Kim Coffee-Isaak, left in pink shirt, and participants in an Agricultural Leadership Foundation of Hawaii workshop, tour the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Waimanalo testing station.
Image: Courtesy Agricultural Leadership Foundation of Hawaii

Conference ponders future of farming and food production

What does a healthy food system look like? Farmers and agricultural industry experts from all along the food chain — anyone concerned about the challenge of getting food to the table in Hawaii — will ponder the future at the 2012 Agricultural Conference tomorrow and Friday, Sept. 20 and 21, at the Hawaii Convention Center.

The theme: Leveraging Partnerships for Profit. According to Agriculture Leaership Foundation of Hawaii executive director Kim Coffee-Issak, it’s a rare opportunity (the conference occurs only every other year) for individuals to leave their accustomed circles, and closely held convictions, to mingle with others with whom they may think they have little in common.

The Foundation’s primary work is to train small groups of people involved in agriculture and food production in intensive months-long “cohorts,” who meet on a regular basis, travel for farm visits around the Islands, Washington, D.C. and other stages to learn about best practices, government and policy-making. Foundation funding comes from grants and from support by past students.

“The pat answer when you’re asked about the challenges facing agriculture in Hawaii is land, water, labor and energy. But where I sit, the key word is trust, trusting one another enough to set aside our preconceived notions and realize that it’s going to take all of us to solve these problems, or even imagine possible solutions. There’s more than one way to do things. It’s hard to give up control when you have your own company, but there can be considerable economies of scale achieved if you work together on such things as production facilities, seed buying, feed buying and so on,” said Coffee-Isaak.

There will, of course, be talks, seminars, cooking and food-growing demonstrations, a trade show and a pau hana reception. But a key component of the event is an odd technique: “speed dating.”

Attendees will hear two in-depth case studies, examples of situations in which concerns and even emnity, turned to cooperation: a farmers’ co-op and their military next-door neighbor working together on water issues, and a rancher’s group and a renenewable energy organization pooling their expertise to expand grass-fed cattle operations.

Speed dating follows. Presenters from many sectors sit at tables and have 5-7 minutes to tell their stories; attendees get a few minutes to ask questions, and then a bill rings and participants move to the next table. In the process, information and business cards are exchanged and conversations begin, and, organizers hope, will continue.

Participants will make more connections with interested parties at an all-Hawaii products luncheon Sept. 20 honoring Monty Richards Leadership Award winner Donna Ching of the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, “the grandmother” of agri-business efforts like this. Her motto: “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

Another key component will be a “what if” sessions, proposing scenarios about ag in Hawaii: “What would happen if we did nothing?,” “What would happen if everything collapsed?,” “What would happen if something transformative occurred?” and “What would happen if we adopted a highly regulated approach?”

Participants will consider these questions with an eye to Hawaii 2062. The final question: “What would you like to have happen and what are we doing now to achieve that result?”

“Getting people engaged in envisioning policy is how you get policy implemented,” Coffee-Isaak said.

Members of the interested public may get involved in two ways: Buy a $250 two-day pass, which includes all events ($150 for students); buy a Friday-only pass, which includes sessions and lunch, for $100; or buy a new $75 Foodie Pass, which includes the Thursday all-local lunch and a chance to experience the food of some cutting-edge chefs, the pau hana reception and access to the trade show.

Registration is still open for the conference. Information and online ticket sales: Hawai‘[] or conference promoters Amanda Corby, 783-1407, or Allyson Turner, 240-1096.