The need to move Hawaii Ag Lands out of DLNR and into the Ag Department
In 2003, the Hawaii legislature passed Bill 90. Its intention was clear: to ensure the long-term productive use of public farmland. Bill 90 ordered the transfer of state-owned agricultural leases to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture. The aim was to provide farmers and ranchers with a guarantee that their leases would support the continuation of agricultural production.
But 18 years after Bill 90 was passed and passed, nearly 100,000 acres of public pasture and leased farmland remain under the management of the Hawaii Department of Lands and Natural Resources. The DLNR also controls additional unencumbered agricultural land – land that is zoned agricultural but not leased for agricultural purposes.
Why is the transfer of agricultural land from DLNR to HDOA important? Because with the constant decrease in the amount of grazing land, we must ensure that the agricultural land in current production remains in production.
To put it in perspective, DLNR currently manages 1.97 million acres in conservation, which is 48% of the state’s land mass. DLNR’s mission is “to enhance, protect, conserve and manage Hawaii’s unique and finite natural, cultural and historical resources held in the public trust for present and future generations of the people of Hawaii, and its people. visitors, in partnership with others from the public and private sectors. Nowhere in this mission is the DLNR responsible for supporting food production.
Understandably, the HDOA is set up to support agriculture, with a mission to “further expand the role of Hawaii’s agricultural industry for the benefit of our island society by diversifying the economy. , protecting resources important for agricultural production and gaining greater autonomy. -food insufficiency and production of renewable energies.
This is exactly what Law 90 was trying to achieve when it facilitated the transfer of agricultural land to HDOA – a simple solution to ensure that those who lease land for agricultural activities are supported for long-term productive use. lands. The terms of the HDOA lease are appropriate for production-based agriculture, with longer terms to accommodate the planning required for agriculture and prioritized for food production.
Decrease in ranch land
In 1937, Hawaii had over 2 million acres of pasture on public and private land. In the 1980s, the amount of grazing land in the state was 1.1 million acres. In 2015, that number exceeded just over 750,000 acres. Today, a full census is not available, although HDOA reports an increase of 412 acres of pasture on Kauai, a decrease of 429 acres on Oahu, and a decrease of 2,202 acres on the island of Hawaii due inactivity and conversion to other uses.
Hawaiian ranchers are close to the basics of life: their relationships with one another, the land, and the community. Some have taken over the land leases their parents started, and some are first generation ranchers who want the land they work on to remain in active production after they leave.
But imagine trying to breed cattle with a license revocable from month to month. Imagine trying to run a farm on a short term lease.
DLNR has indicated that it is prepared to transfer some acreage to HDOA. But it has 68 leases, representing 77,200 acres, which are not scheduled for transfer.. The terms of these leases vary, but 70% of them are 30-day revocable licenses. The few ranchers lucky enough to have general leases have terms ranging from 20 to 55 years, but 84% of those general leases expire within the next decade.
And if the leases are revoked and the day-to-day management of the land ceases, even if a lease is subsequently renewed, it is difficult to come back later and get the land back to working order.
When ranchers were asked how they could benefit from transferring their leases to HDOA, the common thread was very clear. By transferring the leases to the appropriate agency for agriculture, ranchers would have the confidence to make long-term improvements to the land and ensure that ranching continues.
Many have made costly improvements to land or water infrastructure and roads, even on short-term leases, despite the risk. A survey of seven tenants showed they had collectively invested more than $ 3 million in water infrastructure, nearly $ 3.5 million in weed control and several hundred thousand dollars in soil amendment.
This hydraulic infrastructure has proven to be vital in controlling forest fires, and weed control and soil improvement fit well with DLNR’s mission – a mission DLNR has limited resources to accomplish.
How much food are we talking about?
Tracking large-scale food production is not straightforward, but it is something that we need to improve so that we can understand the landscape.
In an example of a lease we looked at, the ranch produced enough beef in one year for 2.8 million school meals through the Aina Pono program.
In another lease, the ranch produced enough beef for 460,000 school meals in one year.
Some ranches raise calves to send to the mainland for further growth and slaughter (called a cow / calf farm). This is due to many factors, including the type of land and fodder, processing capacity, and trust in land tenure. It also allows flexibility during drought.
Even when the ranches operate on the cow / calf model, they still provide beef locally when they process their older cows and steers here for consumption. Meanwhile, herd management continues to provide ecosystem services – using livestock to improve soil health and rotational grazing to sequester carbon.
Raising an animal on grass throughout processing in Hawaii currently costs 60% more than sending a calf to the mainland, even when transportation is factored in. In a 2019 ranchers survey, many wanted to increase the number of cattle raised in Hawaii for local consumption.
DLNR objectives and conservation lease requirements can be achieved through HDOA leases.
Well-managed rangelands can sequester carbon while producing food.
Rotational grazing and regenerative breeding can sequester carbon underground where pastoralists actively work. This underground carbon storage is more stable than aboveground storage, and rangelands store a higher proportion of carbon underground than other ecosystems.
On well-managed pastures, Hawaiian ranchers also work to eliminate invasive species and control wild ungulates on the land they lease.
When normal life came to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ranchers quickly adapted to continue their operations while ensuring the safety of their staff. The nature of animal production meant that they had beef ready to supply to the community. This is the kind of resilience we need in an island economy that is susceptible to disruption.
The state wants to increase local food production. The transfer of agricultural land to the Ministry of Agriculture is a logical step in ensuring that agriculture is supported.