Hawaii is blessed with natural conditions that enable farmers to produce a remarkable diversity of crops. The fertile volcanic soil, moderate rainfall, and year-round growing season allow cultivation of tropical fruits, vegetables, flowers, coffee, nuts, and more.
Beyond supporting local food needs, Hawaii’s agricultural bounty drives exports and forms a pillar of the state’s economy.
This article provides an overview of the major crops grown in Hawaii today and their production history.
Greenhouse and Nursery Products
Greenhouse and nursery products are the leading agricultural commodities in Hawaii.
These include flowers, ornamental plants, and other horticultural products. The climate in Hawaii is ideal for growing ornamental plants and flowers year-round.
Major greenhouse and nursery crops include foliage, potted flowering plants, cut flowers, and bedding plants.
The Hawaiian foliage industry specializes in producing tropical plants with colorful leaves grown for their aesthetic value. Some popular foliage plants grown in Hawaii greenhouses include ti, croton, anthurium, philodendron, and dracaena.
The tropical environment allows consistent production to supply foliage plants to buyers on the US mainland and export markets.
Hawaii’s nursery industry focuses on flowering potted plants like orchids, anthurium, bougainvillea, heliconia, and bromeliads. Orchids are especially important, and Hawaii produces over half of all orchid plants sold in the US.
Most are hybrids bred specifically for qualities like disease resistance or unique flower shapes and colors.
Cut flower production makes up a smaller part of Hawaii’s floriculture industry. Key cut flowers include anthurium, orchids, ginger, heliconia, and tropical foliage.
Cut flowers are exported to the mainland US and overseas. Locally, cut flowers from Hawaii are popular for events, weddings, and resorts.
The greenhouse and nursery industry in Hawaii is valued at over $100 million annually. The crops produced enhance Hawaii’s reputation for tropical beauty and support local agriculture.
Sugar cane is an important crop in Hawaii and is grown on the islands of Hawaii, Maui, Oahu, and Kauai. However, the production of sugar cane has declined in recent years.
Sugar cane was first introduced and planted in Hawaii in 1802. It quickly became a major industry and economic driver for the islands.
At its peak in the mid 1900s, Hawaii produced over 1 million tons of sugar annually. The tropical climate and fertile soil of the Hawaiian islands made it an ideal place to cultivate sugar cane.
For many years, sugar cane plantations dominated the agricultural landscape in Hawaii. Large tracts of land were dedicated to growing fields of sugar cane which were then harvested and processed at sugar mills.
The sugar industry provided many jobs for local residents.
However, in recent decades the Hawaiian sugar cane industry has steadily declined. Rising labor costs, competition from overseas producers, and ageing infrastructure have made sugar production less profitable.
Many plantations have closed down and sugar milling operations have ceased. Today, Hawaii just has one remaining major sugar company, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company on Maui.
While no longer the driving force it once was, sugar cane continues to have an important place in Hawaii’s culture and economy. It was instrumental in the islands’ history and development.
Sugar cane remains a beloved crop and is even used to produce specialty food products for locals and tourists to enjoy.
Pineapple is another vital crop in Hawaii, with a long history of cultivation. It is widely grown on the island of Maui. Pineapples were first brought to Hawaii around the early 1800s and found the growing conditions ideal.
Hawaii’s tropical climate with ample rain and sunny days provides excellent conditions for pineapple agriculture.
The peak era for Hawaiian pineapple production was during the first half of the 20th century. Large pineapple plantations operated on the islands of Lanai, Maui and Oahu.
The Dole Food Company became the dominant pineapple company. At its height, the Hawaiian pineapple industry produced over 80% of the world’s pineapples.
However, starting in the 1960s, pineapple production started to shift to Asia and Latin America due to lower labor costs. Today, while Hawaii’s pineapple output is much lower, Maui continues to lead pineapple cultivation.
The island supplies over three-quarters of all pineapples grown in Hawaii.
The Maui GoldTM is Hawaii’s premier pineapple variety developed by agricultural scientists at the Maui Pineapple Company.
Maui Gold pineapples have a sweet flavor with low acidity. Their golden rind and flesh make them visually stunning. Hawaii’s volcanic soil, sunny days, and ocean breezes contribute to Maui Gold’s sweet taste.
Although no longer produced at the massive scale of the past, pineapple remains an icon of Hawaiian agriculture.
The legacy of pineapple cultivation continues to resonate as an important part of the island’s history and identity.
Hawaii is known for its high-quality coffee, particularly the Kona coffee variety. Coffee is grown on several islands, including the Big Island (Hawaii), Maui, and Kauai.
The coffee industry traces its roots back to 1828 when coffee was first planted in the Kona district on the Big Island. The conditions in Kona turned out to be optimal for cultivating coffee.
The sunny mornings, mild afternoons, elevated volcanic soil, and mountain rain made Kona an exceptional coffee growing region.
Today, authentic Kona coffee can only come from the North and South Kona districts which stretch 30 miles along the western side of Hawaii’s Big Island. This geographic exclusivity is protected by law.
There are around 600 Kona coffee farms, ranging from small family plots to larger acreages. Common methods include hand-picking ripe cherry beans for a higher quality product.
The beans are processed using the wet method which produces Kona’s characteristic flavor profile – mild, aromatic, and devoid of bitterness.
Beyond Kona, coffee is also grown in other parts of Hawaii.
The Ka’u district near Kona also produces high grade Hawaiian coffee. On Maui and Kauai, small coffee farms cater to the local market. But Kona remains Hawaii’s most famous and prestigious coffee appellation.
With strict labeling laws, consumers can be assured that packages labeled 100% Kona contain pure Kona beans.
The reputation for quality allows Hawaiian-grown coffee to command premium prices. Kona’s status helps drive Hawaii’s $54 million coffee industry.
Macadamia nuts are an important crop in Hawaii, and the state ranks sixth in the nation for tree nut sales. They are primarily grown on the Big Island (Hawaii).
The macadamia tree is native to Australia but was introduced to Hawaii in the 1880s as an ornamental.
It was later realized that Hawaii’s volcanic soil and climate are ideal for cultivating macadamia as a commercial nut crop.
Most macadamia nuts are grown on the slopes of the Big Island’s volcanic mountains and valleys. The elevation, rainfall, and soil fertility in areas like Kea’au, Captain Cook, and Pahala are optimum conditions.
Hawaii now has over 5,000 acres of macadamia orchards containing over 3 million trees.
Macadamia nuts require less pest management compared to other tree nuts. But harvesting is challenging, with each tree needing to be climbed multiple times as the nut matures over 7-9 months.
Hawaii’s macadamia orchards must also contend with natural hazards like lava flows. Despite this, Hawaii remains one of the world’s leading macadamia producers.
Around 90% of Hawaii’s macadamia crop is processed into various products. These include roasted and salted nuts, chocolate-covered macadamias, macadamia nut brittle, and macadamia nut butter.
The popularity of Hawaii-grown macadamias also helps support local chocolate and confection manufacturers.
Beyond being tasty and nutritious, the macadamia industry provides valuable jobs for Hawaii residents. Farming, processing, and marketing macadamias represent an important agricultural sector supporting the island economy.
Hawaii’s macadamias even have protected geographical indication status in the European Union.
Papayas are grown in Hawaii for both local consumption and export. They are one of the top agricultural commodities produced in the state. Papaya cultivation in Hawaii began in the early 1900s.
By the 1930s, Hawaii was exporting large quantities of papayas to the US mainland. The peak era of papaya production was from the 1960s through the 1980s.
The Puna district on the Big Island of Hawaii has the ideal climate and rainfall for papaya agriculture. About 90% of Hawaiian papayas are grown on the Big Island.
Other islands including Maui, Oahu, and Kauai contribute smaller amounts. Total papaya acreage in Hawaii is around 2,200 acres.
The Solo variety accounts for most papayas grown in Hawaii. Solos have a round shape and orange-red flesh. Hawaii prefers Solo for the productivity of its hermaphroditic plants and tolerance to ringspot virus.
Other varieties like Sunrise and Kapoho are also grown. GMO papayas resistant to ringspot were once common but fell out of favor with consumers.
Hawaii’s nutritious and delicious papayas are a staple of local diets. They also get exported to markets on the US mainland and Canada.
Peak production is during the summer, but Hawaii ships papayas year-round. Japan is another major export destination.
While competing with cheaper imports, Hawaii strives to differentiate its papayas as premium quality. Strict regulations ensure Hawaiian papayas are free of ringspot virus.
Tropical sweetness and freshness make Hawaii’s papayas stand out. The industry provides over 1,000 local jobs and represents a valued part of the agricultural economy.
Bananas are another fruit crop grown in Hawaii, primarily for local consumption. Commercial banana cultivation in Hawaii began in the late 1950s.
Production increased through the 1960s and 70s before declining due to labor shortages, urbanization, and cheaper foreign competition.
Today, banana farming continues on a smaller scale, with around 400 acres of bananas grown in the state.
On the Big Island, bananas thrive in rainy areas like Hilo and Puna. Maui and Kauai also grow bananas, along with Oahu to a lesser extent.
The Apple banana is the main cultivar grown in Hawaii. Apple bananas are sweeter than the Cavendish type found in stores.
They have a distinct apple-like flavor popular with locals.
Small family farms supply most of Hawaii’s bananas. Bunches are harvested year-round and sold at farmer’s markets, roadside stands, and supermarkets.
Only a minor volume gets exported.
For local markets, Hawaii’s bananas offer superior freshness and ripeness compared to imported fruit. Higher prices help support Hawaiian banana farmers struggling with challenges like labor costs and diseases.
Tropical storms and volcanic eruptions are other hazards.
Despite declines, the Hawaiian banana industry perseveres thanks to strong local demand and a preference for quality fruit.
Farmers also supply niche products like banana chips, banana bread, and other foods that add value. Though a modest crop, bananas remain beloved in the islands.
Avocados are grown in Hawaii, although their production value is relatively lower compared to other crops. Commercial avocado cultivation in Hawaii started around the 1950s.
Avocado production gradually increased, peaking in the early 1990s at over 600 acres harvested.
Since then, acreage has fallen as costs made it difficult to compete with California and imports.
Currently, avocados are a minor crop in Hawaii, with around 200 acres harvested annually. Maui and the Big Island contribute the majority. Smaller amounts come from Oahu and Kauai.
The main variety grown is the Sharwil, favored for its productivity and high oil content. Other varieties include Murashige, Nishikawa, and Kahaluu.
Hawaii’s avocados are sold locally at farmer’s markets, stores, and restaurants when in season. Only a small percentage gets exported. Local sales earn a premium as Hawaii’s avocados achieve ripe flavor compared to shipped fruit.
Avocados also make popular frozen desserts and smoothies.
While avocado farming faces challenges in Hawaii, the state’s growers persevere. New grafting methods aim to reduce labor costs. Pest threats like fruit flies and phytophthora disease are managed.
The Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers association supports avocado producers.
Hawaii may play only a minor role in the global avocado industry. But for local fans, the islands’ buttery rich, locally-grown avocados are considered a special agricultural treat.
Fresh Hawaiian avocados continue to have a place at the table and in the culture.
Other Fruits and Vegetables
Hawaii also produces a variety of other fruits and vegetables, including guava, lettuce, onions, and sweet potatoes. Tropical conditions allow farmers to grow fruits like mangos, lychee, rambutan, starfruit, jackfruit, passionfruit, and dragonfruit.
Vegetables grown include leafy greens, bell peppers, cucumbers, beans, peas, tomatoes, and more.
Most fruits and vegetables are cultivated on small, diversified farms of 5 to 50 acres. Farms are concentrated on the larger islands of Hawaii, Maui, Oahu and Kauai.
Products are sold through farmer’s markets, grocers, restaurants, and value-added processing.
A few specific examples demonstrate Hawaii’s diversity of specialty crops. Maui leads sweet onion production, supplying the famous Maui onions.
Kauai’s Anahola district is ideal for growing Hawaii’s unique white pineapple guava.
Oahu has farms growing niche vegetables like baby bok choy and winged beans.
Expanding interest in local food sovereignty has supported Hawaii’s small farms. Locally grown produce retains maximum nutrition and flavor.
Agricultural tourism allows visitors to tour lush farms and sample tropical delights.
A growing farm-to-table movement connects chefs directly to fresh island ingredients.
Moving forward, fruits and vegetables will continue contributing to a vibrant, diversified agricultural sector in Hawaii. Tropical specialty crops nourish residents while supporting food security and rural economies.
Hawaii’s localized agriculture puts fresh, locally grown produce within easy reach.