This Week’s Column: There’s No Sugar in Hawaii

As I write this, I’m sitting on a lanai (that’s balcony or porch in Hawaiian) overlooking the Pacific Ocean lapping the shores of Maui. On the third island of ABN Radio’s first “Island Agventure,” our group of two-dozen farmers (including two farm broadcasters) is nearing the end of our Hawaiian agricultural excursion. Studying the agriculture of the islands teaches us many things about the future of agriculture on the mainland.



In just the first six days of our trip, we’ve visited so many unique agricultural highlights. On Oahu, we toured the University of Hawaii’s Lyon Arboretum, where we learned how invasive species and foreign diseases wiped out any number of native plants and animals. Dr. Lyon, for whom the breathtakingly beautiful installation is named, was tasked with bringing in plants and trees to stop the rapid erosion happening on the island because of the loss of the natural flora. Back on the mainland, meanwhile, we’re dealing with invasive species ranging from Emerald Ash Borer to Asian Carp.



Next, we visited “the Big Island” of Hawaii, where we learned that while there are still thousands of acres of macadamia nut trees, there isn’t a single acre of sugarcane left, and the two former sugarcane refineries have long since shut down and gone out of business. Why? Cost of labor. Because the cost of paying workers is so much higher in Hawaii than it is in other parts of the world, sugar producers have gone elsewhere. The cost of labor is high in part because of the higher cost of living in Hawaii, but also because it is more expensive to do business in the United States than it is in many parts of the world. Government regulation and bureaucracy helped drive sugar production out of one of the best places to grow sugarcane in the world.



Also on Hawaii (the Big Island, that is), we visited the 25th largest cattle ranch in the country, the Kahua Ranch. On the slopes of a dormant volcano, and running nearly to the ocean, this 20,000-acre spread is home to 4,000 cows and over 700 ewes. Any idea what the biggest challenge of ranching in Hawaii might be? Marketing your stock. Because of environmental regulations, Hawaiians can’t build a meat processing facility or feedyard within 40 miles of the ocean. So, if the island is only 70 miles wide, there’s nowhere on the island to legally build a packing plant.



Only 7 percent of the beef produced on Hawaii is consumed there, because the cattle are shipped back to the mainland at 400-600 pounds, finished, and processed. Then, the beef necessary to feed the citizens and tourists is imported back to the islands. Talk about a carbon footprint: the Big Kahuna burger you might have for lunch probably traveled as a calf from the slopes of Mauna Loa to LAX by Boeing 747, then trucked to Cactus Feeders in Texas, the finished animal processed and the boxed beef trucked back to the Port of Los Angeles where it got loaded onto a container ship and carried back across the 2,500 miles of ocean to Hawaii. Talk about your carbon footprint…



Speaking of which, because of the Jones Act, ranchers on Hawaii can’t use “the Cow Ship,” or a six deck cruise ship designed to haul cattle across the ocean. Because this modern marvel is built and crewed by the Dutch, it is illegal to use it to ship cows from Hawaii to the mainland. Instead, ranchers charter it to haul cattle from Hawaii to, get this, Vancouver Canada, and then truck the calves across the border to Idaho or Texas. While the cow ship is perhaps the most cattle-friendly method of transport, because of the Jones Act the ranchers will often fly 50,000 pounds of cattle inside the 747 to LAX, or load them into “cowtainers” and put them on standard freight vessels bound for the mainland.



We’ve learned that Hawaii is a near-perfect Petri dish for understanding how the “law of unintended consequences” comes into play relative to agriculture and the heavy hand of government. Also, because Hawaii is an import-dependent state, staples like milk that aren’t produced here are much more expensive than on the mainland. Milk, for example, is typically $6-$8 per gallon, roughly double what we’re paying at home. The lesson? We must fight hard to keep farming viable and agriculture profitable on the mainland. We don’t want our food production outsourced in the way we’ve outsourced our oil and energy production. The costs, not just financial, are too high to consider.