Relying on California for Food

SUBHEAD: Grocery prices keeping getting higher: How high will they go? Nobody knows for sure, not even the MANB, the state agency charged with monitoring produce prices.

By Alan D. Mcnaire on 30 December 2009 in Big Island News -  

Image above: The Central Valley of California in better days. From 

Hawaii's food prices have soared over the past few years. Fresh loaves of unsliced bread that used to cost a dollar at KTA's bakery are now $2.79. The cost of everything, from almonds to strawberries, have risen, often drastically. And they're likely to go higher in the coming months, thanks to factors including a major drought in California's central valley, reduced rainfall in (Big Island's) Waimea "vegetable belt" and increased fuel and shipping prices. How high? There's no way to predict, because the state's agency that monitors produce prices and imports has been shut down.

The Hawaii State Department of Agriculture's Market Analysis and News Branch (MANB) was abolished earlier this month as a cost-cutting measure. It was a tiny agency -- eliminating it saved the state only three full-time positions and one half-time job -- but it served an important function. Since 1946, the MANB had been collecting wholesale data on fresh fruits and vegetables and disseminating that information to wholesalers, farmers and decision-makers.

One of its duties was to track fruits and vegetables coming into the state and shipments from the neighbor islands into O'ahu. The abolition of the MANB comes at a time when the Legislature has been struggling to increase the state's food independence. Earlier this year, it passed HB 1271, which was designed to "Ensure Hawaii is energy and food self-sufficient and sustainable to the maximum extent feasible," only to have the bill vetoed by Gov. Linda Lingle. Now the state may be unable even to measure whether Hawai'i is making progress toward food sustainability, or is becoming even more dependent on crops raised elsewhere.

One Hawaii Department of Agriculture (DOA) official, who preferred to remain anonymous, noted that while the cutting of DOA inspectors has gotten press attention, an inspector could be trained in six months. An agricultural statistician would need much more time to be brought up to speed. And trained people weren't all that was lost. "All the relationships that have been built since 1946 -- that's gone," he lamented.  

Image above: Sand dunes in California's Death Valley. From
California Dust Bowl? 
The Weekly found out about the loss of the MANB when we called the Department of Agriculture to find out what effect a drought, now in its third year, in California's Central Valley might have on Hawaii's food supplies. A DOA spokesperson told us that because of the budget cuts, they couldn't give us an answer. An article entitled "The New Dust Bowl" in the November-December issue of the investigative journal, Mother Jones, noted that California "has long boasted the world's richest agricultural economy, reliably producing more than a quarter of the nation's fruits, nuts and vegetables. But it's done so in defiance of ecological reality." 

 "It now appears that water-wise, 20th century California was an anomaly, a relatively wet period in the midst of a historical cycle of severe drought," noted the article. Climate change also was playing a role: "By the end of the century, scientists predict, Central California could experience temperatures rivaling Death Valley's and face the loss of 90 percent of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, the region's main water source." 

The article describes a desolated region where 85,000 houses are in foreclosure, 35,000 jobs have been lost, hordes of unemployed farm workers wait for hours for food handouts, and farmers are simply giving up on their farms: 

Almond and fruit orchards are being uprooted for firewood and thousands of acres formerly planted in wheat, vegetables and other crops have returned to desert. Some of that doomed produce was almost certainly bound for Hawaii. In the MANB's Nov. 4 Honolulu Wholesale Market Report -- the last that the agency issued before it was shut down -- shows nearly all of the imported fruits and vegetables listed came from California. The only exceptions were some potatoes from Washington and Idaho, some Washington apples and some Central and South American bananas. 

he California drought was interrupted briefly in October, when the remnants of a tropical storm actually caused flooding in some farm areas. But the long-term forecast remains bleak. On Dec. 9, the California's Department of Water Resources released an initial allocation of only 5 percent of the water it was contracted to supply to state water projects, which furnish water to 750,000 acres of farmland and 25 million residents. 

That initial allocation was the lowest figure ever, according to Western Farm Press, which noted that the DWR had initially released 15 percent in 2008, and had eventually released only 40 percent. ( is one of the better sources of up-to-date information for California agriculture. Most of the stats available at the California Department of Food and Agriculture's own site date back to 2007 or earlier.) 

 "The initial allocation figure reflects the low carryover storage levels in the state's major reservoirs, ongoing drought conditions and federally mandated environmental restrictions on water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect endangered fish species in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta," Western Farm Press reported, noting that the populations of four endemic delta fish were at all-time lows. 

There were a few bright spots, despite the drought. Tomato production was up, for instance; apparently as production fell in some drought-struck regions, new producers started up in areas that still had water. The Central Valley is also Hawaii's main supplier for another vital foodstuff -- rice. California has half a million acres of rice under cultivation. Here, at least temporarily, the news is good: Western Farm Press reported in November that the California rice crop was 8 percent larger than last year's, and that crop yields were up 192 pounds an acre. 

But unlike some other crops, rice was near the head of the line for water allocations. That may change in the future. A Sept. 8 Los Angeles Times editorial chastised the Legislature for not doing more to curb agricultural water usage; it called for farmers to "move away from growing such water-intensive crops as cotton, barley and rice."  

Other challenges 
Lacking its own figures, a Hawaii DOA spokesperson recommended that we contact the island's produce suppliers directly to get answers to our questions. We tried to reach a number of grocery chains and wholesalers; all but one either said their information was proprietary or simply didn't return our calls before deadline. 

The exception was Michael Quanan, the produce manager for Suisan. Quanan said his company got about 65 percent of its produce from California, and he thought the drought was raising prices here. But so, he maintained, were a number of other factors, including vog, reduced rainfall in Waimea, increased shipping costs and a lack of competition in the air freight business. "If there were more wide-body direct flights, maybe shipping would be less expensive," he said, noting that "Now it's just United Airlines that have the wide-body into Kona... 

This time of year, there are a lot of bumped containers -- passengers fly before freight, and sometimes our crates just don't come." The cutback in the number of state agriculture inspectors is also adding to costs; he said; his drivers were having to wait an extra half an hour to 45 minutes before shipments were released at the airport. 

Meanwhile, at least in Kona, the company's fruits and vegetables were sitting out on the hot tarmac, since there was no covered receiving facility. With all its farmland and its numerous farmers' markets, the Island of Hawai'i is, of course, better off in terms of food sustainability than is O'ahu. And according to Quanan, individual consumers here might be less affected by California's drought problems than are the island's resorts. 

Local farmers, he said, were often geared toward selling at farmers' markets, and often can't supply the volumes of produce that the hotels require. "Right now with all the big hotels, they push local first, but with the local shortage, they have to go with the California market," he said.  

Another expense is irradiation. 
Many Big Islanders know about that local papayas go through an irradiation facility to kill pests before they can be flown to the mainland. Far fewer probably know that produce such as turnips and radishes must be irradiated before it comes here. Right now, says Quanan, there's only one facility in San Diego that can perform that irradiation. 

"After you tack irradiation and the freight, you're talking at least five bucks a pound," he said. So there are a lot of uncertainties about our continued supply of imported food, especially from the Golden State. With no one at the Department of Agriculture to keep tabs on that supply, the uncertainties grow even larger. 

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