‘Protecting the small farms’: local farmers, legislators seek conversation

‘Protecting the small farms’: local farmers, legislators seek conversation

As farmers throughout Hawaii learn how to deal with a wide range of issues – with pests ranging from coffee leaf rust to the coffee berry borer – Big Island farmers are hoping to create a more broad and diverse conversation with their state representatives as they learn to combat pests and climate change moving forward.

On Thursday, sens. Dru Kanuha (D-Kona, Ka’u) and Laura Acasio (D-Hilo), along with reps. Nicole Lowen (D-North Kona), Jeanne Kapela (D-South Kona, Ka’u), agriculture committee chair Mark Hashem (D-Oahu) and vice chair Amy Perruso (D-Oahu) met with South Kona farmers Jason Stith, Barbara Anderson, Bruce Corker, Kathy Vass and Kona Coffee Farmers Association president Colehour Bondera and vice president Chet Gardiner to open that conversation.

The legislators toured three small multi-crop South Kona farms. Bondera anticipates this group of small-scale farmers can help raise awareness about the complexity of the industry, and hopes more local farmers can become additional sources for writing legislation to address the varying needs of small farms.

While Hawaii’s state legislature has taken action in past years to combat pests — most recently in the 2021 session by extending the Department of Agriculture’s coffee berry borer subsidy program through 2023 and expanding it to include subsidies for coffee leaf rust – Bondera felt farmers have struggled to have their voices heard.

“Every single one of the farms, it’s different from each other,” Bondera said. “That was one of my impetuses of saying we should go to three different farms to get some different ideas. That’s critical to recognize; they aren’t all the same.”

At the Mahina Mele farm, Stith grows coffee and macadamia nuts on 14 acres of land. Though Mahina Mele is a certified organic farm, Stith made a point to recognize that many of his neighbors, while not certified, still use the same organic practices.

“To farm organically or to buy things organically, that’s a philosophy,” he said. “To get certified organic, that’s a marketing tool, and that’s what all the certifying agencies will tell you, as well.

“You need that stamp to sell your product at certain markets. A lot of people don’t need that… They’re still doing the same organic practices that we are. It’s important to note that those people might not be counted if you’re looking at who’s organic and who isn’t. They’re still using the same products and doing the same methods.”

One issue raised was the process of becoming certified: a process farmers say has become more and more difficult. Part of the problem is due to the lack of inspectors, and part is due to federal red tape. Both aspects, according to the group, could be helped if the state elected to take up jurisdiction in certifying organic farms. It’s just one example, according to Bondera, stressing how important it is for a dialogue between farmers and legislatures to exist

“Listen to the actual farmers and not only to coffee processors and spokespeople for organizations that pay them salaries,” said Bondera. “Legislatively, we should be protecting the small farms. Don’t just default to what the large producers say.”

In dealing with coffee leaf rust, for instance, much of Kona’s approximately 700 coffee farms will not be able to simply replace their trees with a new variety. While many large-scale farms will have the ability and resources to replace their trees, it isn’t a viable option to most small-scale farmers. Stith believes better communication between these farmers and legislators can help support these small farms in understanding the options available to them to combat the multiple pests farms now face.

“I don’t know what else can come in, but we’ve got the most devastating things already,” said Stith. “I know it’s hard to act and react, but all of a sudden these pests are here.”

“There’s really not on-the-ground support for organic farms, except for a few people who make a few lists about what inputs you can do that are certified organic,” added Bondera. “That’s not what farmers are looking for… Farmers really need support and protection.”


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