Scaling Up | PBS HAWAIʻI PRESENTS
1979 United Airlines commercial: Hawai‘i has many faces, all calling to you. Come paddle my quiet lagoons, discover my miles of endless beach… Narrator: For half a century, tourism has driven Hawai‘i’s economy. Today, it contributes more than a fifth of the state’s GDP. But when the COVID pandemic hit, tourism ground to a halt, triggering calls for a more diversified economy. The pandemic also raised concerns over the state’s food supply. Hawai‘i imports up to 90 percent of its food.
Can growing the state’s agricultural sector solve both problems? What would that take? Old C&H commercial: Hey kids, let’s sing that song you like, the one about the sugar cane. Okay! C&H, C&H, everyone… Narrator: Before tourism, Hawai‘i had an agricultural economy with sugar and pineapple dotting the landscape. Companies like C&H, Del Monte and Dole employed thousands of workers and pumped money into local communities. Donovan Dela Cruz: Most people in Hawai‘i have a strong connection to ag. I mean my grandparents came from the Philippines;
they worked in the pineapple fields. My great grandparents came from Puerto Rico; they worked in the sugar fields. I come from Wahiawā. It’s a rural community and what’s really important is if we want to keep our local kids here, we want to make sure that they have living wage jobs, but jobs that fit the community. So agriculture because of our history that makes a lot of sense. Narrator: Sugar plantations began closing in the 1970s. Pineapple followed in the 1990s. Today, agriculture comprises about half of 1 percent of the state’s economy. Michael Roberts: So agriculture is really tiny in Hawai‘i. It's
a really, really small part of our economy. That said, it's still a really interesting sector. It's a lot of land. So there are really important questions about what we do with that land and what can we do that’s good for Hawaiʻi, good for society. And our environment.
Donovan Dela Cruz: You can see lemongrass, you can see moringa, and then here, you can see tomatoes and cucumbers. We want to acquire as much ag land as possible. That doesn't mean it's going to be productive right away, because it depends on the infrastructure, but we need to land bank for the future. We want to do what we can to help farmers become profitable so that we
can see all of these ag lands in production. Narrator: Much of the land used by sugar and pineapple still lies fallow. Only 7 percent of the farmland in Hawai‘i is harvested cropland. Denise Yamaguchi: With farming there's infrastructure issues. So lots of land, there's lots of land, but then there's no, there's no water, there's no irrigation, right? There's no drip line. And and all those things cost money. So the startup costs for farmers is hefty. And so that's why it's a hard industry to get into. Michael Roberts: The crux is scale. You need
to be able to operate at a size or a capacity to get costs down. Having a big flat field where you can run a tractor, you know, with 24 rows and run that over the whole field. And then that person can take it the tractor and they can, they can do thousands of acres with just one tractor. You can't do that here. The fields are fragmented and they're only so large. They're really slopey and rocky and the type of agriculture can't use that equipment. So you have to run smaller tractors and more specialized equipment, and you need a lot more labor. Narrator: For Hawai‘i farms,
labor accounts for about 40 percent of their expenses, which is 1 and a half times greater than for farms in California. Michael Roberts: Throughout the country, we're seeing more and more production on bigger and bigger farms and productivity getting higher and higher and higher. And here, our farms are getting smaller, less concentrated, and productivity is getting lower and lower and lower, and it's getting more and more difficult to compete. Nicholas Comerford: Prior to the pandemic, there was about 7,300 farms in this state. If you're going to be a successful farmer, you want to be able to support your family. The number of farms that probably can support a family of four at twice the poverty level, it's about 4% of our farms. Narrator: Most farms in Hawai‘i
are small farms that contribute little to the state’s agricultural output. In 2017, only 1 out of 4 farms generated sales of at least $25,000. Michael Roberts: The only way you can make things work in Hawaiʻi is to get really good at fruits and vegetables. The fresh produce that you get at the local store. We can probably grow that really, really well here.
And if people are willing to pay a little extra for local and fresh, then maybe we can produce more of the fruits and vegetables that people consume locally. You know, that's not going to be a huge share of our economy, but that's something where, where we might be able to do a bit more. Brendon Lau: Mari's Gardens is it started off as a landscape nursery, and we kind of fell into vegetable growing. So now we do both. We started with hydroponics partially because we thought we want to do farming, but we don't want to do the normal growing in the ground, labor intensive farming, we kind of want to make it appealing for younger generations.
Hydroponics we find is about 10 to 20% faster than growing in the ground. Also, the, the water usage is greatly decreased because we recapture most of our water and recycle it. Uh, we find that it uses about five to 15% of the water usage that you would see growing the same crop in the ground. And the lettuce can grow so tightly packed together that you're producing more per square foot. What got us into aquaponics was the need for filtration. So we started pumping this water up into filters, and then we said, okay, let's put a little more fish in. All right, now we need more filtration. So the filters
got bigger and bigger. And eventually we said, why don't we just plant stuff in it. This tank feeds out into our cinder grow beds out there, and our lettuce production. It goes out to the lettuce and it circulates out there. It does not return to the tank. So this tank gets replenished as well with just fresh city water. This is one of the larger systems that I've seen. It's about it's about 20,000 gallons per tank. So yeah, this is enough to feed actually a larger operation than this. This was all part of an experiment for the Hawaii Department of
Agriculture to do this test on how much it costs to develop an aquaponic system, commercially. It's about a million dollars an acre, and that's what we found. And that's for a greenhouse with the growing, the lettuce growing system and the fish and the equipment. We think it's a, a really good investment compared to other types of farming because long-term you save on overhead and the main overhead being intensive labor.
Todd Low: Hawaiʻi has great resources for aquaculture. Um, there is a history of aquaculture through, uh, the Hawaiian culture that it has, the fish ponds are there. You see? And, their integration with the ahupua‘a, which is the water coming down from the mountains down being reused all the way down to the shore. However, those aren't really built for scale, but those represent
a integration of fish within that culture. I hope that we can do more with aquaculture. That's sort of my job, but, um, it's, it just depends of course on the priorities of the department and the governor and the legislature on, on how they're going to fund this thing. Glenn Wakai: If you look at the department of agriculture today, it's about 420 employees. Three, three are dedicated to aquaculture. It shows you how aquaculture, certainly not a priority for the state, but I intend and I’m working with my colleagues to make 2022 the year of aquaculture, because there are great opportunities there.
We just have to on a state side figure out what's the game plan. How are we going to fund it? And then let's just get going on it. Denise Yamaguchi: It's been tough promoting ag. It's been a struggle. I mean, I think people always say they support agriculture, but then when you look at how much funding is provided to agriculture, it's miniscule. Narrator: In 2016, Governor David Ige set a goal to double local food production by the year 2030. But for 2022, the State of Hawai‘i only allocated to the Department of Agriculture 52 million dollars or a third of 1 percent of the state budget.
With little funding and high costs for labor, land, utilities and transportation, it’s uncertain whether farms can meet the governor’s goal. Another challenge is an aging workforce. The average age of a farmer in Hawai‘i is 60 years old. Denise Yamaguchi: We started with a program called Veggie U and we provided each of the teachers with not just the curriculum, but also the grow kits. As time has gone on, there have been more and more teachers
interested in agriculture. And because of the pandemic, and there's such a spotlight right now on where our food comes from and how do we get it? There's even greater interest in learning about agriculture. Jackie Freitas: Everybody always calls ag, oh, these are for the kolohe kids. Those are my best working kids, but this one offers a wide range of students. You get your students who are your valedictorians because they see the science, they see how much science, how much hands-on activity. It’s not just sitting into the classroom. Keali‘i Figueroa: I say, it's more fun for
me. I like getting dirty that's why, and I liked the outdoors. And I love to take care of the ʻāina too. So I do as much as I can. Jackie Freitas: I am very open with my students. I tell them every year, this is how much we started off with guys. We have $1,100 in our account. We have to run our business. Every time we sell something, I tell them, oh, we got this
much revenue. They keep track. At the end of the year, we usually end off with about $10,000, but they see how much work it takes and that they're not going to be millionaires when they're farmers, you know, it's, it takes a lot of work, but the income coming in, because we're so small is not that high, but at least it's something. Narrator: While some farms focus on food production, others set their sights farther afield. Hawai‘i’s agricultural industry has always relied on exports, like sugar, pineapple, coffee, macadamia nuts and seed corn. These commodities can contribute more to the state GDP than local food production. Jason Brand: We have a little over 300 acres of sugar cane right now. This is the cane varieties that are the canoe varieties of sugar cane, right?
So these are the ones that came across in the first canoes with the early Polynesian settlers. If you're going to take a plant across the ocean in a canoe, it's going to be important to you. And so there's these canes, these canes that you're looking at it, they have a story and it needs to be told. Ko Hana Rum informational video: When you taste our white rum, what’s your tasting is the terroir of Kunia, of this particular portion of Hawai‘i, and you’re being connected to this place. Like all businesses, it starts with a plan. So our proof of concept was small scale and experimentation. Can we grow cane? We were
a farm for three years growing sugar cane before we ever made our first bottle of rum. And for a business like this, we took advantage of Oʻahu’s location, or at least its place in tourism and said, we will open a tasting room. So for us, we repurposed Del Monte's general store. And in rebirthing this building, we also rebirth the village of 600 people who were looking for employment because their employer had left the island. And so now almost 50% of our workforce actually live across the street from us. We're not just talking about farming jobs the way it was a hundred years ago. We now have distillery jobs, marketing jobs, technology jobs, barrel house jobs, a lot of sales jobs. So as an employer is that we find it important. We're
always trying to train people to the next level and that's our part in our community. And this is Ko Hana’s part of this community. Narrator: One crop with potential is cacao. Because of its tropical location,
Hawai‘i is the only state that can grow cacao, which is where chocolate comes from. Dylan Butterbaugh: So in the next five months, all of these are going to become harvest harvestable, and that'll be the beginning of chocolate. I was born and raised here. I wanted to be able to start a business that I could grow very large here and feel good about, which is why I love the idea of planting trees, because it creates beautiful environments. It ties up the land in forestry instead of say hotels and apartments. So to me, that's what I wanted to do with my life. And chocolate is just the avenue for that. I felt like I had to start the chocolate factory first and work backwards. To me that made a lot more sense. It wasn't linear in the same way,
but as far as being a successful business and brand, that did make more sense. And for us, it has. We can buy beans from other countries. We could also see ourselves positioned to help other farmers who were growing it add value because we were investing in a chocolate factory here.
I was able to scale up very slowly at first, to the point where, where we are now, where we're looking at next year trying to produce 500 kilos of chocolate per day. But this was my lesson really early on is this is a business that works on scale. If I try and stay really small, I'm going to literally burn out from hand packaging chocolate bars. And I learned really quick how to start operating a business, how to grow, how to hire people, how to work together. And so it went from me and then we had a couple other employees for,
for a while. And now we're at 25 people. Tamara Butterbaugh: Mānoa in Hawaiian means thick, solid, vast, depth. So when you're thinking about dark chocolate, the style that we make, 70% dark chocolate from different regions, there's a start, a middle, a finish. So it has complexity and also there's depth to the company and what we're doing. It's making chocolate because we want to support farmers globally and locally and give back to the world and plant trees and be a part of a, uh, an industry that has a positive impact in the world. So it's a lot, it's a much deeper mission than, um, you know, just making chocolate. Jason Brand: One of the products that I'm really
proud of, and I think the distillery is really proud of is called Koko Leka. So it's a chocolate honey rum and it's absolutely delicious, but it represents what Hawaiian agriculture can be. And it's important because we can only grow heirloom Hawaiian sugarcane here. Hawaii is the only state that regularly grows cacao, grows chocolate. So in the world of agriculture, there's a chocolate industry to develop and we're helping develop that. We go ahead and put our rum and soak hundreds and hundreds of pounds of cacao nibs in the rum to infuse it like a tea to have the chocolate flavor permeate the rum. And at the end of that process, I have a big bag full
of cacao nibs full of rum. And so not to waste our ingredient. We go ahead and have one of the local chocolate manufacturers convert that into a chocolate bar, a rum filled chocolate bar. Right so we have rum filled chocolate, chocolate filled rum, no ingredient wasted and not just one company benefiting, but two companies benefiting and twice the demand from an agricultural standpoint. Narrator: Kō Hana Rum and Mānoa Chocolate are examples of the growing trend toward value added products. Value added products are raw agricultural products that have been modified or enhanced to have a higher market value or shelf life. Examples include pickles, jams, jerky, sauces and liquor.
Nicholas Comerford: This is where the farmer can really make profit. These are the commodities that, actually you can charge more money for. You make more money for profit and, and where we need to go with value added that's I think has a real potential future for the state of Hawaiʻi. Why? Because we got the Hawaii brand, right? People look at that and there's just a good feeling it, and you can capture that feeling economically. This is where exports really become important in terms of helping agriculture in this state grow. Donovan Dela Cruz:
So we're in Wahiawā. They're building out the Wahiawā Value-Added Product Development center. There'll be able to teach entrepreneurial skills as well as product development, packaging, some food science and some entrepreneurial skills. The goal for all of us is to be able to go to any city internationally and see value added products made in Hawaii. So if you go to Dean and DeLuca or Williams-Sonoma to have a whole section of value added products from Hawaiʻi is going to be extremely exciting. You know, that kind of thing will help us offset when you have a pandemic like we're in and tourism is down, we need those kinds of things to help prop up our economy.
Jason Brand: By next year, we will have grown from 10 to 15,000 cases of rum a year up to 75,000 cases. And so the business plan is working. It focuses on quality and genuineness to what we're doing, which is stewarding the land. Dylan Butterbaugh: The reason I really want to grow Mānoa Chocolate isn't just to have a successful chocolate factory. Like I've got a much bigger vision that inspires me to show up every day.
I want to see thousands of acres of cacao planted. I'd like to see other chocolate makers here doing it, processing what they're growing. And then the tourism that does come here goes and visits these different chocolate factories and sees how each one does it their own style and their own unique way with their own varietals of cacao or whatever that might look like. And so that's what I see, let's say in the next 50 years. Donovan Dela Cruz: Each community may want
to focus on a different commodity because we have so many different micro-climates. If that can occur, then the state can be a lot more supportive in processing facilities, because now you have co-ops. It's difficult to, to invest in in large facilities if you don't have the scale and the amount of people who are going to use that. Then you can also match up education. Because if in a particular area, if you have certain crops, when you talk about ag economies, those, those specific crops and that kind of farming can be a highlight of the school's ag academy. We can't stop here.
There's aquaculture, there's orchards, there's ornamentals. You know, there's so many different things that we can grow in Hawaiʻi in the different places, but they all take a little different type of infrastructure. Jason Brand: We can't just say let's grow ag without really identifying the sector of ag we're growing and why we're growing it.
And without that discussion, we will always have conflict and likely be kind of in the same spot as we've always been. Because the conversation today, even though COVID has kind of enhanced it is the same conversation is over a decade ago. And a lot of it is we just haven't as an island put together our business plans. Narrator: It’s doubtful agriculture can be a major force in the state’s economy like it once was.
Economists at the University of Hawai‘i estimate that the Governor’s goal of doubling food production would only generate an additional 145 million dollars, which is about 0.16 percent of today's economy. But there are areas of optimism. Aquaculture is showing strong growth and emerging technologies can make agriculture less labor intensive and more attractive to young people. Governor David Ige: The future of agriculture relies on producing crops more efficiently and with less, and with less impact on the environment. Farmers are constructing cutting edge greenhouses using automated production systems and analyzing data to increase crop yields. Jackie Freitas: For the cuttings? Yep. So, grab one of the cuttings… Jackie Freitas: They see the technology.
That's where they want to be. They do not want to be in the farm, getting their hands dirty because they see how much work it is. They see how much labor it is and they see how much money, how much you actually get from it. They want to do a little bit more techie farming. And that's where ag is going right now. All ag tech, all our machines are run by computers. You know, that's what they're doing. They can run things by drones. They can do
spraying by drones. They love that. They're not having to go with a backpack and spraying all the fields and learning all that type of stuff. Nick Comerford: So we're sitting right now in a greenhouse and there's a number of greenhouse and shade houses around here. Why are these important? Invasive pests, including insects and plant species are a huge impact on agriculture in this state. Probably the biggest impact.
A greenhouse like helps control those. So if we were to look at agriculture, how I think agriculture should look like in the future is to grow them in protected ag situations like this. You get five to seven times of production per square foot than you would get out in the soil. So
if you, if you can justify the cost of the capital investment and, and some of these things are very inexpensive if you just want to shade houses and even do it yourself. This college has worked on those issues. Then to me, that is another potential future for agriculture in this state. Narrator: A more productive agricultural sector also requires dialogue between farmers, government and other stakeholders — and clear leadership. Glenn Wakai: The most obvious driver is the governor, then the head of the department of agriculture to be pushing it. And then we as lawmakers kind of come in to support and hopefully agree with whatever that strategy is.
But governor's not interested. Department of Agriculture is not interested. So that's the fallback. It's really the third string player being us the legislature that is trying to kind of shore up and really make this industry blossom. Todd Low: Tourism is easy. Pretty much, we live off of the sun and the beach and, you know, provide services around that.
That's super, but agriculture is difficult. It's hard work. But we have to decide if that's important to us. How much local food do we really need to grow and really get down to it? How much do we want to have for the local market and how much do we want to export? What would that export be? And these are not really super hard questions. It's just that then we have to associate the appropriate resources to do that. Denise Yamaguchi: I think we just all have to work together. And there's many players, many, many players, not just the farmers,
there's distributors, our visitor industry can play a role in growing agriculture if they're committed to buying local. In order for us to move the needle, we all gotta be working together. And we all have to say that this is a priority in order to make it happen.