Cover Story

One Organic Farmer’s take on Hawai‘i’s Food Policies, Perceptions and Procedures


“If Hawaii’s agriculture is going to adapt to a new-think goal of food security, it must adopt “local food, for local consumption” as its guiding motto and move from the can’t-do mentality.”


Cover image for Jul 27, 2011

Photo of Al and Joan Santoro by Annie Suite

A retired Naval Intelligence Officer, Al Santoro, learned how to be a farmer, and then learned how to farm organically. Together with his wife, Joan, Santoro owns and operates Poamoho Organic Produce on the North Shore. And now, after 10 years, their farm is the largest certified organic operation on the island, with over 800 fruit trees and over 30 varieties of tropical fruits. In an effort to share his experiences and give insight into what it means to be “organic,” Santoro offers his Ag manifesto–dispelling myths and offering solutions to many of Hawaii’s food issues.

“If Hawaii’s agriculture is going to adapt to a new-think goal of food security, it must adopt “local food, for local consumption” as its guiding motto and move from the can’t-do mentality.”

I will admit with some naiveté that I once believed farming was a-political. I soon learned that everyone has an opinion about farming, Ag-land use, food sustainability, GMOs and local produce. I’ve engaged in the almost daily debate about Hawaii’s agriculture but realized that most of us just talk about it, expecting someone else to actually do something about it. After all, we do have a Hawaii 2050 Sustainability Plan…so we must be moving toward food security, right?

Sorry folks, there is no implementation plan, no milestones and no leadership for this change. We have an ancient and declining Ag industry built on 20 years of inbred complicitious failure amongst existing Ag institutions. These ivory tower institutions, agencies and associations are content to maintain status quo as something familiar rather than engaging in problem solving and moving us toward the goals of the 2050 Sustainability Plan.

This is not an easy challenge and there is no silver bullet for reform, but for too long we’ve based our opinions on illusion and fantasy. So, let’s start by de-bunking some of the fantasies that impede change. Fantasy number one: our Ag industry is one big happy family.


The reality is that Ag is hugely diverse with many competing, and often conflicting, interests among distributors, suppliers, processors, retailers and consumers, with farmers in the usual and proverbial downhill position. Our exports of Hawaii Ag products contribute a significant portion to the state’s economy, but the reality is that all of Ag is only 1 percent of the economy: $600 million of $60 billion. By comparison, one state institution–the University of Hawaii–supplies twice that amount ($1.2 billion).

So, promoting Ag exports produces only marginal returns and does not support the state goal of food security. Additionally, while Ag exports support only mainland agribusiness, every dollar spent here on local fresh produce carries a 333 percent economic multiplier, even more reason to buy local.

Fact, or Fiction?

Myth number one: Ag can’t grow because Ag land is scarce. The entire state of Hawaii comprises 4 million acres of land and 2 million acres of that are zoned Ag. It’s not the amount of available Ag land, but what we do with it; of that 2 million Ag acres, only 1 million acres (50 percent) is being used in a farming activity; only 100,000 acres (5 percent) are in crops; and only 4,600 acres is in fruit and vegetables. Now you know why we produce only 10 percent of our own food.

Myth number two: Most people believe that Ag land is expensive, but, really, it’s relatively cheap. Recent sales have been reported at $20,000–$30,000 per acre, which is equivalent to about five times the amount of land at a 10th of the cost of a residential lot in ‘Aiea. The real costs are not found in raw land, but rather in the costs of development, infrastructure and regulations imposed by the county Planning and Permitting Department (PPD).

Myth number three: Food safety means safe food. Not even close. The food safety certification policy, also known as Good Agriculture Practices (GAP), does not protect consumers from food-borne illnesses. The biggest risk for food contamination is from home kitchens and processing and packaging plants–not farms. There are now only 40 out of 7,500 farms in Hawaii that are “food safety certified.” This equates to one half of 1 percent of our farms; and “food safety certification” does not guarantee that it will protect either the consumer from illness or the farmer from liability.

But what about restricting the development of Ag lands? This is a question many people have, thinking that by restricting development we’ll prevent “fake farms.” It’s simply not true (Myth number four). Controlled development is necessary in order to subdivide large parcels into more affordable lots and to move Ag lands into the hands of the small, diversified family farmer. The gentleman farmers and their “fake farms” are a consequence of loose Ag-use rules that do not prioritize “local food, for local consumption.”

There is no question that food security is a new goal that requires changes in perception, policy, procedures and institutions. But status quo is hard to make go away, especially since our agricultural literati have been more enamored with the problems than with their solutions. If Hawaii’s agriculture is going to adapt to a new-think goal of food security, it must adopt “local food, for local consumption” as its guiding motto and move from the can’t-do mentality to a can-do assessment of its problems and its solutions.

Problem and Solutions

There are several policies in effect that limit local farmers’ access to the majority of our own retail outlets and that exclude 99.5 percent of our farms. These policies include: 1) a federal monopoly held by the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA), as our congressional delegation has approved one distributor to be the sole source of fresh produce to all military commissaries in Hawaii; and 2) the corporate policies of our major grocery retailers and distributors to stock produce from only “third-party food safety certified” farms, thereby accepting produce from only one-half of 1 percent of Hawaii’s farms.

We need to eliminate these artificial barriers to retail markets and create a Hawaii State Food Safety Program that is science-based, targets specific risks and is designed to include instead of exclude Hawaii’s farms. For example, the Food Safety Modernization Act (S-510) now exempts small farms. Since Federal law also exempts 97 percent (7,270 of 7,500) of the farms in Hawaii from these onerous regulations, so should the corporate grocery outlets exempt our small farms from their restrictive policies.

Farming on leased land is often the only choice for many farmers, but many have either no written lease or only short-term leases; this prevents full investment and utilization of land for growing crops. Farmers could better utilize leased Ag land by applying legislative parameters to leased Ag lands that include requirements for a written lease and for a minimum term of 10 years.

Hawaii taxpayers currently pay, through their taxes, all of the costs for inspections of imported fresh produce and disposing of rejected produce. This means that public monies are subsidizing imported food and creating unfair government-sponsored, artificial price supports to importers, which then increases the price imbalance between local and imported food, thus further undermining local farmers. Imposing a tax/tariff/fee on all incoming food containers to cover the full costs of this inspection infrastructure would remove this subsidy; California has already done this with great success.

Loose Terms

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture (DOA) is a regulatory vs. advocacy agency. This means its mission is to either impose or enforce regulations, many of which impede or suppress local farmers. One solution is to reorganize DOA into an advocacy agency; reduce all enforcements and/or transfer any remaining duties to other agencies, such as the Department of Health (DOH) and/or back to USDA.

Ag zoning is limited to only two choices: Ag 1–5 acre lots and Ag 2–2 acre lots. This means every subdivision of larger acreages is broken into these smaller lots, which are then rarely economically sustainable except under high-intensity inputs. This zoning deficiency actually encourages “fake farms.”

By re-zoning all Ag lands we’ll provide more zoning choices, such as “country” or “rural,” for smaller lots; if Ag 2 is eliminated, it will provide more inter-Ag zoning for lot sizes of 10 acres or more.

The Land Use Ordinance (LUO) lists 47 “approved” Ag uses, only one of which is to grow food. This diverts Ag lands into uses that are inconsistent with state and community goals for food security.

We need to review and eliminate all existing Ag-uses that don’t have anything to do with legitimate farming activities (i.e. horses that are not part of a legitimate farming operation), then prioritize remaining Ag uses starting with “local food, for local consumption” as highest priority and ending with all non-food activities, such as nursery or exports.

All of those “loose” Ag-uses receive the same subsidies and monetary incentives such as real estate, payroll and excise tax exemptions (i.e. one horse or 800 fruit trees). This encourages abuse and the use of our valued Ag lands for activities that are lower priority than growing food, while receiving the same subsidies and benefits that food growers receive.

Adjust all monetary incentives to conform to a new list of “prioritized” Ag uses, whereby “local food, for local consumption” growers will receive the highest incentives and all other uses will receive less subsidies. This will provide positive reinforcement for local food production and discourage fake farms.

The Ag institutions such as DOA dedicate more of their budget and personnel to establish or administer programs and policies that promote the exports of Hawaii produce and exclude Hawaii small farmers from local markets than is used to promote “local food, for local consumption”. For example, the Western United States Agriculture Trade Association (WUSATA) program hosts large mainland and foreign importers looking for Hawaii exports; the “Seal of Quality” is an elitist program that promotes the products of just 40 growers, and both the Radio Frequency ID (RFID) traceability and food safety inspection programs exclude 99.5 percent of our farmers.

All programs that “exclude” farmers or that emphasize exports need to be reprioritized, and DOA resources should be redirected to promote and to market “Local Food, for Local Consumption.” These are solutions we’re not talking about.

Land For Sale

There is no standard definition of a “farm” among the counties, no standard criteria for defining the “commercial level” of activity, and the list of permitted Ag activities is far too permissive, which encourages abuse. If these issues are combined into a single redefinition of the parameters to define a farm (such as a farm is a for-profit business entity, engaged in Ag activities that have been redefined and prioritized), on Ag land, at a commercial level, defined as being at least an equivalency of the dollar amount of gross annual sales to the dollar amount of all real estate and payroll tax exemptions for each year of operation.

Much of our Ag lands are now up for sale or have already been sold to developers because our existing Ag land zonings and Ag uses are so broad they actually encourage fake farms.

A solution?

We need a two year moratorium on subdividing any Ag lands in the state in order to give legislators and agencies enough time to redraft laws, rules, regulations and policies that not only preserve Ag lands, but also promote “Local Food, for Local Consumption.