Some insight into farming in Hawaii

Some insight into farming in Hawaii

Aloha, readers! This is the second posting about my research for Industrial Ecology in Hawaii. My intrepid teammates (Lynette, Jeff, and Angelo) and I have visited many more coffee farms and spoken to Hawaii County’s research and development experts for the island’s energy. We’re gathering so much data about the material flows for the farming and the proposed biofuels production in Ka’u!

What I find especially interesting is the farmers’ ability to adapt to a new livelihood. Sugar cane plantations were phased out about fifteen years ago – due in large part to sugar competitors from abroad. Since then, people who worked the sugar plantations have transitioned to incredibly diverse crops. We met farmers who harvest everything from bok choy, cabbage, and carrots (that dinner was unforgettable) to “ice cream bananas” and “apple bananas,” pineapple, and peaberry coffee. Though coffee, cattle, and macadamia nuts comprise the largest proportion of agriculture in Ka’u, the farmers maintain these extra fruits and vegetables for subsistence. They are able to sell what their families don’t need to the local farmers’ markets. And, local restaurants are starting to serve local food in response to tourist demand.

The farmers and city planner alike told us that the greatest threat the crops face is water scarcity. However, one farmer today explained that his crops can suffer significant damage from “Vog.” This is a local term for the sulfur dioxide that is constantly emitted in varying amounts from Mauna Kea. The farmer showed us how his steel fences needed to be replaced because they had rusted out from vog. Crops show damage immediately from vog, and certain strains of fruits and vegetables are particularly vulnerable to the pollution. With a grim face, this same farmer shared a story. He said he had just visited the doctor, who took scans of his lungs. The doctor asked our 65 year-old friend whether he smoked. When he said that he had never smoked a cigarette, the doctor indicated that the vog was severe enough to make his lungs look as if he were a smoker. It was hard to believe, especially on a clear day like today – I went for a run this morning and took the deepest breaths possible, thinking that my lungs would clear from the New Haven and New York City pollution!

The funny thing is that we visited the volcano yesterday and saw absolutely nothing but fog (I’m hoping it was fog, not vog….). We didn’t realize the severity of the vog problem and its significance to local farmers, but we were sorely disappointed after a long day of interviews to visit the Volcano Park and see gray.

Well, there are many more stories to share with you but I need to get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow we’re meeting with a county planner, a local food sustainability expert, and a professor at the University of Hawaii. Then we’ll meet some key contacts at the Kohala Center ( who had the idea for us to study the biofuels/agriculture challenge. That’s all the way over in Hilo, about two hours from our home base. Mahalo for reading, and watch out for more updates!