Finding farming matches for old cane fields not so simple

A&B official says scale, location, water among obstacles

Darren Strand, general manager of diversified agriculture on Maui for Alexander & Baldwin, speaks to the county Board of Water Supply on Thursday. The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo

WAILUKU — The head of Alexander & Baldwin’s diversified agriculture operations on Maui said Thursday that finding the right farming and ranching matches for its thousands of acres of former sugar cane fields “hasn’t been as simple” as the company thought it would be.

“Finding the right place and the right conditions with reliable water sources and suitable infrastructure with a farming partner, a ranching partner that we can see ourselves having success with hasn’t been as simple as I thought it would be and I think lot of people thought that might be,” Strand said at a meeting of the county Board of Water Supply. “There is a lot of obstacles, but having said that, there is a lot of people we are in contact with that have very promising outlook.”

Among the newer developments is the addition of a sweet potato farm on about 200 acres of former sugar cane fields, he said. This is in addition to A&B’s own projects, which include livestock pastures, feedstocks and energy crops.

It’s been about two years since Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., the last sugar plantation in Hawaii, shut down. Since then, HC&S’ parent company, A&B, has looked to diversified agriculture to sustain the 36,000 acres of old sugar fields, of which 27,000 are designated as important agricultural lands.

Some of the issues A&B has encountered include local farmers seeking to work on smaller scales, such 10 to 20 acres, while A&B was looking for larger-scale farmers, Strand said. The company’s infrastructure is geared more for farming larger acreage plots, so farmers and A&B will have to modify things to make it work.

Strand, who was at the meeting to give members an update on the company’s water use, said that many farmers are not ready to take the leap to a bigger plot. So in turn, A&B refers some farmers to the county’s Kula Agricultural Park and other landowners with smaller holdings.

A&B is working with the county on expanding the agricultural park, said Strand, who took his post in May. The former president of Haliimaile Pineapple Co. took over after Rick Volner, vice president of diversified agriculture, left to become general manager on Maui for HC&D.

Strand said he is very open to listening to ideas and never says that an idea will not work.

As for the sweet potato farmer, about 100 to 150 acres is currently in some stage of production, Strand said.

“If you aren’t ready to step into 100 acres, we are going to have a hard time. We are going to do a lot of modifications,” Strand added.

In June, the state water commission ordered full restoration of flows to 10 East Maui streams for taro growing and limited or no diversions for another seven streams to restore habitats. The decision was part of a 17-year battle over water rights in East Maui that pitted Native Hawaiian taro farmers and practitioners against A&B and its stream diversions for agricultural ventures.

A&B receives surface water from East Maui, surface water from West Maui and ground water from brackish water wells.

“We are still reviewing and modeling really what that’s going to look like for us,” Strand said. “The reduction in surface water that is going to be available for our operations . . . we don’t necessary know exactly how much water we have from the East Maui system.

“We don’t know what type of agriculture we will have in what places on the plantation, so it’s a bit of a guessing game.”

Strand said that East Maui Irrigation Co., which operates the water system in East Maui, has maintained its full staff, which is around 15, since the HC&S closure.

The operations are running well, he said. The water kept flowing even through recent storm events with crews having to deal with fallen trees. The EMI system also provides water for the county’s Upcountry customers.

As for the 11 brackish wells, Strand said they are a critical part of the water service and provide security and redundancy to the operation, as surface water flows from East and West Maui vary dramatically.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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