Hawaii Farmers Union United, HB 667 / Local farmers met with Governor Abercrombie at his office last week to talk about food safety and the future of small farms. While recent federal reform of food safety regulations has made exceptions for some farmers, many here in Hawaii say that a bill passed out of the Hawaii legislature last month–HB 667–advantages big agribusiness over small farms and will put some families out of business.
Hawaii Farmers Union United, a coalition of over 300 local farmers, has been organizing to raise awareness of HB 667 and the destructive impact it would have on small local farms. Supporters of HB 667 say that the bill will improve food safety, will increase cooperation between government agencies and will protect us from dangers like rat lungworm disease (a rare parasitic disease that thrives in tropical climates).
Glenn Martinez, a small farm owner and operator in Waimanalo and president of Hawaii Farmers Union United, says he’s baffled by HB 667. “On the one hand,” Martinez explained, “there is a real movement in Hawaii of more and more families who want local grown food, not food shipped in from who knows where. Farmers like me are trying to meet that need, but now this law might pass that will stop farmers like me from growing food and selling it to people who want it. I am baffled.”
The Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation (HFBF), a statewide federation of 10 county Farm Bureaus totaling 1,600 member families, including Martinez and other small farmers opposed to HB 667, testified that it “strongly supports” the bill. In its written testimony to the April 7 Senate Committee on Ways and Means, HFBF spoke to the concerns of small farmers as they relate to federal legislation, but not to HB 667. HFBF wrote in their testimony, “Many Hawaii farmers are extremely concerned about potentially onerous requirements stemming from the newly passed federal Food Safety Modernization Act and went on to explain their view that HB 667 provides the mechanism to help Hawaii farmers comply with the new regulations without unreasonable burden.”
Martinez claims that HB 667 does create an unreasonable burden on small farmers, increases certification costs and that part of the problem is that only Mainland companies can provide the certification called for in HB 667.
Bill Greenleaf, a self-employed small farmer on Maui and also a member of HFBF was surprised to hear that the HFBF came out so strongly in support of HB 667. “I would like to know how HFBF speaks for their membership. Do they poll their membership? They never polled me or any farmers I know.”
Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation was not alone in supporting HB 667. In fact, the majority of testimony received by the legislature was in support of the bill. Only the Department of Health (DOH) offered written testimony opposing HB 667 during the 2011 legislative session, but the DOH testimony spoke to financial constraints rather than food safety issues or the specific concerns of small farmers.
The Land Use Research Foundation of Hawaii (LURF), which represents major land owners, developers and a utility company, testified in support of HB 667 at every hearing. When asked if he was aware that some small farmers are opposed to HB 667, LURF Executive Director Dave Arakawa said, “Who do they want to sell to, people who want to get sick?” Arakawa went on to explain that small farmers need a broader view of food safety. “Some farmers are coming into this late and someone needs to do a better job educating them.”
According to Glenn Martinez, it is the supporters of HB 667 who need to be educated. “The federal Food Safety Modernization Act exempts farmers under $500,000 in business, but HB 667 offers no exemptions for Hawaii’s small farmers. In fact, HB 667 targets the farmer as the problem in food safety, despite all evidence that it’s after the food leaves the farm that the problems occur.”
Greenleaf doesn’t want this be a confrontational issue. “It’s important to get facts out and let the people of Hawaii choose the direction they want to go with their food dollars. I know regenerative farming, where humans work in partnership with nature to build a healthy, nutritious soil food web, is the medium for producing food that is healthy for humans and our planet.”
On June 27, Abercrombie included HB 667 in his list of 23 bills he is considering for veto and he has until July 12 to either veto, this bill or allow it to become law. [Editor’s Note: This story went to press on Monday, July 11.]