As an advocate for local agriculture on the Big Island, I often monitor produce imports at our local groceries and restaurants. I'm also privy to many of the confidential wholesale price lists given to the stores and know the difference in what they pay and what they sell both local and imported produce for. I know what the major produce company's import that competes directly with what we grow in the state. As a committee chair of the American Culinary Federation Kona Kohala Chef's de Cuisine and former chef, I'm familiar with questionable practices of some of the produce companies. That said there are issues that Hawaii's residents need to be aware of.
Carbon footprint not withstanding, companies continue to import large quantities of avocados, romaine lettuce, cabbage, bananas, mangos, tomatoes, bell peppers and tons of other produce that competes directly with local growers. Reclaiming our markets from imports won't happen overnight but thatŐs not the intent of this missive. As a consumer and former chef, I want to know what I'm buying and where it's from. Stores here routinely mix produce. If I want a green bell pepper, I don't know if its from Mexico or Waimea. I don't know if my taro is from China or Hawaii, my garlic from Argentina, China or California. Bananas with the stickers taken off evidently from Ecuador mixed with our local bananas. The boxes I see in the back of grocery stores marked USDA organic with off-color runny ink tells me that things are not what they seem. It's imperative that the legislature mandate point of origin requirements for fresh produce, and that, they are enforced. Consumers have the right to know. The Hawaii Buy Fresh Buy Local campaign is a great start but it's not enough when produced is mixed together in store displays. The state also needs to levy an inspection fee, perhaps 5 cents a pound, on imported competitive produce. This would literally bring in millions of dollars per year that could be used both for inspectors salaries' and better marketing of locally grown produce.
The pricing of local produce at a stores retail level depends on the individual store. Often stores do not have an incentive to sell local produce as they simply make more money on imports because of an irrational perceived difference in quality. From a recent wholesale pricelist, imported avocados are sold by a large Hawaii wholesaler for $2.15 a pound and sold 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 60 to 80 cents a pound, which does not cover their cost of production. Imported romaine 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's imported so that consumers have a choice. This in itself would serve to increase sales of locally grown produce. The produce wholesale companies need to pay local growers fairly and based on an accurate cost of production. They need to do much more in the promotion of locally grown produce and are generally considered the weak link in promotion of sustainable agriculture in Hawaii.
Hawaii's well-known chefs will, in confidence, tell horror stores 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 case of Mexican avocados with it. I'm told this is illegal yet I hear the same story at least once a month at chefs meetings on the Big Island or Oahu. The large produce wholesalers also threaten growers that they will not distribute their crops on some islands unless they can distribute on all islands, leaving the growers in a quandary as to what they can do. This action puts the squeeze on small wholesalers who market only locally grown produce and are active parts of our small agriculture community.
It's clear that these large produce companies need to be called on the carpet and held accountable for their practices and their importation that competes directly with growers across the state.
The state is missing an opportunity by not charging inspection fees for imported produce.
Using the 2005 federal numbers from the Hawaii Agriculture Statistics Service, inspection Fees on Imports @ 5˘ per lb. would yield:
Avocados: 2,130,000 lbs 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.
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 pricing differences between local and imported produce.
Thanks to efforts by UH CTAHR, the state's Seal of Quality program, Buy Fresh Buy Local Program, American Culinary Federation, Hawaii Farm Bureau, Slowfood Hawaii and many of the agriculture groups, we have made headway in reclaiming our markets from the imports, increased our quality and quantity of locally grown fruits and vegetables and gained a foothold. Still, we have a long way to go in order to become truly sustainable and self-sufficient.
President, Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers -West Hawaii
Kona Kohala Chefs de Cuisine - Agriculture Committee Chair
Kona Pacific Farmers Cooperative