A&B map shows possible uses for fallow sugar fields

Rick Volner, general manager of diversified agriculture for Alexander & Baldwin, put up this slide at the Maui Energy Conference on March 22 showing A&B’s plans for former sugar cane fields. -- Alexander & Baldwin map

Rick Volner, general manager of diversified agriculture for Alexander & Baldwin, put up this slide at the Maui Energy Conference on March 22 showing A&B’s plans for former sugar cane fields. -- Alexander & Baldwin map

A general map showing possible uses of now fallow sugar fields — including areas for possible biodiesel-producing tree orchards, coffee and cacao crops and livestock-irrigated pastures — was projected on a screen as the former general manager of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. gave a presentation at the Maui Energy Conference last week.

Rick Volner, who has transitioned to general manager of diversified agriculture for Alexander & Baldwin, told the audience March 22 that agricultural land use is decreasing statewide. Some of the land has given way to development and other areas have sat fallow for so long it is difficult to reutilize.

However, for old HC&S lands, “We feel we have the significant opportunity to alter that landscape,” said Volner, the last general manager of the last sugar plantation in the state, which shut down in December. “Our lands are uniquely positioned to succeed in diversified agriculture.”

“It’s very difficult, almost impossible, to find the type of contiguous lands we have access to here in the central valley of Maui,” Volner said. “We have existing water infrastructure. We’re close to cargo ports, whether it’s by sea or by air. And we have a very strong labor base, a labor base that previously worked these fields and is basically sitting idle at this point.”

But even with all of the advantages, there are “significant challenges,” he said. Though he did not specifically cite the challenges, HC&S had faced community opposition in recent years for its cane burning, use of pesticides and other farming practices.

A&B also is facing a challenge from taro farmers and Native Hawaiian practitioners over its long-held diversions of water from East Maui. The state Board of Land and Natural Resources currently is considering a 30-year lease for the continuation of the more than 100-year-old diversions through tunnels, siphons and ditches to fields in Upcountry and Central Maui. The Commission on Water Resource Management currently is establishing stream-flow standards for diverted streams.

A&B is seeking 115 million gallons a day for its diversified agriculture plans in its lease request.

The slide shown behind Volner gave a general idea of A&B’s plans for the 36,000 acres of old sugar cane land. The map was not very specific but did offer some landmarks, such as towns and Kahului Airport.

An area in north Kihei/Maalaea has been designated for pongamia orchards. According to the BioEnergy Plantations Australia website, the plant, also known as millettia pinnata, is a leguminous tree, native to northern Australia. The oils extracted from the tree can be used as biodiesel.

A&B has set a plot mauka of Pukalani for coffee/cacao production. James “Kimo” Falconer, president of MauiGrown coffee, said Wednesday that his company has been in talks with A&B about lease possibilities for land in the Omaopio/Pulehu road junction area and near Haliimaile. A $13 million special purpose bond bill still alive in the state Legislature could make that expansion of MauiGrown coffee from its current 400 acres in Kaanapali to the former sugar lands a reality, Falconer said.

Biogas feedstock crops are slated for the Spreckelsville area and mechanically harvested row crops around Kahului Airport. Pasture-fed dairy operations are pegged for mauka of Pukalani.

Cattle ranching operations on irrigated and nonirrigated livestock pastures in the Hamakuapoko area, also shown on the map, have been launched, said A&B spokes-man Darren Pai. In December, A&B said cattle-grazing operations had been expanded to 4,000 acres. A&B has been working with Maui Cattle Co., which plans to put about 1,000 head of cattle on the pasturelands this summer.

In December, Volner also talked about an agricultural park that could total 1,000 acres or more on a site near the Kula Agricultural Park. The ag park site was on the map.

Land mauka of Haliimaile has been set aside for large diversified land leases, and orchard crops are slated near Kihei, according to the map.

Pai explained that the map “depicted potential diversified agricultural uses that were identified in our initial analysis of factors such as land characteristics and rainfall.” While some in the community have called for more specific plans from the company for its old sugar fields, Pai said that A&B has shared its plans during regulatory proceedings and at the state Capitol during “Agriculture Day.”

“We are making progress in our efforts to transition former sugar cane lands to diversified agriculture,” Pai said, noting the cattle ranching operations and expanded trials for growing and harvesting of different crops. “We expect to have more announcements in the near future.”

Volner told conference attendees that diversified agriculture will help the state reach its goals of food and fuel self-sufficiency. Gov. David Ige pledged to the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress in Honolulu in September that Hawaii would double its food production from 10 to 20 percent by 2030.

“We think HC&S, the central valley agricultural lands, will play a significant role in that,” said Volner.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.

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