Hawaii’s Agriculture

Mar 3, 2022 | General Information

Table of Contents
Extremely rich soil from heavy rainfall and a mild year-round climate has made Hawaii a prime agriculture state. The state is home to approximately 3,600 crop farms and 1,100 livestock farms. Over 30 percent of Hawaii’s land usage – or around 1 million acres – is dedicated to farming. Agriculture accounts for about $3 billion of the state’s economy. The Aloha State’s ag products include pineapples, sugar cane, coffee, macadamia nuts, tropical plants and fruits, greenhouse and nursery products, and much more.

Cattle arrived in Hawaii in 1793 when Captain George Vancouver presented King Kamehameha with six cows and a bull. The King created a 400-acre pasture and placed a kapu on killing cattle so that numbers could grow. By the mid 1800’s approximately 25,000 wild cattle roamed the landscape. King Kamehameha III lifted the kapu. In the following years ranches were established and Spanish vaqueros were brought in to help teach Hawaiians how to manage the cattle. Today Hawaii has 200,000 cattle. Many fields where cattle graze are losing grass and ranchers don’t know how to stop the cause, which is a serious pasture pest named the two-lined spittlebug. Between 2016 and today pasture damage has increased from 2,000 to 150,000 acres. Somehow this destructive insect migrated to Hawaii from Florida.Sugarcane was thriving in Hawaii long before Captain Cook came to the islands in 1778. The first sugar plantation went up on Kauai in 1834 under a grant from King Kamehameha III. The sugar industry boomed and by the 1960s employed one out of every twelve people in Hawaii’s workforce. The macadamia nut tree was brought to Hawaii from Australia in 1882. It became a profitable crop in the 1950s.Today Hawaii supplies 90 percent of the world’s macadamia nuts through its 700 farms.

The pineapple was brought to the islands by King Kamehameha I’s Spanish advisor in 1813. Pineapples became one of the largest and most profitable crops on the islands after its official introduction. In 1901 James Drummond Dole formed the Dole Hawaiian Pineapple Company. In 1909, Maui Land and Pineapple was formed. By 1930 nine million cases of pineapple were exported out of Hawaii by eight different canneries. In the 1960s, Hawaii was responsible for 80 percent of the world’s pineapple. Since then, Hawaii has lost most of its market share to much cheaper places in the world to grow pineapples.

The first coffee plant also was introduced to Hawaii through King Kamehameha I’s Spanish vaquero. In 1828, the first coffee tree was planted in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii by a missionary. Coffee became a commercial crop in Hawaii in the 1930s. Today, there are more than 700 small coffee farms in the state. Hawaii is the sole U.S. provider of coffee in the world. While on vacation, beware of buying coffee marked as “Kona Blends.” Most of the time, you will only be getting 10 percent Hawaii coffee in the bag. Coffee labeled “Kona” only requires 10% of the coffee to be grown on the Big Island. Changing that percentage to 51% requires legislation that has stalled in Hawaii for decades.

In another article we tell the fascinating story of billionaire Larry Ellison’s pioneering hydroponic greenhouse farm on Lanai. On a 5-acre farm site where pineapples grew for 70 years until the early 1990s, two greenhouses covering 20,000 square feet each are producing new kinds of crops. The venture, Sensei Farms Lanai, will begin selling its first produce from greenhouses this year to stores and restaurants on Lanai. Prices will compete with produce imported from the mainland and barged from Honolulu. As many as nine greenhouses are powered by a photovoltaic array connected to Tesla batteries. For Ellison, Lanai is only step No. 1 as he states, “We think we can transform agriculture.”