Beyond Pineapples

04 May 2005

People concerned about the wasteful use of fossil fuels would be appalled by how Hawaiian farmers raise beef. “I call it meals on keels,” jokes David Cole, the former America Online executive turned organic farmer.

Each year, Hawaii loads about 42,000 cows on boats to be fattened in California, 3,500 kilometers away, before shipping the packaged meat back to Hawaii. “It’s a very odd situation,” Cole says. “It’s not ethical from an energy management perspective. It’s not moral in terms of managing your environment. It’s unwise from a security perspective.”

A dock strike or weather disruption in the western United States can empty the shelves in Hawaiian grocers for days. “What if this went on for weeks or months?” Cole asks. “We’d start eating each other.”

So in 2003, when an old friend offered Cole the opportunity to return to his native Hawaii to manage the Maui Pineapple and Land Corporation, one of the largest landholders and the largest employer on the island of Maui, he jumped at the opportunity. Cole had previously helped transform a depressed rural enclave in western Virginia into a Mecca of organic farming, hand-crafted comestibles, and culinary awareness. The setting had changed. So had the climate. But the vision remained the same: create businesses that reconnect locals with their landscape while making profits.

It’s hard to understate the potential. At the 2003 Hawaii Agriculture Conference, Ken Meter, an agricultural economist, estimated that the chain of islands currently imports more than 90 percent of its food, even as 200,000 hectares of lush farmland lie fallow. (The state estimates that 85 percent of its farmland is currently unused.) The most dramatic chart in Meter’s presentation showed the income of Hawaii’s farms falling from $500 million to $200 million (in 2000 dollars) between 1969 and 2000, as the amount of food purchased by tourists rose from $500 million to $2.2 billion. “This disconnect between farmers and the tourist economy is truly stunning,” Meter said.

When I spoke to Cole in a Washington, DC restaurant that serves his Virginia-raised beef, he furiously scribbled numbers and obscure shapes on the back of a napkin. In a scheme he calls ‘protein condominium’, several different livestock growers all use the same grazing land in rotation. The fields depend on an intricate dance between cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens. Each species takes something different from the pasture as it brings a different benefit. “You get a pretty high conversion of solar energy into protein,” Cole explained.

The economic argument is even more powerful. A hog, lamb, cattle, and chicken company can share the cost of fencing, in exchange for using parts of the fields (‘condominium’) for a certain time. No imported feed, no shipping costs. “You end up with lots of equity and you have improved the soil,” Cole said.

But Cole’s vision, guided by the Hawaiian concepts of ahupua-a (self-sufficient communities) and malama-aina (care for the land), goes way beyond meat. He’s working with growers to raise six different oilseed crops to turn into biodiesel. They are gradually taking land out of export crops like pineapples to raise organic meat, fruit, and vegetables for Hawaii’s top resorts, where tourists collectively spend as much on food each year as locals. For Cole, all of the imported veggies or the cows that are fattened off-island represent billions of dollars that could enrich Hawaii’s farmers and aspiring food businesses.

“They’ve brought excitement back into agriculture here on the island of Maui,” said Alex Franco, a rancher and managing director of Maui Cattle Company, a coalition of seven ranching families. Of the 5,000 head of cattle the company manages each year, nearly half are raised on Maui Land and Pineapple Company pasture and pineapple silage.

In the year since the collaboration began, Franco’s company has jumped from selling one animal a week to 30 animals a week, from three customers to over 60, and has moved into a new, larger processing plant. “There’s been a tremendous amount of support for a local product,” said Franco, adding that the beef is higher quality than what was fattened on the mainland and that more ranching families can afford to hold onto their land. “We’re moving in the right direction.”

“As islanders, we have a much greater consciousness of the local foodshed than if we had the freedom to drive across a political boundary for our food,” Cole said. In a recent speech to the Maui chamber of commerce, Cole argued the island could be an example for the others, and that Hawaii could serve as an example for other states. The analogy can be extended almost indefinitely.

“Ultimately we’re all on the biggest island of all,” he said. “The orbiting blue ball.”

Brian Halweil is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and also a freelance food and farming writer living on the East End of Long Island

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