Thursday, July 12, 2012

What Do We Do With Agricultural Land?

Hawai‘i State government has a long history of studying and evaluating land needed for agriculture.  Here’s a list of various State-initiated statewide agricultural land use studies:

Land Use Commission (1961)
In 1961, the State Legislature approved the first state land use law in the nation and formed the Land Use Commission (LUC.)  All lands in the State were then mapped into three categories - Urban, Agricultural and Conservation.  (Rural was added in 1963.)

The LUC is required by law to conduct comprehensive reviews of this mapping; however, the last review was done in 1992, twenty years ago.

Land Study Bureau (1972)
In 1972, the Land Study Bureau report was prepared by UH and it grouped soils into land types based on soil & productive capabilities (“A” (very good) to “E” (not suitable.))  It also produced several ‘Crop Productivity’ ratings for pineapple, sugar, vegetables, forage, grazing, orchard and timber.

Land Capability Classification (1972)
Also in 1972, UH and USDA produced a Land Capability Classification focusing on agricultural suitability limited by soil & climatic conditions.  Again, productivity estimates were only for limited crops, sugar, pine, pasture, woodland.  Eight Classes were identified, I – VIII (best to worse) with an effective cutoff to I, II & III.

Hawai‘i Constitutional Convention (1978)
In 1978, the Hawai‘i Constitutional Convention (and subsequent vote by the populace) amended the State Constitution adding ‘Agricultural Lands’ in Article 11, Section 3.

In part, the Constitution was amended by adding, “The State shall conserve and protect agricultural lands, promote diversified agriculture, increase agricultural self-sufficiency and assure the availability of agriculturally suitable lands.”

“Lands identified by the State as important agricultural lands needed to fulfill the purposes above shall not be reclassified by the State or rezoned by its political subdivisions without meeting the standards and criteria established by the legislature and approved by a two-thirds vote of the body responsible for the reclassification or rezoning action.”

Agricultural Lands of Importance to the State of Hawaii (ALISH) (1978)
In 1978, in response to the amendment to the Constitution, UH (through CTAHR,) State Ag and USDA conducted the Agricultural Lands of Importance to the State of Hawaii (ALISH) analysis.

A range of factors were considered, including soils, climate, moisture supply, input use, etc and production-related factors were generalized.  Ultimately, 3 classes of important agricultural lands were identified: Prime, Unique and Other.

Land Evaluation & Site Assessment (LESA) (1986)
In 1986, a commission was formed and produced the Land Evaluation & Site Assessment (LESA) report. Standards & criteria for identifying important agricultural land were created and a numeric scoring system was incorporated into it.

There were three components, Agricultural production goals (market,) Land Evaluation (soils, topography, climate) and Site Assessment (physical factors, location, land use.)

So, how much land is identified as “very good,” “Class I, II or III,” “Prime” and/or “Important?”  Of the approximate 1.9-million acres of lands in the Agriculture district (under the LUC mapping,) the following is a breakdown of the “best” in each study:

Land Study Bureau (1972) – 447,250-acres; 24% of Ag district
Land Capability Classification (1972) – 381,610-Acres; 21% of Ag district
ALISH (1978) – 846,360-acres; 46% of Ag district
LESA (1986) – 759,540-acres; 41% of Ag district

While adequate land has been used and has been available for Hawai‘i’s historic export crops (primarily sugar and pineapple,) the fact that these agricultural ventures no longer exist in their historic scales calls into question the appropriateness of using these prior studies in evaluating today’s needs. 

In addition, from self-sufficiency, food security and sustainability contexts, I believe evaluation for protection of “good” land for agricultural use should initially focus on primarily staple food crops (for local consumption, not export.)

I continue to believe we need to have a frank discussion about what our needs are and start to take the necessary steps to ultimately realize our goal of food self-sufficiency. 

In that discussion, I think we also need to acknowledge that 100% food self-sufficiency – especially if we intend to continue to eat the wide range of foods we find in our grocery stores – is probably not practical. 

Look in a store near you, there are lots of things we like and choose to eat but cannot viably grow here.

The discussion also needs to identify truly-farmable land to be placed in the broad category of “Agricultural.”  Rather than have that category be part of the “catch all” for marginal lands as in past experience, it should include truly farmable land.

Right now almost half the state is designated “Agriculture” (about 1.93-million acres;) an almost equal amount is designated “Conservation” - less than 5% of the land area in the State is designated “Urban.”

Since the 1960s mapping where broad-brush strokes designated agricultural lands, communities have changed … a lot.

The State should look to the County General Plans and their local Community Development Plans as guides in evaluating various land uses.  (We also need to remember, farming is not limited to the agricultural district; you can farm in your urban backyard.)

Broad-based community planning efforts have identified urban centers and growth areas – lots of land presently in the State “Ag” designation are “Urban Expansion” areas (especially lots of the non-productive land adjoining growing communities;) these should be reclassified to urban, to be consistent with the more-recently approved community-based plans.

Once we have identified land that is truly appropriate for agriculture, then we need to note from that group land that is essential for Hawaii’s farming needs - the important agricultural land.

I know I have posted several prior messages on dealing with agricultural land.  I do so because I think it is an important subject.  I am not saying, ‘don’t build on Ag land’ – I am saying, let’s identify where it is viable, what we need and then work to protect it.

Prior mapping and studies were broad-brushed and based on export farming.  Some land presently mapped as “agricultural” is not practical Ag land; it should be designated something else.  (I was tempted to post prior mapping, but I really think the processes that developed them are no longer valid.)

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