Farms on Maui?

 By Wayne Smith


Some years back an advertising slogan used in the San Francisco Bay area asked the rhetorical question, Farms in Berkeley? The question was used to point out the incongruity of it's oxymoronic name, Berkeley Farms Dairy, since few would expect to find rural farms in so urban a setting.

We have a similar incongruity here on Maui. Most first-time visitors come here with the sun, sea, and sand of a tropical paradise in mind. They have little awareness of the reality that Maui is an island with multiple personalities. It is indeed a wonderful paradise with enormous amounts of the anticipated tropical components. But it too is a place with a vast array of other attributes, including sizable cattle ranches and farms ranging from large corporate sugar, pineapple, and macadamia nut plantations with thousands of acres under cultivation; to traditional family farms of several hundred acres for the production of vegetables, herbs, and flowers; to two-acre "gentleman farms" largely developed to serve some purpose other than commercial agricultural success.


Not surprisingly, there exists a growing conflict between the agricultural land owners who may want to develop their land and those who fervently want to maintain the rural atmosphere of the once-remote areas in which they have chosen to live.  This is the topic of another article, Real Agriculture vs. Gentleman Farms: Zoning Changes Altering Rural Maui, in this issue.


Until World War II, Hawaii was seen through the eyes of a few travelers and the movie goers who saw images of the Islands through romanticized films from Hollywood. The exaggerated and plastic Waikiki lifestyle portrayed in the films gave little hint of the real Hawaii of the era: a culture, society, and economy largely based on agriculture.

Prior to Captain Cook's arrival in 1778, and the beginning of the ever-increasing domination of Western ways, the Hawaiian kingdom was totally self-sustaining. Being the most remote place on the planet - farther from any other land mass on the globe - Hawaiians had developed a successful, thriving culture without being dependent on imports from anyplace else. Western contact began changing all that almost immediately with immigrants - first sailors, whalers, and missionaries; then businessmen and the workers they brought in to work their fields and sugarcane crops -  requiring their own goods and foodstuffs.

Soon, with the lands previously used by Hawaiians to grow their food gobbled up to grow cash crops of cane and cotton, Hawaii became dependent on foods imported from abroad.

As cane grew to become the dominant crop, its demand for laborers increased, Hawaii's population swelled and the demand for food increased.

On Maui, many of the immigrants - Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Koreans, and others - saw the potential for farming in the beautiful Upcountry region on the slopes of Haleakala. With more water available than on the dry flatlands of Maui's Central Valley, they began to acquire land with farming potential. First with small family plots, then consolidating parcels into larger commercial farms, they began an agricultural base that still exists today.

Maui's climate of relatively mild weather year around was good for the small farmers. They could usually count on two, or even three, harvests per year. The farms of Maui grew and exported enormous amounts of green vegetables, mostly to other islands. As late as twenty years ago, before sugar cane began its rapid decline and the former cane lands converted to vegetable farming, particularly on Oahu, Maui farmers provided over 80% of all the cabbage consumed in the state. That number was less than 15% in 1999 and continues to decline as market factors continue to change.

Farmers are a persistent lot. They hang on to their way of life though good times and bad. In the last decade the number of independent farms has increased from 722 in 1987 to 806 in 1997 (last year figures were available). But, the number of acres in agricultural zoning has diminished from 359,000 to 292,090 acres, with land devoted to cattle grazing, sugarcane, and pineapple dominating the scene.

Even with the closing last year of the Pioneer Mill sugar operations on the Westside, sugarcane still dominates the crop lands with some 37,000 acres, mostly in the Central Valley, keeping Maui green. Pineapple is grown on just under 10,000 acres.

Drive along the Upcountry roads both sides of the Kula highway and you will see the evidence of Maui's farms. Row crops of the famous Kula greens and Maui onions are everywhere. And, nestled along the fertile slopes are farms which grow lettuces of all kinds, beans, celery, corn, cucumbers, green onions, peppers, squash, sweet potatoes, strawberries, watermelons, and a host of other vegetables the farmers choose for the markets they serve. Ethnic favorites for Maui's diverse population are popular and supplied to all of supermarkets and farmers' markets across the island. Even taro, or kala as it is called in the Hawaiian lexicon, is grown in terraced patches along streams in the wetter parts of the island on the north and east shores.

This island paradise is beginning, hopefully not too late, to deal with issues directly related to keeping Maui the place that attracts so many people who want to live here, without destroying those very features that attract them in the first place. Although it is not exactly the same, Maui, like so many other places on the mainland, where urban sprawl is eating up the agricultural land and open space to provide housing for those who want a place to live, is facing major dilemmas about land use.

What is the future of farms on Maui? It's hard to say. In reality, probably 95% of all the goods that are eaten, worn, used to build and furnish our homes and condos and hotels, is imported. We could grow more food, become more self-sufficient, but that is not a priority and land that might be a part of that scenario is being lost to development each year. What are we to do?



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