Friday, October 28, 2016

Food is not our future

From the second-floor meeting room at Maui Country Club, economist Paul Brewbaker could look over the heads of his audience and see the denuded 37,000 acres that used to be a sugar plantation.

Don’t expect much of that to be farmed again, he told about 30 listeners (many of them farmers) who had turned out for a Grassroot Institute lecture Thursday. (Grassroot is a libertarian think tank that is agin’ regulations and taxes.)

Brewbaker scoffed at the need to be self-sufficient in food. What are the chances that the barges will stop coming, he wondered. But if there is no urgency to repatriate food production, what is the future of ag on Maui?

Not rosy, he thinks. There are openings for some niche development but nothing attractive in commodities.

The old plantation managers used to say, if you can grow it in the San Joaquin Valley, you cannot grow it on Maui and make a profit. And, as HC&S shows, even if you cannot grow it in California, it’s still almost impossible to make money.

Brewbaker did not mention it, but Hawaii went from producing 98% of the world’s canned pineapple in 1940 to 0%  in 2007. But while pine and then sugar declined, seed production has boomed, and without any subsidy or much attention or encouragement in any form from government, which was preoccupied with either saving sugar and pine or promoting “diversified ag.”

Seed production is really knowledge production, Brewbaker said. It is hard to calculate its value because the value isn’t measured in bushels of corn.

He did not get into GMO moratoriums but Grassroot’s head Kelii Akina did, briefly.

The bottom line is clear enough: The SHAKA movement, if successful, will kill off the only  successful segment of Hawaii agriculture, although even for seeds the growth era looks to be ending..

Ag is not our future in any case. Barely half a percent jobs are in ag.

There is 0 demand for farm land. As Brewbaker put it, if there were any attractive farm investment openings, they’d already be in operation in West Maui, where the closure of Pioneer Mill offered land and water in plenty. (It did not offer labor, though. Before the meeting, as attendees milled around in the lobby, someone asked Warren Watanabe, who has been the voice of ag on Maui for decades, what the biggest barrier to farming was. Labor, he said.)

A&B is going to offer ag leases on most of HC&S’s acres. I wish I could figure out how to sell those ventures short, because 5 years from now they’ll all be gone.

Most of Brewbaker’s talk was a review of how the seed business grew in Hawaii, with his father, a plant geneticist at UH, in at the start. It was too bad the naive pushers of self-sufficiency, small farming and primitive methods were not there.

They might have learned something.

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