Tuesday, January 8, 2002

Morton Bassan Jr. showed off an armful of his Big Island oranges at a food and products show at NBC Exhibition Hall in 1997. Today he plans to sell his orchard after having suffered $1.9 million in losses due to theft the police cannot stop.

Tally finds isle farmers,
ranchers benefit little
from U.S. subsidies

Hawaii got $3.1 million over 4 years
of about $71 billion nationwide

By Rod Thompson

HILO >> If Hawaii's farmers and ranchers depended on the federal government for survival, they would be broke by now.

A tally by the private Environmental Working Group shows the government handed out $71.5 billion nationwide from 1996 to 2000 in agricultural subsidies for commodities, disaster losses and conservation projects.

Hawaii agriculturists got a sliver of that: $3.1 million.

Among the few in Hawaii who did get federal help, some are hurting anyway.

Ranchers have been perhaps the worst hit by nature, suffering years of drought.

Maui rancher Jane Sakugawa, whose Kula ranch got a total of $69,115 to pay for emergency cattle feed in 1999 and 2000, said, "I'm barely able to make it."

Other ranches receiving payments for emergency feed and conservation work were Kapapala on the Big Island, getting $80,400, and Haleakala on Maui, getting $70,719.

Big Island orange grower Morton Bassan, unable to buy crop loss insurance, received a one-time-only payment of $67,920 in 1999 for losses he thought were due to drought.

He later realized that his losses, now totaling over $1.9 million, were due to theft.

With police unable to stop the thievery, Bassan said he plans to sell his farm.

Molokai aquaculturalist Mark Yuen, now living in Kona, received $69,183 in disaster and conservation payments.

Some did not suffer disasters but found payments for conservation work helpful.

Big Island dairyman Ernest Souza received $78,042 over five years, most of it for environmental projects.

He built a covered shed to dry cattle manure, and a pond to evaporate wash water. Both projects protect ground water.

"It's a good program," Souza said.

But it is one that few Hawaii farmers tap into. The Environmental Working Group Web site (, which supplies information on individual recipients, shows only 2 percent of Hawaii's farms and ranches received this kind of federal aid.

In Iowa, the state with the heaviest participation, 75 percent of farms got 1996-2000 subsidies totaling $6.75 billion.

The difference is that Hawaii has no crops officially listed as commodities, such as corn, oats and soybeans, said Ben Crandall, administrative assistant with EWG, in a telephone interview at his Washington, D.C., office.

EWG agrees with federal payments for disasters and conservation work.

"Our big push is more money for conservation," he said.

The EWG Web site says that is the best way to put money into the hands of small farmers.

EWG disagrees with payments to farmers who grow commodity crops at a higher cost than they can sell them for. Federal payments make up the difference.

Too much of the money goes to big farms while little farms continue to go out of business, the EWG Web site says.

"Fully 45 percent of the money was spent on farmers earning over $250,000 a year," the site says.

Payments for market price losses encourage farmers to keep producing unprofitable crops, leading to overproduction, which causes continued low farm prices, Crandall said.

Consumers do not benefit because the cost of a commodity is only a small part of the final cost of a product containing the commodity, the group says.

A farm bill passed by the House of Representatives and intended to go into effect in the fall would continue present practices, Crandall said.

A Senate bill that shifts money to conservation is "something we're fairly happy with," he said.

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