Kapalua Farms expands sustainable food production

As food prices soar internationally, the United Nations struggles with food riots in 33 countries, salmonella turns up in mainland produce and 80 percent of Hawai’i’s food is shipped in, we sit waiting for that steamer to round Diamond Head with next week’s dinner and school lunches–and wondering if it’s safe to eat.

Fortunately, some thoughtful folks on Maui are working on growing and distributing island produce sustainably. Kapalua Farms (KF), a division of Maui Land and Pineapple (MLP), is expanding sustainable food production for Hawai’i, and is now planting a range of organic foods as well.

According to MLP executive David Cole, “The day is coming when a tomato grown in California will be much more costly, both financially and environmentally, than a tomato grown in Hawai’i. We can no longer rely on other people and places for our food and fuel. The business advantage of sustainable local food production is the assurance that we will have food when we need it.”

Having foods when we need them is more complicated than it sounds, especially when you think of organic foods.

Growing enough of your own food involves a complex weave of land availability and leases, farming know-how, ingenuity, environmental protection, investment capital, water rights, shipping costs and distribution networks–all organized to compete favorably against lower cost, sometimes land, labor, subsidies and farming capital overseas.

Farming itself becomes food for thought. According to KF Manager Gustavo Diaz, “One of our goals is to farm the land in the most responsible way we [can…to] obtain the best results we can but doing so with an impact or footprint that is as reduced as is possible.”

So that organic tomato or squash you just enjoyed–the one you hope is pesticide-free and sustainably grown–means someone is solving a number of complicated problems to deliver what you want to eat.

Converting to food production certified as organic can require soil and water tests, plus a supporting land history of three to five years. That means satisfying the non-profit certifying agency–in KF’s case, the Hawai’i Organic Farmers Association as appointed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture–about previous uses of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, soil amendments, etc., with independent laboratory tests certifying acceptable soils.

Kapalua Farms on West Maui recently received certification to grow 15 acres of organic vegetables and herbs to add to its 48 acres of organic pineapple. Toss in two to three acres devoted to composting, and plans to scale up later to another 200 acres in vegetable crops, tree fruit and landscape nursery operations.

KF aims to wed sustainability principles to farm economics, doing its part to make Hawai’i more self-sustaining in food, energy and jobs. Diaz says it will carefully match growing, harvesting and distribution to ensure freshness and quality, studying how to limit the energy demands and the carbon footprint of the produce from field to table. KF sells crops first to partner restaurants in West Maui, then to Maui buyers, then to buyers in the state–keeping food transport distances to a minimum.

According to Diaz, KF is researching the planting of up to 50 acres of native koa trees in ten-acre increments to buffer agricultural lands from native forests and watersheds, protecting native plants, birds and insects on the endangered species list. Diaz says it will also explore the potential for carbon sequestration offsets with the trees, and possible uses of hardwoods for products.

Quality trumps quantity

Diaz says Kapalua’s organic farm is testing four to five possible anchor crops such as eggplant, squash, cucumbers and tomatoes as part of a possible mix of 10 to 25 crops best suited to soil, water and demonstrate quality of product rather than quantity produced. That means a continual balance of production and distribution against soils, a variety of sustainability measures, and market demands. With Whole Foods opening soon on O’ahu, Honolulu organic food aficionados are hoping Kapalua will help to assure a supply of fresh organic produce that leaves natural resources healthy and intact.

Kapalua Farms and MLP invite dialogue with members of their community. They also recognize the potential for practical sustainability education by inviting farming interns and scholars from Maui Community College, local high schools and distant University of California Santa Barbara. KF also maintains a program with EARTH University in Costa Rica.

Plans for ag-tourism–tours of the integrated KF model of sustainable farming, marketing and energy use–will link KF with MLP’s visitor industry lodgings, golf courses and partner visitor restaurants.

David Cole says, “There is no shortage of good agricultural land and water in Hawai’i, but there is a shortage of farms and farmers. Through our community work, we hope to reconnect the wisdom of our host culture with the pressing imperative to grow our own food in a way that will not contribute to global warming or environmental decline.”

Agriculture and Organic Food in Hawai’i

• Total agriculture sales (2005): $2.4 billion

• Agriculture related jobs: 23,200

• Farms: 5,500

• Farmland Acres: 1.3 million including pasture and rangeland

• Harvested cropland: 109,000 acres

• Average farm size: 241 acres

• Median farm size: 5 acres

Top Ten Commodities (2006–in millions)

Seed crops $97.6

Pineapples $75.5

Sugarcane $50.2

Mac Nuts $38.2

Coffee $37.0

Cattle $26.5

Milk $14.5

Algae $11.5

Tomatoes $11.3

Papaya $11.0

Diversified Agriculture has doubled in sales volume since 1985 to $425 million.

Alternate data: Hawai’i Organic Farmers Association says Hawai’i has 60 organic farms.

Source: Sandra Lee Kunimoto Deptartment of Agriculture State Summary