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Federal Farm Census Shows Hawaii’s Agriculture Is Still In Decline

Hawaii lost 82,000 acres of farmland between 2017 and 2022, according to the recently released 2022 Census of Agriculture.

That’s about twice as much land as urban Honolulu covers, from roughly Kaimuki in the east to Pearl Harbor in the west.

The census doesn’t specify what has happened to the acreage. But industry experts believe it’s partly due to development but also because farms are just ceasing operations.

More than 700 farms and more than 300 producers were lost in that same time frame, according to the five-year federal census coordinated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

The decline in Hawaii’s agricultural footprint has raised concerns among farmers and advocates in light of the state’s long standing goals to increase food production.

The USDA census data, released in mid-February, is crucial to understand key facets of agriculture in Hawaii, such as the amount of production and the value of all of the state’s crops. Hawaii, unlike most other states, relies on federal data because it doesn’t have the staff or resources to produce it’s own data.

The 10.4% decline in the number of farms, from 7,328 to 6,569, is a “disappointing, somewhat disturbing” trend, Hawaii Farm Bureau Executive Director Brian Miyamoto said.                 

Small farms suffered the greatest decline, dropping by 637 to sit at 4,231. But the number could also include the loss of gentleman farms that are zoned for agriculture but produce little, if anything, in the way of crops.

Chart: Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2024Source: USDA National Agricultural Statistics ServiceGet the dataCreated with Datawrapper

If the trend continues, the state’s goal to increase local food production, funnel local produce into schools and increase food security is only going to get harder to reach, Miyamoto said. 

“How do we do those things with less? We still need those acres,” he added. “We’ve been warning folks about that: ag land’s a finite resource.”

The decline in farmers and farmland is not new, agriculture has dramatically changed since plantations started closing down in the 1990s.

Small farms producing myriad crops have since taken over but the steps needed to help them increase their production and get their produce to market have not been taken.

The Big Island remains the largest agricultural producer among Hawaii’s counties. Its 3,638 farms brought in more than $290 million of the state’s total $673 million for 2022, according to the report. The Big Island also lost the most farms in the five-year period, dropping 759 operations.

The USDA also reported an increase in the average value of a single farm’s produce from just under $77,000 in 2017 to about $103,000 in 2022.

The value of produce and the size of farms are data points that DOA hopes to clarify with the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, DOA deputy director Dexter Kishida said.

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