Before the Farm Bureau’s Annual Meeting gets underway, many of the farmers who have traveled to Hawaii are taking time to visit farms on Oahu. Friday I was with a group of farmers and Farm Bureau staff from Indiana, Iowa, Texas and Missouri who had a chance to learn about the role Hawaii plays in corn seed research that ultimately delivers products to their mainland farms as well as an innovative program to help small farms have some increased stability.
The group toured Monsanto Company’s Kunia research farm, where Fred Perlak, who leads technology & business in Hawaii, provided an overview of the area and the farm.
- There are three major challenges to farming in Hawaii which farmers and companies all have to deal with.
- Water – In Hawaiian the word “wai” means water “wai wai” is wealth so its clear that water is a critical piece of the ag puzzle. Farms in this area receive water through a state run irrigation system that brings water from the other side of the island. Monsanto uses drip tape to use all the water, recycle the drip tape, etc to be the best possible steward of the precious resource. This video on YouTube shows some of the innovative water collection that has been used in Hawaii.
- Land — Hawaii with the volcanic activity frequently has poor soils. This site has red dirt with high iron levels which can cause issues by tying up fertilizer. To overcome this, the site puts fertilizer through irrigation system to make use of all, avoid leaching, in the field every day, treating each 10 ft of row. With the pitch of the land, this site has also terraced the land, created collection pools to recover top soil despite the heavy rainfall the area receives.
- Labor — Many farms in Hawaii are very small farms of a couple of acres and all work is done by the farmer and his family. A lot of workers from the Philippines, very labor intensive, nurturing local staff, scholarships, Internships, FFA, etc, now recruiting like high school athletes destined for college
- It is expensive to be active in Hawaiian agriculture so expectations are very high.
- There used to be sugar and pineapple on this land. It had been fallow three years before it was purchased in 2007.
- Seed corn production is the biggest segment of agriculture in Hawaii. There are about 2,000 seed employees for the various companies. Monsanto’s efforts are in Oahu, Maui and Molokai. Several other companies also do seed corn research here as crops can be planted throughout the year.
- This site is focused on building new varieties corn and soybeans working with breeding programs in the U.S.
- The Kunia team of approximately 400 people does about 5 million hand crosses here and the crew on Maui does approximately 6 million a year so it is an intense labor process.
The tour also had a chance to hear from Dean Okimoto, a local farmer who’s president of Hawaii Farm Bureau and is among the leadership of the Hawaii Ag Foundation. Dean and one of the people working with Kunia Ag Park, Wendy Gady, took time to talk to us about a new program to support small farms. (If you missed the previous video post on Dean you should take a couple of minutes to watch it.) Some of the things you should know about small farms and the Kunia Ag Park include:
- Many small acreage farmers in Hawaii have month-to-month leases which could result in a loss of their ability to farm with just a month’s notice when the field is sold or the owner chooses to do something else with the land. The Ag Park is providing people one year leases that dramatically increase the stability of farming.
- Land that is provided to farmers frequently requires major improvements like removal of trees, etc. In the Ag Park, the major work is done as well as some of the other pieces like preliminary ground work.
- Land prices are higher in Hawaii than mainland farmers can imagine so getting started as a farmer is unbelieveably tough. However, the Ag Park offers reasonable leases and year-round production for the fresh market and farmers markets offer the potential for good profits.
- The range of products includes white beets, greens, apple bananas, star fruit, peanuts, a couple of types of squash, eggplants and other fresh fruits and vegetables. Most of the farmers currently on the Ag Park participate in farmers’ markets.
- The park is providing farmers a way to grow. For instance, Gady showed a video where a farming couple talked about expanding from 2 acres to 11 acres at the new location. The expansion could provide additional jobs in agriculture.
Tours also went to other farms on Oahu and other islands. We hope Farm Bureau members will continue passing along what they learned to others.
I hope you enjoy the slide show of the morning!
JPLovesCotton is Janice Person, a city girl who loves cotton and biotechnology. Her work in public affairs for Monsanto includes blogging and social media outreach. A colorful adventure is her personal blog. Follow her on Twitter (@JPLovesCotton).