Statisticians predict that the world’s population will reach 9.6 billion by 2050. Naturally, a rapidly increasing population will require an equally rapid intensification of agricultural output, in Hawaii and the rest of the United States. However, if modern agriculture does not evolve, we will utterly fail in meeting our future needs. The population of US farmers has dwindled from 18% of the population in the early 20th century to a mere 2% today, primarily because large scale food operations have made small farming in Hawaii less profitable. Furthermore, most of the land that can be used for food production is already being cultivated.
Our increasingly digitized world is multiplying technological resources, but resources for meeting basic needs are becoming finite. Conserving money, feeding families, and rescuing earth are more critical now than ever. Scientists and agriculturalists are looking at innovative methods of growing food. But it turns out that small farming in Hawaii might be our saving grace.
The Origins of Small Farming
As both a form of technology and an economic system, small-scale agriculture has had a large evolutionary impact on humans and ecosystems.
The origins of sedentary agriculture lay in the Neolithic Revolution of 8,000 B.C. During that time period, humans began to settle in sedentary communities where they could grow crops instead of foraging and raise animals instead of hunting. The ability to grow surplus food gave way to specialization, the division of labor, and further technological innovation. Time no longer spent hunting and gathering was used to pursue art and intellect. Without sedentary agriculture, significant historical developments—the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment—would not have been possible.
Sedentary agriculture also significantly impacted social organization. Surplus food and stationary living led humans to form larger communities. These communities witnessed increasing social stratification as specialization developed. These early sedentary communities were the ancestors of the towns, cities and, urban centers of more recent historical periods.
The Transition to Large-Scale Farming
The transition to large-scale farming was incredibly recent, made possible by the Industrial Revolution of the late 20th century. The emergence of machinery meant that large companies could begin to farm ever-more massive tracts of land. The mechanization of food production required agricultural inputs that could be grown cheaply and in mass on large mechanized farms.
The proliferation of large farms in the late 20th century was due in large part to the policies of Earl Butz, US Secretary of agriculture in the 1970’s. Butz created policies to promote large scale corporate farming, viewing agriculture as a political tool; because we produced almost 50% of the world’s food at that time, Butz recognized that increasing agricultural productivity would give the US leverage in the international arena.
The results of the transition from small to large-scale farming have been devastating for the environment. Today we use 5,000% more pesticides and 2,300% more fertilizer than we did just 50 years ago. As a result, farm runoff has rendered our water supply and aquatic ecosystems increasingly toxic. Furthermore, these pesticides and fertilizers are unsustainable because they require fossil energy for production.
Mass farming, specifically mono-cropping, has also destroyed soil nutrition. Now soil nutrition is becoming a non-renewable resource. We are depleting fertile lands at the point in history when soil fertility is more critical than ever.
Mass Farming: A Better Food Supply?
The advent of large-scale farming has had its benefits. For example, it has allowed us to feed 1 billion people that we would not have been able to feed in the mid-20th century. However, large-scale farming has damaged the quality of our food. The subsidization of corporate wheat, corn, and soy has generated surpluses. In order to use these surpluses, the FDA encouraged food companies to create fillers and sweeteners from these products.
The effect on our health has been alarming. For example, the pervasiveness of high fructose corn syrup is a significant contributing factor to America’s obesity epidemic. Soy products have estrogenic effects, and several studies have linked soy consumption with an increased risk of breast cancer. More and more individuals are discovering digestive sensitivities to the wheat in all of our processed food, as only certain populations have evolved the genes that permit grain digestion.
Large-scale farming has been bad news for animal populations as well. Cows, pigs, and chickens raised by big corporations are injected with hormones and live in crowded, unsanitary conditions. Because of the way these animals live and the hormones they are injected with, corporate animal agriculture is both unethical and unhealthy.
While we might be able to feed more mouths with large-scale farming, we are not feeding them better food. Agriculture today is thus becoming an issue of quality versus quantity. Consuming a diet of wheat, corn, soy, and sugar is unhealthy enough. When you consider the fact that over 90% of the supply of these crops is genetically modified, the picture of health in America becomes even grimmer.
The Value of Technology
Economists, scientists, and agriculturalists are looking to technological innovation to save us from the ills of insufficient food provision and unhealthy food. These innovations maximize the health of the plants they grow, the sustainability of inputs, and the yield per unit of space.
One notable innovation is the advent of vertical farming in Hawaii. Vertical farming requires stacking hydroponic systems to make greater use of available space and water. Vertical farming is perfect for small farming in Hawaii, which encounters limits in space and inputs. At Gingerhill, we have created a vertical system for growing barley to feed our pigs and chickens.
Information technology will also play a significant role in promoting productive small-scale farming in Hawaii. Based in Honolulu, Smart Yields is an App that collects data using air, water, and soil sensors to identify problems and predict outcomes. Dean of the University of Hawaii Hilo College of Agriculture founded Bioranger to identify soil pathogens based on DNA detection. These forms of agricultural information technology are likely to make small scale farming in Hawaii more viable in the coming years.
The Value of Small Scale Farming in Hawaii
We believe that providing ample, healthy food in the future will depend upon the state of small-scale farming in Hawaii. While we can implement technologies that will make large-scale farming more efficient, we have already seen that corporate farming uses poor inputs and practices, prioritizing their bottom-line at the expense of consumer health.
Small-scale farming in Hawaii is a more promising and ethical solution, and it is making a comeback. Enhancing the productivity of this old model using innovative technologies will ensure that small farms continue to grow and prosper. The proliferation of innovative small farms may just be the key to feeding our ever-growing population.
Preserving small-scale farming operations like Gingerhill Farm is not simply a practical concern. Working on a small farm promotes a certain lifestyle and mindset that will sustain environmental stewardship in the future. When you work to grow your food instead of mindlessly grabbing processed, abundantly available foods, you become more appreciative of the land, your food, and the reciprocity between human and plant life. Growing your own food lends a sense of place and purpose, something that tired urban Americans in fast-paced jobs often lack. Productively, economically, environmentally, psychologically, and spiritually, small farming in Hawaii is the way of the future.