As an advocate for local agriculture on the Big Island, Ioften monitor produce imports at our local groceries and restaurants. I'm alsoprivy to many of the confidential wholesale price lists given to the stores andknow the difference in what they pay and what they sell both local and importedproduce for. I know what the major produce company's import that competesdirectly with what we grow in the state. As a committee chair of the AmericanCulinary Federation Kona Kohala Chef's de Cuisine and former chef, I'm familiarwith questionable practices of some of the produce companies.  That said there are issues thatHawaii's residents need to be aware of.

 

Carbon footprint not withstanding, companies continue toimport large quantities of avocados, romaine lettuce, cabbage, bananas, mangos,tomatoes, bell peppers and tons of other produce that competes directly withlocal growers. Reclaiming our markets from imports won't happen overnight butthatŐs not the intent of this missive. As a consumer and former chef, I want toknow what I'm buying and where it's from. Stores here routinely mix produce. If I want a green bell pepper, Idon't know if its from Mexico or Waimea. I don't know if my taro is from Chinaor Hawaii, my garlic from Argentina, China or California. Bananas with thestickers taken off evidently from Ecuador mixed with our local bananas.  The boxes I see in the back of grocerystores marked USDA organic with off-color runny ink tells me that things arenot what they seem.  It'simperative that the legislature mandate point of origin requirements for freshproduce, and that, they are enforced. Consumers have the right to know. The Hawaii Buy Fresh Buy Localcampaign is a great start but it's not enough when produced is mixed togetherin store displays.  The state alsoneeds to levy an inspection fee, perhaps 5 cents a pound, on importedcompetitive produce. This would literally bring in millions of dollars per yearthat could be used both for inspectors salaries' and better marketing oflocally grown produce. 

 

The pricing of local produce at a stores retail leveldepends on the individual store. Often stores do not have an incentive to selllocal produce as they simply make more money on imports because of anirrational perceived difference in quality. From a recent wholesale pricelist,imported avocados are sold by a large Hawaii wholesaler for $2.15 a pound andsold at a local market for $3.99 a pound. Locally grown avocados are sold at$1.20 a pound and sell for $1.49 at the same store. Farmers still get from 60to 80 cents a pound, which does not cover their cost of production. Importedromaine lettuce sells for $1.15 a pound and locally grown sells at .90 cents.The grocery stores need to accurately display what's locally grown and what'simported so that consumers have a choice. This in itself would serve toincrease sales of locally grown produce. The produce wholesale companies needto pay local growers fairly and based on an accurate cost of production. Theyneed to do much more in the promotion of locally grown produce and aregenerally considered the weak link in promotion of sustainable agriculture inHawaii.

 

Hawaii's well-known chefs will, in confidence, tell horrorstores of dealing with these companies and the strong-arm practices they use.Often told they can only have, for example, french beans, if they take a caseof Mexican avocados with it. I'm told this is illegal yet I hear the same storyat least once a month at chefs meetings on the Big Island or Oahu. The largeproduce wholesalers also threaten growers that they will not distribute theircrops on some islands unless they can distribute on all islands, leaving thegrowers in a quandary as to what they can do. This action puts the squeeze onsmall wholesalers who market only locally grown produce and are active parts ofour small agriculture community.

 

It's clear that these large produce companies need to becalled on the carpet and held accountable for their practices and theirimportation that competes directly with growers across the state.

 

The state is missing an opportunity by not charginginspection fees for imported produce.

Using the 2005 federal numbers from the Hawaii AgricultureStatistics Service, inspection Fees on Imports @ 5˘ per lb. would yield:

Avocados:  2,130,000lbs x 5˘ = $106,500.

Bananas: 13,017,000 lbs x 5˘ = $650,850.

Lemons: 4,196,000 lbs x 5˘ = $209,800.

Grapefruit: 1,488,000 lbs x 5˘ = $74,400.

Tangerines: 1,254,000 lbs x 5˘ = $62,700.

Limes: 1,678,000 lbs x 5˘ = $83,900.

                                                $1,188,150.00

This does not include imported Ginger, Taro, Papaya,Oranges, Coffee and 168,686,000 lbs of competitive vegetables.

 

This would also serve to equalize some of the pricingdifferences between local and imported produce.

 

Thanks to efforts by UH CTAHR, the state's Seal of Qualityprogram, Buy Fresh Buy Local Program, American Culinary Federation, Hawaii FarmBureau, Slowfood Hawaii and many of the agriculture groups, we have madeheadway in reclaiming our markets from the imports, increased our quality andquantity of locally grown fruits and vegetables and gained a foothold. Still,we have a long way to go in order to become truly sustainable andself-sufficient.

 

 

Ken Love

President, Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers -West Hawaii

Kona Kohala Chefs de Cuisine - Agriculture Committee Chair

Kona Pacific Farmers Cooperative