By Jan TenBruggencate
Kaua‘i is known as the Garden Island, but how our garden is changing.
In 1982, according to the Hawai‘i Data Book, there were 410 farms on the island. The average farm size was 624 acres. Since then, the number of farms is way up, and the average size is way down. Farm employment has dropped by more than half.
The early acreage numbers skewed large. As late as 1985, there were still five massive sugar plantations, each of which had crop acreages from a few thousand to more than 20,000 acres.
Nearly half of all farms — 191 of them — were smaller than 10 acres. And the vast majority — 327 of the 410 farms — were smaller than 50 acres.
Things are dramatically different today.
According to the most recent Data Book information — from 2012 — the number of farms had jumped 30 percent to 591. And the average acreage had dropped by 60 percent, to 244 acres.
And more than 500 of the 591 farms were now less than 50 acres.
It’s an indication of a whole lot of subdivision of bigger agricultural parcels into smaller ones. And a lot of that subdivision was into farmlets. The number of farms of less than 10 acres nearly doubled — 191 to 348 — while those between 10 and 50 acres increased only slightly — 136 to 156
Residents of the island will recognize this as the statistical proof of what they’ve seen across our island — the powerful force of agricultural subdivisions of land, largely on the east and northern sides of the island.
Lands that once waved in sugar cane, or spread in fields of pale green pineapple were cut up into small farms — some of which are actually farmed, but many of which are in what some folks call gentlemen’s estates.
A significant sign of the declining role of agriculture in our community is the farm employment numbers. Certainly the decline of sugar, once the dominant agricultural employer, played a big role in the drop. The decrease in farm employment has been steady.
In 1975, Kaua‘i had a total of nearly 2,000 workers in the agricultural arena — 1,550 paid workers, 290 self-employed farm operators and 50 unpaid workers.
Ten years later in 1985, that number had dropped by a quarter to just 1,500, by 1995 to 1,350. In 2002 the total farm worker count was 1,100, of which 750 were hired, 250 self employed and 100 unpaid family members. All indications were that the numbers were continuing to drop through the first decade of the new millennium.
Paid workers were down to 550 by 2008, the last year for which separate Kaua‘i numbers were available. The biggest ag employer: The seed industry, which reported about 400 employees this year.
What has held up during all these years is the number of self-employed farmers — hard-working individuals operating one-person or family farms, growing fruits, vegetables, flowers and other small crops. You’ll find a lot of them at the islands’ farmers’ markets.
- Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.