Friday, May 29, 2009


DIGGIN’ UP THE DIRT: Public Broadcasting likes to tell us they “do what the commercial networks won’t”. And in Hawai`i they do, on the surface, with regularly scheduled local “public affairs” programming three nights a week where the local broadcast networks average about, well zero.

It’s questionable how topically relevant two of those programs are, like the local sports talk of “Leahey and Leahey” and Leslie Wilcox’s amazing ability to turn interviews with the most politically fascinating individuals in the state into fluff pieces in her “Long Story Short”.

But Dan Boylan’s “Island Insights” usually cooks up at least a promise of a wide ranging, panel discussion of the burning issue of the day.

That promise would be fulfilled if the panel actually pitted those who took diametrically opposed positions. But instead all too often the producer rounds up the usual suspects who represent the state’s corporate controlled oligarchy.

Never was that more so than last light’s installment on the “future of agriculture in Hawai`i”.

Promos promised discussion of “sustainability” and land issues and the political will to make diversified agriculture more than the empty campaign promise of aspiring pols.

But instead three of the four represented large corporate industrial money-driven farms and the fourth, Aussie transplant Gary Maunakea-Fort from the Big Island, an inarticulate organic farmer and opponent of what he called “industrial farms” who serves high end restaurants on Kona side with arugula on 4 acres there, although he is trying to expand to 16 acres.

The three corporate farmers included Adolph Helm of Moloka`i who represented the “Hawai`i Crop Improvement Association” and heads up the GMO-corn seed operation there, the Chair of the Hawai`i Board of Agriculture Sandra Lee Kunimoto and Richard Ha whose 600 acres Hamakua Farms plants 600 chemically-fertilized acres of whatever makes him the most money.

The sustainably discussion was a joke. Apparently none had any idea of what the movement toward sustainability was all about.

Ha was straightforward in re-defining sustainability as being economically based repeatedly saying whatever makes money is what is sustainable. Worse was Helm who not just agreed with Ha’s economic model but who claimed that “everyone has a different idea of what sustainability means” and went on to say how GMO corn seed is our best hope for sustaining agriculture”

Kunimoto seemed equally as clueless claiming that “best management practices” are the key.

The GMO discussion was equally obtuse with the three industrial farmers providing the tired old lies of “strict government oversight” and “higher yields” along with the “fully tested” and “strictly regulated”. The only real discussion was about how to deal with the “cultural” objections to GMO taro with the understanding among themselves that science” was on their side.

The fact that GMO products have never been fully tested and that science has been thrown under the bus with the precautionary principle—the main guiding standard in real science- getting the shortest of shrifts. Products are assumed safe with little scrutiny and voluntary compliance and self regulation providing for non-compliance- as violations and resulting fines across the county have shown- being the norm under the “deregulation” regimes of the last few decades.

When a viewer asked about labeling issue all they could do is repeat the “strict government regulation means it’s as safe an any other product” dodge.

Forth was not even asked to answer the question.

But if discussion on those two subjects were dismally one-sided the one on land use was doubly perverse.

The cost of land was never mentioned as a deterrent to farming even though any young aspiring farmer will tell you that that’s impediment number one. Even when the pressure to develop ag land came up the fact that, in order to farm one must invest more in land than one could ever possibly recover in order to start, never came up.

As a matter of fact they lauded the new “identification of important ag lands” study as the key to the future of agriculture, although none ventured a guess as to how reclassifying tons of ag land as urban and residential would help drive down ag land prices.

In an age when we are increasingly looking for ways to “grow” energy with solar wind and biomass “farming” to call any ag land at all “unimportant” is absolute insanity. Identifying land for development just squeezes that energy production onto more arable land, driving prices up not just for the land but the resulting food and energy even further.

That’s because every successful farmer in Hawai`i, for one reason or another, whether through inheritance subsidized lease or through some other circumstance, has not had to factor in land cost into the viability of their farm.

While some mentioned county regulation none recognized the state’s role in allowing “ag condominiums” over which the counties have zero control. That is what has driven prices sky high as ag land becomes “gentleman farms”.

None, including Forth, talked of sustainable small family farms. So of course the problems of hiring “agricultural workers” was the answer when Boylan asked why “young people don’t want to farm”.

That seems to be the mantra of corporate farmers almost all of whom started being land ag rich so never had to factor that cost into their profit equation. They simply seek to hire people to do the seasonal work at low wages rather than taking in partners or forming co-ops.

The fact is that there are hoards of young people who would love to become farmers- Forth says he hires them “for a few years” just so they can have the experience and had 75 applicants for 24 positions last year. But the cost of land is prohibitive because no crop and no amount of work can produce enough to sustain those who do the work and also pay off the exorbitant cost of obtaining land with prices that have been driven by making ag land in small de facto residential lots for rich mainland folks

The real solution to sustainable ag is multi pronged but not very complicated. It starts with bring down the cost by restricting use. Counties can easily remove density from ag land and open land and the state can just as easily eliminate agricultural condominiums making land useless for anything but agriculture.

The more of that “strictly ag use” land there is the lower the price will be. Every rezoning and ag subdivision drives prices higher still. Those need to stop entirely.

Once that is in place the business plan of the young farmer becomes easy to construct and one that, with hard work and knowledge, would make a career in farming a possibility.

The corporate model relies on “workers” and “jobs” that nobody wants- do you want to work for minimum wage (or less as farm workers may be paid)?

The fact that no one wants to do hard work for peanuts doesn’t mean young people don’t want to farm or do hard work at all. They just don’t want to farm for low wages for someone who somehow acquired land at a way-below-market-cost that they didn’t have to factor into their business plan.

The problem is that lip service to ag is all we get from short sighted pols who still think of sustainability in terms of an economically-driven industrial model of operation.

With people like Kunimoto overseeing and cheerleading factory farmers like Ha and “GMO is our future” Monsanto henchmen like Helm no one is holding their breath that our elected officials will remove the corporate yoke from farming by reforming our land use polices.

But we may never even get that far. When the “unimportant ag lands” study is done and most of the ag land is developed there may not be anything to reform.


meleanajudd said...

very confusing article...
i think i might agree w you on some points, but your comments especially about gary were so off base it made the rest of the article hard to not just write off as a rant.
gary and MAO are AWESOME.

Andy Parx said...

I don’t know whether you saw the program Meleana but awesome as Gary might be I didn’t think he was a the right spokesperson for the issues involved in farming except for a vague notion of anti industrialization. He apparently didn’t have the knowledge or incline to counter the propaganda of the three pro-GMO people and certainly did not present a comprehension of any the land use issues that predominate all others when it comes to ag. Perhaps it’s the availability of land on the BI that gives him a limited perspective of those issues.

As to the concept of sustainability perhaps he understands what they means but could not articulate it in the face of three old school farmers

Though he might be a wonderful organic farmer, great guy and run a great organic farm, through no fault of his own he wasn’t the right spokesperson especially since he served as the only one to represent the sustainability community.

My criticism was not really of Gary but the producer who selected him as a spokesperson. But thanks for alerting me to how it might have sounded.