Transforming Agriculture for Future Generations

Center teams basic science with industry training.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

Hawaii’s agriculture has undergone dramatic changes in the centuries since Polynesian voyagers first arrived on the islands bringing taro and bananas. It began with small farms and later morphed into large plantations growing pineapple and sugar cane. But, with the decline of the once booming sugar industry and the departure of a major pineapple manufacturer, small diversified farms have started to return.

Today, however, they are looking for a different kind of farmer.

“Agriculture has become more science-based and high tech,” says Traci Sylva, an assistant researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “Previously, a few handfuls of fertilizer, water and hard work was all you needed. But now it’s a lot more complicated, and interesting, than that.”

To that end, the University of Hawaii’s Leeward Community College is training students for new careers in agriculture that are grounded in science. The idea is to help local folks, especially native Hawaiians, learn to grow sustainable crops and plants, with the goal of overcoming the agricultural economic downturns of recent years and feeding the growing population.

The Plant Bioscience Technology program is a project of the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education program, which is providing $658,078 in funds over three years.

“The coursework introduces students to the agriculture industry in Hawaii and focuses on the basic scientific knowledge needed to work in that industry,” Sylva says. “One of our objectives behind development and offering of the Plant Bioscience Technology program at Leeward Community College was to make this type of training more widely available and affordable to anyone who wishes to pursue and be successful in a career related to agriculture. We have designed the program to be concise, yet providing the depth and breadth needed to understand plant crops and the business of producing these in our global economy.”

The topics include plant anatomy and propagation, pest and soil management, crop improvement, such as breeding, to improve traits of these crops. “We also try to develop such skills as communication, which is something industry has told us it needs, how to work in teams better (workplace etiquette, as well as the basics of business), and what it takes to grow food for our growing population,” she adds. “Employers want their employees to know the basics of business and how their work impacts that business.”

Sugar, once a big business in Hawaii, began to disappear when the cost of land and labor started  to rise, and it became less costly to grow sugar cane elsewhere. Increasing the economic strain, Del Monte Produce Inc., a major manufacturer of canned pineapple, closed its Hawaii operations in 2006, laying off more than 500 workers.

“Because everyone wants to live or retire in Hawaii, the price of land has increased dramatically,” Sylva says.  “It became very expensive to do agriculture here, compared to other places.” 

Tourism remains Hawaii’s primary industry, although agriculture still generates $2.9 billion to the state economy every year, and provides 42,000 jobs, according to the state department of agriculture. Today’s farms grow exotic fruits, taro, corn seed, coffee, macadamia nuts, flowers and foliage that are among Hawaii’s major exports. Fishponds created by the state’s earliest settlers are now high-tech aquaculture ventures that farm various kinds of fish, shrimp, lobster, abalone, and seaweed from the sea.

“During the era of plantations, training of farmers was done by the plantations themselves,” Sylva says.  “In this day, because of diversification of crops and greater technology used in farming, the average farm size is a lot smaller and each farm needs more highly skilled workers. They really would like to hire people who already possess the right skills for their business.  All these farms need trained workers, and they don’t always have the resources to train them themselves, and they need workers trained at all educational levels.”