Ka Wai Ola

Photo: Brendon Kalei'aina Lee
This time last year I was writing about helping our keiki plant kalo on Maui and our need to protect our water resources so we can start to address the state’s need to diversify our economy with sustainable community-based agriculture. Today I am at home, going on three months now, because of a global pandemic that has decimated Hawaii’s economy.

As we begin to look at how Hawaiʻi will reopen its economy and recover from this economic catastrophe, I have been in many conversations recently about the need to diversify our economy and that it should be done with agriculture. Agriculture was, after all, our primary economy from the end of the 19th century until well into the 20th. That was a different era. Hawaiʻi’s population was a fraction of what it is today. The cost of living in Hawaiʻi was significantly lower and, for the majority of those working in the agriculture industry, their cost of living was subsidized by the plantations with either free or cheap housing.

Today Hawaiʻi has a population of 1.4 million people and imports roughly $2 billion of food annually. In 2019 Hawaiʻi welcomed over 10 million visitors to its shores, and in 2017, just two years prior, Hawaiʻi farmers produced $564 million of products. Last week, on the local news, a farmer on Hawaiʻi Island spoke of selling 30,000 heads of lettuce a week to local restaurants and hotels. Now with those businesses shuttered he is trying to stay afloat by providing produce to local families. He is now averaging only 300 heads of lettuce a week. A local chicken farmer on Oʻahu was selling between 250-300 birds to restaurants and hotels, but now only 75 leave his farm a week. Local hog farmers who are just recently beginning to make a comeback from total shutdown with the loss of the only local slaughterhouse a few years ago, are once again facing what seem to be insurmountable odds. The availability of cheap feed from school cafeteria and hotel and restaurant scraps have gone away, forcing them to buy expensive, imported feed. These numbers and stories are a sobering reminder of just how dependent on tourism Hawaiʻi is. The loss of tens of thousands of visitors stepping off a plane or boat everyday has equated to there being not enough mouths to consume the produce and farm meat being produced.

In many of these conversations I have been in, some like to romanticize a future of tens of thousands of acres of kalo being cultivated surrounded by forests of ʻulu and loko iʻa full to the top with fresh fish. This is nice notion, but is it realistic?

We need to be looking at many different sectors as we reach for a more diverse economy for the future. A future that has Hawai’i reliant on four, five, six or more economic streams. A Hawaiʻi that, if one of these industries goes down for whatever reason – a hurricane, tsunami, volcanic eruption, earthquake or global pandemic – we have others to rely on. An economy that has relied on one economic engine for centuries is one natural disaster away from economic ruin from which Hawaiʻi may never recover.

As our leaders begin the long road to restarting our economic engine, I hope they take this opportunity to not just talk about a diverse economy but take actual steps toward one. I, for one, will continue my conversations with people much smarter than myself. It has always been my experience that these types of conversations lead to great ideas. Let’s all hope those at the square building will learn and listen.