The Gentleman Farmer

Photo: Māmaki plant
Māmaki plant – Photo: Courtesy

Donovan Dela Cruz knows firsthand the travails of farming. When the state senator representing District 22 (Wahiawā, Mililani Mauka, Launani Valley, Waipiʻo Acres, Wheeler Army Airfield) started Kilani Brew, his 1-acre māmaki farm in Kunia last year, he was hands-on with field preparation, planting, weeding, fertilizing, irrigating and harvesting. Although friends now help, he still juggles farm work with legislative responsibilities, relishing the chance to grow and sell a native crop that reputedly helps alleviate stomach problems, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other ailments.

“Farming is a tough profession,” Dela Cruz said. “Pests, foreign competition, unfavorable weather conditions and finding people who are willing to do physically hard labor are a few of the challenges.”

Photo: Donovan Dela Cruz
Senator Donovan Dela Cruz and a young māmaki plant at Kilani Brew, his 1-acre farm in Kunia. – Photo: Courtesy

He grew up in Wahiawā in the 1970s and 1980s when Del Monte and Dole Food Company grew pineapple on thousands of acres there. Del Monte shut down its operations in 2008. Dole has about 3,500 acres in production, half of what it was doing at its peak in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Dela Cruz believes agriculture is one sector that can diversify Hawaiʻi’s economy, but he witnessed the downsizing of the pineapple industry and the closure of large sugarcane plantations with no transition plans in place. During this year’s legislative session, recognizing how profound the impact can be when Hawaiʻi’s economy is so dependent on tourism, he secured more than $2 million for economic recovery focused on commercial agriculture and value-added products.

According to Dela Cruz, the first step is elevating the importance of food production jobs. That begins with rebranding farmers as “agriculturalists” with skills in math, science, business and technology. He has been working closely with Leeward Community College and the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources to develop education and training pathways for those who want to pursue a career in agriculture.

In his view, the state should purchase more ag land and provide affordable long-term leases for agriculturists. “That will reduce the costs that are crippling the scalability of farming operations,” he said. “Many private leases are short-term, which makes it difficult for agriculturists to get financing and additional investment capital for business start-ups and subsequent growth. The state should provide rent assistance and leases of up to 65 years.”

Dela Cruz also notes a successful value-added product industry would improve profit margins for agriculturalists who are discarding off-grade crops that can’t be sold. Value-added products made from those “seconds” include chocolate, pickles, preserves and health and beauty products. By supporting value-added producers, he is confident Hawaiʻi can grow jobs, boost the consumption of locally made products and create a globally competitive export market.

Increasing exports of local crops is key. “New Zealand produces enough food for five times its population,” Dela Cruz said. “It exports more than it consumes, and profits from exports are invested in food security and sustainability efforts. If Hawaiʻi follows their lead, we, too, can significantly decrease our dependence on imports and develop an economically viable revenue stream for our agriculture and value-added producers.”

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi has written 12 books and countless newspaper, magazine and website articles about Hawaiʻi’s history, culture, food and lifestyle.