need to be able to grow food so our residents here in Hawaii can afford the food.
So, we need all types of agriculture. We need all sizes of farms. But we do need some level of scale if we’re going to achieve some of these goals that we want.
As you referenced when we first started, the former governor had a goal of doubling food production. We want to see agriculture production as a whole — not just for food, feed, fiber, fuel [or] floriculture. We’ve got such a vibrant nursery industry here. So we need to support all of agriculture. And we think by doing that, we will see increase in production and increase in production of food.
But we do need all types of agriculture. The more people involved in farming, I think the better we will be — the less we will import.
I don’t know if we’ll ever get to a 100%. Those are goals that, absolutely, I think everybody would love to see and love to achieve. But we just need to establish some realistic goals and really grow the industry.
But in order to do that, we need a broader investment. Investment, meaning, as you said, capital investment from our local residents asking for local ag, making sure that they buy local ag when they can.
And again, the only way we’re going to be able to do that really in any significant amount is with price parity.
We understand families are struggling. You know, if the local product is a lot more than the imported, we know they’re going to buy the imported product.
So, let’s focus on what we can grow, what we can grow well [and] what we can grow competitively. And import replacement is something that we’ve talked about for a number of years.
Essentially, we know what we’re growing every day. We know what consumers are buying. Can we grow that? Can we grow it competitively?
There’s absolutely room for niche products, for other high-end products. But import replacement is something that, recently, you know, has been a discussion point and something that we’re really looking at.
And also exports and value-added. Again, any opportunity to increase the farmer’s profitability should ensure that the farmer continues to farm and continues to grow the things that we want — especially the food that we want here in Hawaii.
Akina: You talk about replacing what we import as well as what we export and adding value to it, but that’s going to take some organization of the industry. And you’ve described a diverse membership in this industry, from large farming operations to small mom-and-pop operations, to operations where people have to have other full-time jobs.
How does this industry get organized so that the supply and demand are met so that we’re actually operating efficiently in terms of discovering niche markets and fulfilling them?
Miyamoto: I think one way is getting involved with the Hawaii Farm Bureau. You reference us. Hawaii Farm Bureau, we represent all farmers from large farmers, to medium farmers, to small farmers. All commodities from produce, to livestock, to aquaculture, to our nursery industry, to seed corn industry. All farming practices: organic, conventional, biotech.
So, we try to bring together a farming community, and the farming industry together to find common ground to see how we can help agriculture. There are many others in the space. And COVID being as challenging and difficult as it was — or still is — did bring together a lot of folks. It did help elevate the importance of local agriculture.
We’ve lost some of that momentum. We want to get it back because that’s what it’s gonna take. It’s gonna take everybody. It’s gonna take all of us working together to try to find solutions to support agriculture. Not just support …
Miyamoto: … Again, we want it to thrive.
I mean, there’s opportunity for growth. There’s so much interest in local agriculture. We see it from CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture] of farmers markets to, you know, our culinary industry, to our hospitality industry — so much ag.
Ag touches almost every sector, we believe. But we just want to see more of an investment in agriculture. You hear it all the time, Dr. Akina, [the] Department of Agriculture gets less than half a percent of the state budget.
You know, I did a real quick rundown. I believe it’s our current budget for 2023 and if you go back historically [to] previous years, you know, agriculture’s maybe number five. You know, lieutenant governor, governor, human resources, DoTax (Department of Taxation] and then agriculture. If we’re really serious about food sustainability — about growing agriculture — I think we need to see a bigger investment.
That’s not to say our elected officials aren’t supportive. I’ve got a list of policies that they’ve passed over the years. This year, agriculture did extremely well. You know, we could have done a lot better, but we did well — almost $200 million … $170 million in the state budget in addition to what we normally get in CIP [capital improvements program] projects [and] $28 million in bills that had passed.
But there are a lot more. A lot of great bills didn’t make it. And these are the policies and the funding mechanisms that will really support our farmers and ranchers here in Hawaii.
Akina: Well, a lot of it will go back to what you mentioned earlier, which is true for the small farmer as well as for the entire industry. And that is: It’s gotta make money. Doing agriculture has to be a winning financial proposition, and we have to be able to show that we can win the game here in Hawaii.
Part of that is going to be advancing into the 21st century and beyond in terms of technology. And there are a lot of promising directions taking place in terms of the incorporation of technology.
You mentioned that earlier. I want to go back to that because I see that as being one of the avenues by which to attract a younger generation into farming because it changes the nature of labor into something that’s scientific, that’s technological, that’s cutting-edge, and it’s certainly something that we need to be building as an industry here in Hawaii. What are your thoughts on this?
Miyamoto: Absolutely. Farming in Hawaii needs to adopt 21st-century technology. It will help with attracting our keiki into agriculture.
You know, all of these … talking about STEM, you know, that’s where we look at agriculture in the future. If we don’t adopt 21st-century technology, the world may pass us by.
And there are some here in Hawaii who are already doing it. We talked about ag labor and needing to mechanize. Kauai Coffee has mechanized harvesting. You know, some folks are using drones or AI [artificial intelligence] — something that we’ve been talking about — [or] greenhouses. But the next phase is indoor vertical farming, which is very technological.
But again, those costs of capital — the costs up front and the cost of energy — are very prohibitive. But those are the things that we think are going to help get agriculture to the next step.
And in fact, the Hawaii Farm Bureau was able to receive a grant-in-aid this year from the Legislature to go and research in foreign countries some of their equipment that may be useful for Hawaii’s types of farming: small equipment. foreign equipment. Looking at countries like Japan, New Zealand and all over the world to see what we can bring back to Hawaii from a technology standpoint — from a size standpoint — for Hawaii’s farms to help them grow their operations. So, technology is extremely important.
Akina: Now, this technology should be able to allow us to take advantage of real competitive advantages we have when we look at other places across the world. For example: aquaculture here — both onshore and offshore.
What’s the prospect for that?
We’ve heard for a long time a great deal of talk about advancing aquaculture, and yet it doesn’t seem as though we’re making the advancements that we really have the potential to do.
What does the Farm Bureau feel about this, and what do you think we can be doing?
Miyamoto: Aquaculture is critically important. I think it’s something that, again, as you talk about technology with aquaponics, looking into the future. And I think the Legislature is making aquaculture more of a priority.
You know, we’ve got NELHA [Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority] out on Hawaii Island, but aquaculture is extremely important. I believe it’s about an $80 million industry right now, but a lot of that is a brood shrimp, is shrimp. But it’s got so much potential. Like all of our other agriculture commodities, aquaculture has that potential.
So, you know, there was a desire to move the aquaculture program into DBEDT [Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism] this year. That didn’t go through and [I] understand the arguments for and against. But they did just appropriate positions a few years ago for the aquaculture development program under the Department of Agriculture. So, we’re hoping that will help to revive our aquaculture industry.
Again, important like all the other commodities in agriculture, we need all of it, Dr. Akina. We can’t just focus on, you know, one sector, one segment. It’s such a broader conversation, and I think we’re starting to have those now. Again, with a little bit more focus and support on agriculture.
There was a disconnect, I believe, at the Farm Bureau really. But now we’ve seen that there’s more folks involved in the agriculture space, and with that, ideally, we will grow. We keep saying we want to grow the industry. That’s what we want to focus on: growing it.
Akina: I like what you say about the breadth and the diversity that’s out there that we really need to be reaching out to. That’s why I’m going to switch really quickly. I’ve got so many questions I could ask you, but let me ask you at least something about the meat industry. It doesn’t necessarily get all the attention that it once did.
We had on the show here Bryan Mayer, who gave me an interview a few months ago. He talked about a proposed law, which the governor has signed, and it helps to control invasive wild game throughout the islands.
Now, there have been some advances that we’ve seen in terms of under-resourced communities, to serve those communities with the wild game and so forth. But there are other problems: There aren’t enough slaughterhouses to deal with the wild game; it’s an infrastructure problem; and there are federal regulations that make it hard because these are federal regulations and make it difficult for our harvesters to really go out and deal with that problem.
What kinds of things are we doing to face regulatory problems and be able to come up with the solutions that we need in the meat industry and elsewhere?
Miyamoto: Thank you. So, specific to the wild game issue, there were some positive outcomes that we saw this legislative session.
In fact, Hawaii Farm Bureau, we introduced eight bills; three of them were really dealing with either livestock or wild game — namely axis deer. So one of the things that we did see in the state budget this year is $4 million for a small animal slaughterhouse that is slated to be built down in Kalaeloa.
Another thing that we saw that actually did pass was a bill that would allow for meat donations of wild game. So, we did have a statutory change. We didn’t see it on the governor’s veto list.
But we also did introduce a bill that would help reestablish the Hawaii Meat Inspection Act. And I think that’s what you referenced to. For wild meat, for axis deer, it does require USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] meat inspectors — same as cattle. Unfortunately, it is voluntary, so the harvesters or whoever’s processing that meat has to pay for those meat inspectors, which would bring up the cost.
Again, we have a harvesting or slaughter capacity issue. So there has been, again, some momentum looking at that. We want to take advantage.
If you’re not from Maui or Molokai, you just don’t know how bad this axis deer is. And we’ve got feral pigs across the state. So we’re looking at how we can take advantage, or reduce those invasive species, reduce the number that’s damaging not just agriculture but a fragile ecosystem environment. But turn it into proteins that can be used for those of us, our families and friends and our neighbors that are in need.
So, we are going to reintroduce those bills. But one did pass, which does change a law that would allow for meat donations from wild game. We want to see the Hawaii Meat Act and inspectors for Hawaii reinstated — not to take the place of [the] USDA, but to assist the USDA specifically for wild games, specifically for axis deer.
And, you know, we hope to see positive outcomes or more positive outcomes next year. But we know the Legislature … we’ve seen them put money towards axis deer in several different measures and forms.
Again, they passed one this year, and we’ll come back again next year to see if we can get those inspectors in the Department of Agriculture to help reduce the number of axis deer invasive species but also, to provide that meat.
But they did appropriate the $4 million. We’re thrilled with that —
Akina: Very good.
Miyamoto: — in Kalaeloa for small animals so we can process them.
Akina: Well, thank you so much, Brian. We’ve run out of time, and I can’t believe it. There’s so much more to learn about the agricultural industry in Hawaii, and certainly, you’ve got your hands full in being able to help orchestrate the solutions that we need.
Appreciate what you and the Farm Bureau are doing, and I want to thank you for being on the program today.
Miyamoto: Thank you, Dr. Akina. It was a pleasure being here. And thank you for helping to advocate for agriculture here in Hawaii.
Akina: Well, it’s for all of us.
My guest today has been Brian Miyamoto. He’s the executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation. Appreciate his input today. Farming is something that we all need here in Hawaii, and we all have to be advocating for it.
Until next time, I’m Keli‘i Akina, president of Grassroot Institute on “Hawaii Together” on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcast program. Aloha.