Topic outline

    Module 2: Agriculture in old Hawaii

    Agricultural methods have changed dramatically over the past centuries in Hawaii.  This module explores agriculture in old Hawaii.  Through the lens of agriculture, we discuss the ahupua'a system and think about how early plant introduction has shaped the island as we know it today.  We examine current agricultural trends and determine where our food comes from.  Eating and growing local foods is an important step in Hawaii’s food security, so we conclude with a look at the resources that are available to farmers and prospective farmers in Hawaii.    

  • 1
    Show only topic 1
    Old Hawaii 

    In ancient Hawaii, sustainability was a fundamental practice which allowed the inhabitants and the island to thrive together.   This system was referred to as the Ahupua’a land division.  The ahupuaʻa consisted frequently of a slice of an island that went from the top of the local mountain to the shore, often following the boundary of a stream drainage. Each ahupuaʻa included a lowland mala (cultivated area) and upland forested region.  “As the native Hawaiians used the resources within their ahupua'a, they practiced aloha (respect), laulima (cooperation), and malama (stewardship) which resulted in a desirable pono (balance)” (Ahupuaʻa: Sustainability by Carlos Andrade).

    Here is a photo illustrating the boundaries of an ahupua’a

    This is the ahupua‘a of Hā‘ena. This ahupua‘a goes from the mountains to the sea. This ahupua‘a has many resources from taro to fish.   Photo Credit: Waipā Foundation, Kaua‘i

    Discussion Questions:

    Conduct your own research to find an ahupua’a that is significant to you.  This may be located where you are living now or a place that you feel is important.  Post in the discussion forum a photo and a description of the ahupua’a you choose.  

  • 2
    Show only topic 2
    Creating Hawaii as we know it, through agriculture

    Modern agriculture has a rich history in Hawaii, beginning in the late 1700’s. The link will take you to a time line provided by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, which details the important events in forming agriculture in Hawaii as we know it today.  Browse through the timeline below and think about how the events of the past have shaped Hawaii, whether good or bad.  

    Discussion Questions:

    Look at the early introduction of coffee, pineapple, mango, and eucalyptus.  Look even earlier to the introductions of first Polynesian settlers of Hawaii, bringing taro, kava, ti, banana and many more culturally significant plants.

     As of today, do you think that plants not from Hawaii should be allowed to be brought here and grown?  If you believe that it is alright to import and grow plants, why?  Do you see any problems that introducing plants may pose on our environment? 

    Do you think that no foreign plant introductions should be allowed? Why? 

    Think about these questions and post your response in the discussion forum.  

  • 3
    Show only topic 3
    Lessons and resources - Part 2

    As we see from the agricultural timeline, agricultural events help shape the future.  Remember, the main crops in modern Hawaii agriculture were sugarcane and pineapple.  At the peak of the sugarcane industry in 1933 the production covered 254,563 acres!  Similarly, the pineapple industry peaked in the 1950’s with around 76,700 acres.   Currently there are only 25,000 acres of sugarcane and less than 4,000 acres of pineapple.  There has been a drastic decline in these two crops which many attribute to rising labor costs, elevated shipping costs, water and land availability. 

    The production of seed corn has become the largest agricultural sector in Hawaii over the past few decades.  Not only is this sector the largest in Hawaii, it has a projected growth rate of 11% annually.  It is estimated that the seed industry provides almost 30% of the total value of Hawaii produced crops.  The seed corn industry thrives in Hawaii because of the continuous growing season.  With this growing industry, there is increasing opposition.  Many of the seed companies are huge multi-national corporations such as Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta, who commonly produce and research genetically engineered (GE) products.  There are many mixed public opinions regarding these companies and the ideas behind GE. 

    Watch these two videos to see the perspectives of a seed company and the opponents.  


    Discussion questions:

    The decision to embrace or reject GE and its increasing presence in Hawaii is heavily debated.  Your decision should be based on your own research and education.  Do you have any experiences with genetic engineered crops in Hawaii?   From watching the two videos above, what are your initial reactions? 

    In the discussion forum, post images, videos or your thoughts that describe your answers for the questions listed above.

  • 4
    Show only topic 4
    Where does our food come from in Hawaii? 

    Hawaii is located approximately 2,506 miles from the continental United States. It is estimated that between 85-90% of Hawaii’s food is imported.  This fact makes Hawaii particularly vulnerable to natural disasters and global events that might disrupt shipping and the food supply.  Recently, global events have resulted in troubling forecasts for Hawaii’s tourism based island economy. These sobering economic projections have focused attention on food self- sufficiency policies in Hawaii.

    This is a critical time for agriculture in Hawaii. We risk losing prime agricultural land, water systems, and farmers, which will diminish our ability to increase the production of locally grown food. It is important to think about the way that food production systems shape our society and affect our communities. 

    Watch this film and think about how food production issues relate to Hawaii.

    Hawaii has an opportunity to increase local production and self- sufficiency. There are ways to improve Hawaii’s food self-sufficiency and strengthen our agricultural industry for generations to come; here are some benefits of local production.

    Direct Benefits of Increasing Local Production

    Indirect Benefits of Increasing Local Production

    1. Increases self-sufficiency and local production of food.

    2. Reduces dependence on imports.

    3. Diversifies the economy.

    4. Stimulates the local economy.

    5. Keeps money circulating in Hawaii’s economy versus supporting agribusinesses in other states or countries.

    6. Decreases vulnerability to food supply disruptions resulting from worldwide economic events and/or natural disasters.


    1. Reduces the risk of importing invasive species.

    2. Decreases the food miles of transporting foods and thus conserves energy and reduces Hawaii’s carbon footprint.

    3. Promotes healthier lifestyles and good nutrition. (Fresher produce generally means greater vitamin content and higher nutritional value.)

    4. Preserves Hawaii’s scenic vistas by ensuring open working landscapes of green farmland.

    5. Supports agri-tourism by enhancing the island experience for Hawaii’s visitors.


    To change the way the food production system works is to change the way we eat. Below is a chart of different foods in Hawaii and their seasons.  We all have to act on our knowledge to change the way that everyone thinks about food.  


    This map will show you where the certain food crops originated. 


    Discussion questions:

    Look at the map of where some of the staple foods in Hawaii come from?  Does the crop origin map surprise you?  Why or why not?

    Based on the information you have learned in this lesson, what would be a good option to decrease food importing to Hawaii? 

    Post your answers to the questions above in the discussion forum?  Post your response as to how at least one other student's answers to the questions above provided you with new or interesting viewpoints. 

  • 5
    Show only topic 5
    Who is here to help farmers in Hawaii?

    Here in Hawaii, there are many resources and assistance programs that are designed to help the local farmer.  Below are several entities which are designed to help farmers in Hawaii.  Read through and browse the various resources to help answer the questions below. 

    Every individual state in the United States has a State Department of Agriculture.  In Hawaii, this entity is the Hawaii Department of Agriculture (HDOA).  The HDOA is usually the best resource to find out information regarding Hawaii specific agriculture and financial opportunities for farmers. 

    Along with the State programs, the University of Hawaii, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) provides a large amount of support to local farmers.  CTAHR’s responsibility is to help all aspects of Hawaii’s farmers.

    Another resource dedicated to the advancement of Hawaii agriculture in the Hawaii Agricultural Research Center (HARC).  HARC’s mission statement is “to support a viable agricultural sector by researching and applying relevant science and technology to achieve practical solutions and by identifying new agricultural opportunities".

    The Hawaii Farm Bureau is another entity which is a dedicated non-profit organization of farming families united for the purpose of analyzing problems and formulating action to ensure the future of agriculture thereby promoting the well-being of farming and the State's economy.

    Discussion questions:

    Based on your review of the resources available to Hawaii farmers, where would you look to find out information about acquiring funding or loans to start a farm in Hawaii? 

    Where would you look to find educational opportunities in sustainable agriculture in Hawaii?  Are there any college programs and classes that focus on sustainable agriculture in Hawaii? 

    Do the resources listed above seem helpful to farmers in Hawaii?  Are they easy to understand and navigate?

    In the discussion section, post your responses to the questions above and share why at least one other response provided a new and/or interesting perspective.