Hawaii is at a Crossroads with its Agricultural Future

July 13, 2018 Written by Oralie Chapman

Hawaii was once home to tens of thousands of acres of active farmland growing sugar and pineapple for American markets and exporting around the world. With competition from cheap foreign labor, lack of farmworkers and the country’s highest land costs, Hawaii’s agriculture industry has been on a long pattern of decline; shrinking 68 percent since 1980 according to data from the University of Hawaii. The state’s last remaining sugar grower, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., shut down its operation in December, 2017. 

Today, the corn seed industry is Hawaii’s biggest agricultural crop followed by commercial forestry and macadamia nuts. But even when combined, these crops come nowhere near filling the economic vacuum created by the end of sugar and pineapple production

History of the sugar industry in Hawaii

The sugar industry had tremendous influence over Hawaii for more than 100 years.

  • It was a factor in Hawaii becoming a U.S. state
  • It was responsible for building multiethnic company towns filled with farm laborers 
  • It had a big influence over the state’s politics and economy

When Hawaii became a state, sugar and pineapple producers became obligated to follow U.S. labor laws which caused many to hire cheaper foreign labor. As tourism grew with the rise in jet plane travel, many plantation companies closed or changed into land-development firms.


The future of Hawaii’s agricultural industry

Hawaii imports 90 percent of its food, costing the state about $3 billion a year. Residents often pay the highest prices for basic food supplies of anywhere in the country. Wanting to improve food security, Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) plans to set a deadline to double local agriculture production by 2030.


Local politicians worry about the loss of agriculture on Hawaii, noting that it was the only other major industry besides tourism. Said Maui County Councilman Alika Atay, “…not everybody who lives on this island wants to work in the hotel industry…We are now seeing drastic displacement of young people leaving Maui because of a lack of economic opportunity." Hawaii’s Agriculture Department has not filled 122 of its 360 positions; which means limited ability to work on the issue. The branch in charge of market analysis and tracking the state's trends in food imports and production is vacant but the agency is directing its limited resources on pursuing outside funding for investments in Hawaii food production along and other practical measures.


Still, indigenous Hawaiians lived well on the islands for hundreds of years using sustainable farming and fishing methods before Westerners arrived in the late 1700s. With so much farm land sitting idle and water supply not being diverted to sugar production, many believe a re-birth of Hawaiian agriculture is possible. 


Public policy and investment combined with private companies will be needed to restore the agricultural landscape. Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. is now using 4,500 of its 36,000 farmland acres for a new grass-fed cattle operation in partnership with Maui Cattle Company. The goal is to reduce the dependence on beef shipped in from the mainland from 95 percent to 80 percent. The company has also started using 1,500 acres of farmland to grow sweet potato and energy-producing crops that could reduce the state’s high energy costs.