The Agricultural Economic Landscape in Hawai‘i and the Potential for Future Economic Viability


By Sarah Rehkamp, Michael J. Roberts, and James M. MacDonald

In a recent UHERO policy brief, Reviving Agriculture to Diversify Hawai‘i’s Economy, authors pointed to trends in Hawai‘i agriculture and state policies surrounding agricultural land management (La Croix & Mak, 2021). Hawai‘i’s agricultural history has centered around the pineapple and sugar plantations and these are largely gone; the closing of Puna Sugar in 1982 was the inception of the decline and the last sugar producer shuttered on Maui in 2016 (Lyte, 2017; Melrose, Perroy, & Cares, 2016). Many small farms remain in Hawai‘i, but the vast majority have annual sales below $10,000 while the households that manage them derive income mainly from other sources (USDA-NASS, 2017; USTR, 2021). Much of the state’s former agricultural land now sits fallow or unused.

This policy brief aims to expand on La Croix and Mak (2021) by presenting data that may help increase understanding about the agricultural economic landscape in Hawai‘i and inform its future economic viability. We find that while farmland and the real value of agriculture sales are trending downwards, there are potential opportunities and examples of success. We also find that data are lacking to tell a comprehensive story about Hawai‘i’s agricultural economy; an increased emphasis on data collection and analysis in the state would be valuable.


3 thoughts on “The Agricultural Economic Landscape in Hawai‘i and the Potential for Future Economic Viability”

  1. The vast majority of food is consumed in processed form. Therefore agriculture in Hawaii cannot expand much without a food processing industry for it to supply.

    Most of our food is processed in California and there is no real formula where Hawaii produce is shipped to Calif, proceed and then shipped back.

    This point apparently escapes everyone because I see it being discussed nowhere.

    1. Michael J. Roberts Roberts

      JKS: I agree. At the production level, it seems to me that Hawai‘i ought to be fairly competitive with California. But we cannot operate at their scale, and thus cannot support the processing and various intermediate businesses that thrive there. I do wonder, however, whether emerging technology may allow efficient smaller scale processing and distribution.

      Thank you for the comment and sorry for the late reply — I was out on vacation for awhile.

  2. Paul Brewbaker

    You hit on many high points. Scale is thwarted by absence of contiguity, raising transport cost. For food products or urban amenities (say, cut florals and ornamentals), the consumers are on Oahu, but the cheap land is on the Neighbor Isles. Overnight delivery makes some markets (Tokyo, LA) as easy to reach as Honolulu. I emphasize three points. First, agriculture is a small share of output everywhere because it is so productive, but that’s no reason not to measure it. Hawaii basically abandoned measurement in 2010. This is ludicrous. How do we “double output,” the guv’s Glorious Goal? Two times “we don’t know?” Second, most places will never win at commodity agriculture–one or a few crops, but not really “diversified” in terms of scope. Specialized. In Hawaii, the corn seed industry (still the largest ag activity at half its size less than a decade ago) is about genetics, not about seed per se. We code the maize genome; seed is the SD card with which the app is distributed because there is no Internet for genomes (yet). That’s what Hawaii does, it codes the genome: Iowa will always be able to produce more seed than Hawaii, but Iowa can’t offer a continuous, year-round growing environment for Crispr edits. Third, we can’t know what future agriculture will present, but that’s why keeping options open is so important. Preserving ag land, and managing renewables like water resources, are important because when we invent the next agriculture we’ll be happy we didn’t pave over the ag land, like holding an option on Apple or Tesla stock with a $10 strike price. My bet is on intellectual property, like pharmaceuticals, or carbon sequestration, not food, but the correct answer should be “Chance ’em.”

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