With extraordinary efforts by nonprofits and other groups to feed families in need — often with locally grown produce — there is a belief that island farmers are doing great. While the increased attention on buying local is welcomed, that belief couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The fact is that local farms are just like any other small, local business (particularly those tied to restaurants and visitors). Many local farmers operate at a loss or face challenges just to break even.
As the restaurant and visitor industries struggle to reopen, local farmers face the prospect of no imminent return to business as usual. And what was business-as-usual for local farmers before the pandemic?
There are about 7,328 farmers across the state, with only 6% having a net income greater than $50,000. In 2017, more than half of local farmers (57%) operated at a loss, even with the visitor industry at full tilt.
Moreover, the average farm size on the U.S. mainland is three times larger than the average Hawaii farm. Along with that size comes economies of scale that local farmers cannot match. And, because large local grocers require significant — and consistent — volume, only 5-10% of local farmers can do regular business with them. Is it any wonder they struggle to survive?
The state estimates that farmers lost 50-60% of their market because of hotel and restaurant shutdowns. Community Supported Agriculture programs, which facilitate purchases directly from farmers, do little to make up for those losses. Also, restaurants are projected to take up to three years to return to pre-pandemic levels, and tourism is not expected to return to 2019 levels for another six years.
If we are serious about making all aspects of our lives sustainable, some level of food self-sufficiency must be part of that transformation. There is no better time than now to commit to more local food production for local consumption when we have the opportunity to redefine what is “normal” in our lives. We can, and should, commit to growing agriculture as part of a more diversified, resilient local economy.
Food Banks Are Lifelines
But local farmers cannot do it alone. To truly reinvent ourselves, we need strong leadership, not just from the private sector but also from the government.
We’ve seen how our food banks have become lifelines during this crisis for many local families. We need our government to continue to fund farmers to supply these lifelines until the end of the year.
Longer term, the Double Up Food Bucks program, which aligns the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program with local food production to help families in need, provides a model to replicate. It literally doubles the value of benefits from SNAP spent on local produce at participating retail grocers, such as KTA Super Stores and Times Supermarkets, thus helping qualifying families to bring home healthy local produce while supporting local farmers.
We all have a stake in seeing that the government does its part.
Many are also urging the state to mandate that its large institutions (schools, hospitals, prisons) buy a minimum percentage of local foods, increasing each year incrementally until reaching a proposed goal of 25%. Such institutions offer the scale needed to make our local ag industry more commercially viable with consistent markets. Pilot projects at public schools on Hawaii Island and Oahu have proven it can be done — while saving taxpayer dollars. We all have a stake in seeing that the government does its part.
For the rest of us, buying local remains crucial. We need to support local restaurants that buy from local growers and shop at supermarkets that sell local produce. Seek out farmers’ markets and make our healthy food choices local as well. We speak about the survival of farms in Hawaii, but might we, in our quest for a more sustainable Hawaii, be speaking of our own survival as well?
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