Diversified agricultureDiversified agriculture rea-ched a record level last year with seed corn taking a surprising lead role in the picture, according to statistics from the state Department of Agriculture.
sprouts to new record
Seed corn grows to the lead role
in isle's $357 million industry
By Rod Thompson
The value of seeds, including seed corn, reached $35.4 million in 2000, up 16 percent from 30.5 million in 1999, when it ranked fifth.
Richard McCormack, past president of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, credited the growth to Hawaii's physical climate and favorable business climate.
Overall, the 2000 value for diversified agriculture was $357.3 million out of a total farm value of $521.5 million. While diversified agriculture saw a 4 percent gain over 1999, total farm values were down 2 percent, primarily due to a drop in sugar revenues. Diversified agriculture in Hawaii is considered to be any commodity other than pineapple or sugar cane.
Flowers and nursery products, with all types combined, would command the third-place position with a 2000 value of $83.4 million, itself a record number and a 10 percent gain over 1999. But when nursery products -- such as dendrobiums, dracaena and anthuriums are ranked separately -- they are exceeded by seed crops, 98 percent of which comprise seed corn.
McCormack explained that researchers on the mainland experiment with new varieties of corn, sometimes selecting as few as 10 plants for further studies. Perhaps two pounds of seeds from those 10 plants are sent to Hawaii where three crops per year of the experimental corn can be grown, yielding 300 pounds, he said. Those seeds are returned to the mainland where more seed is produced, finally amounting to enough to sell to farmers.
Hawaii has been involved in the work for three decades, he said. But the rapid decline in sugar production in the 1990s opened up a lot of land for seed planting, he said.
Besides being warm enough for year-round planting, Hawaii doesn't get too hot, as Mexico and Puerto Rico can, he said.
In a state sometimes accused of having a bad business climate, McCormack praised Gov. Ben Cayetano.
"He's been very, very supportive," McCormack said. Hawaii is "not the cheapest place" to do business, but the state offers a capable work force, he said.
The Legislature has been helpful too, primarily by killing bills that would have hurt the business, he said.
Eight companies, generally subsidiaries of big corporations such as Monsanto and DuPont, are active in the seed business on Maui, Molokai, Oahu and Kauai, he said.
State statistician Don Martin noted the Hawaii subsidiaries don't sell their seeds to their parents, so he calculates the farm value of their products from the companies' operating budgets.
Martin said the seed growers always wanted to expand, but until sugar declined, only marginal land was available for them.
McCormack said it's uncertain whether expansion will continue, both because of questionable demand and because the companies closely guard their future business plans.
Fleshing out the bigger picture, Martin said, seed crops jumped to third place among the state's top 20 commodities due to declines in macadamia production from drought last year.
Pineapple, the No. 1 commodity, remained virtually unchanged at $101.5 million.
Sugar cane dropped sharply from $86.8 million to $62.6 million, but that loss was offset by record farm income in 2000 for seeds, bananas, ginger, flowers and nursery products, vegetables and melons, and aquaculture.