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Proposed farm bills could usher in new era for Hawaiʻi's food system

A loʻi kalo, or taro field, in Waiʻoli Valley on Kauaʻi’s north shore.
Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi
A loʻi kalo, or taro field, in Waiʻoli Valley on Kauaʻi’s north shore.

Roughly every five years, federal lawmakers have the opportunity to take a hard look at the country's agricultural policy and update their vision for the U.S. food system.

That vision gets codified into the federal farm bill, which funnels billions of dollars toward food production, nutrition assistance and conservation programs across the country.

The last farm bill package was passed in 2018. Assuming everybody plays nice, lawmakers should pass a new farm bill this year.

As negotiations progress, advocates from Hawaiʻi are working to ensure they have a seat at the table.

"The hope is that Native Hawaiians are represented expressly in the farm bill," said Davis Price, the Hawaiʻi Regional Director for NDN Collective. He's part of a team developing proposals on behalf of Native Hawaiian food producers and stakeholders.

Price is working in concert with the Native Farm Bill Coalition to expand policy objectives that benefit Indigenous farmers.

His work is also supported by U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawai'i, who invited delegates from tribal nations and Hawaiʻi to Washington this week for a roundtable discussion on Native priorities for the farm bill's reauthorization with the Committee on Indian Affairs.

“The Farm Bill is massive and has real impacts on what we eat and where and how our food is produced," Sen. Schatz said. "That's why we need input from everyone, including Native communities who have historically been left out of these conversations."

Price agrees and hopes to see Hawaiian ancestral knowledge reflected in the new legislation.

"What we know about maintaining our natural resources, and the systems that we're all kind of familiar with in Hawaiʻi, like the ahupuaʻa system, mauka to makai, the relationship between the land and the water," Price said. "Getting that embedded into the farm bill is really important."

That recognition could take a few forms, Price said. One step would be to expand crop insurance programs, which protect producers against losses from certain events like drought. These programs account for almost 9% of the current farm bill, but they are often limited to monoculture crops like corn and wheat. Price thinks they could cover Native crops like kalo as well, which would help traditional farmers become economically viable.


"We're now looking at our traditional food system as an economic system," Price said. "That is really exciting, and I think it gives us a lot of leverage to show everyone in Hawaiʻi what the value of our work is."

Proposals need to be submitted to the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry by the end of this month. Price is working feverishly to meet the deadline, but he's confident that Hawaiʻi's voice will be heard.

"What's been very motivating for me (as) I'm running around to meetings is the alignment," said Price, citing the shared goals between Hawaiʻi and Tribal nations.

Price sees Hawaiʻi as part of a "bigger movement" to bring ancestral knowledge to the forefront of agricultural policy.

"Hearing people from North Dakota and Minnesota and Wisconsin talk about their traditional food systems and speak about it in the same way is profound," Price said.

But not all problems can be solved through conversations and deals on the continents. Some challenges, like opening access to state lands, may need solutions that come from a little closer to home.

Sharon Hurd, Gov. Josh Green's nominee to head the state Agriculture Department, says that's where a state farm bill can play a role.

Full interview with Sharon Hurd
March 23, 2023

"While the national farm bill is really a wonderful document, it's a vehicle to fund the SNAP program. Food nutrition programs that are nationally based, national focused don't really address a specific need for each state," Hurd said.

Taking inspiration from legislation in Pennsylvania, Hurd hopes to get a state farm bill passed during her term that would earmark $150 million annually for agriculture in Hawaiʻi.

"If confirmed, I have four years," Hurd said. "So if I can say that after four years we have this bill, hallelujah."

Sharon Hurd, head of the Hawaiʻi Department of Agriculture, attends her Senate confirmation hearing on March 13, 2023.
Hawaiʻi Senate
Sharon Hurd, head of the Hawaiʻi Department of Agriculture, attends her Senate confirmation hearing on March 13, 2023.

Hurd thinks this omnibus bill could usher in a new era of food policy for the state, with broad provisions for increased biosecurity, workforce development, and expanded laboratory services.

Hurd is currently shopping around a draft outline of the farm bill to stakeholders for feedback. She provided a copy to Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

Hurd said she composed the draft with the hope that others would pick it apart.

"It's so much easier to edit and draft and revise a document that exists," Hurd said. "Another person can say, oh, that's silly, but at least it's on paper. Change it."

While the passage of a state farm bill would be a crowning achievement, Hurd is very clear that she doesn't want it to be her personal manifesto.

"The Department of Agriculture should not be the one to put this together. It should be an ag group that continually maintains it, adds to it, develops it to where it serves all people, all areas," Hurd said. "We want to hear from the public, let us know. What do you need? Put it in the farm bill."

Savannah Harriman-Pote is the energy and climate change reporter. She is also the lead producer of HPR's "This Is Our Hawaiʻi" podcast. Contact her at sharrimanpote@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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