Population Density and the Farm

People dream of farming on Hawaii Island, aka the Big Island, and they are inspired by all of the potential that it holds.  So these agriculturally minded people create interesting CSAs, they make farms, and aspire to be a farmer’s market vendor.  What most of us fail to consider is the weight of a low population density and how it will affect business.  Without growing the demand for such goods, we will soon be in trouble.  Why? A lot of space between populations means long delivery distances.  With only a few restaurants that buy local produce, that  means that you must have all of them on your team. As in 100%. And that is tough to do unless you are the only farmer around.  That sounds funny, but I have met people in other parts of the country who have a lot of customers because they deliver a great product, but equally important, they have a captive audience and no competition from other farmers or imported goods.  That is an amazing scenario, but not likely here in Hawaii. And we all know that we are not getting much income off our markups in the first place.  We have to produce the product too. I am not discussing “hobby farms” here, I mean to address the issue of farmers that have to survive off their farming.  A friend of mine just couldn’t relate.  I only half-jokingly noted that it is like a realtor having to build the house, go door to door trying to sell it, then get only a few dollars over cost, or even not cover the costs, then immediately do it all over again.  Like I said, it is only half-joking. Maybe that isn’t a perfect example, but farmers are in a really different situation than most people can relate to.

Though in the past three years, I have only stuck one toe into the pools of complexity that surround agriculture in Hawaii. I was more than a little discouraged to find out that almost no farmer that I know is making a living off farming.  They are considered part-timers because their spouse hold a ft job in an office, a non-profit, or a hotel. It is survival.  Right now, grant monies are being directed to new farmers, and as these programs churn out students of all ages and abilities, in our nation’s most expensive place to live, it is hard to tell these inspired new farmers that on top of all else, they need to enter into the difficult task of building new markets as well.

So let’s get back to population density.  On my May trip to Oahu, I saw a familiar face at a unfamiliar farmer’s market. There was the banner of one of my neighborhood farms.  Why on earth were they selling leafy produce on Oahu, several island away from their farm?  It wasn’t just them, there was another Hawaii island farmer there as well, he noted that, “We just don’t have the business that we need to survive.” So they fly to Oahu every Saturday?  Looks like it.  Another well-respected local farmer ships about 90% of his produce to Maui.  Same idea.  Maui has a population density that we do not, and they also have a much better chance of someone caring that their produce is sustainably produced. It is at best, daunting to consider those logistics for farm survival.  Air travel to another island is not cheap in Hawaii, nor is shipping food.  Leafy greens are light, but they require refrigeration.

So what are my suggestions?  One is that I think we need to make a more intensive effort of gardening on Hawaii Island.  Switch gears back to the backyard.  We have yards on the big island, and with some training in soil building and gardening, it is quite possible to grow quite a bit of your own food.  Another idea is to build the movement. One long time Hawaii island resident noted that the desire for local, sustainable food never really took off, in fact it may have been better in the 70’s.   My research indicates that they are right, in the 70’s over 80% of the island’s food was from Hawaii, much of it from this island.  So are we backsliding?  Maybe.  The increase in our island’s importation of foods combined with a locally grown following that isn’t increasing at the same rate.  It feels like it is growing, but from what I hear, local is on many peoples lips, but not on a large number of Hawaii island plates.  I know a lot of circles who buy a large percentage of local produce, but I also know the Costco set who proudly announce that they bought produce from Europe that morning.

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