Tsutsui: Mahi Pono could generate 1,000-plus jobs

Former lieutenant governor joins company, set to begin farming on 41,000 Maui acres, as new vice president

Shan Tsutsui

More than 1,000 jobs could be generated as Mahi Pono moves forward with its farming operations on 41,000 acres of recently purchased old sugar cane lands, said the company’s new senior vice president of operations, former Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui.

Tsutsui, a Waiehu resident, was named today to lead Mahi Pono’s farming venture on Maui. Besides working with local farmers, he said Mahi Pono will assist them with processing and packaging of their products for export and for island use — all based on Maui.

“That’s also exciting in terms of economic diversity, allowing for different types of jobs, not having them being related to the tourists,” said Tsutsui, who will be in charge of business strategy, management operations, community leadership and government relations.

On Dec. 10, Mahi Pono announced its purchase of 41,000 acres of former Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. land from Alexander & Baldwin. The $262 million deal with Mahi Pono, a joint venture of Pomona Farming LLC and Public Sector Pension Investment Board, one of Canada’s largest pension investment managers, ended A&B’s 150-year ownership of the old sugar cane lands. Its subsidiary, HC&S, shut down sugar operations at the end of 2016.

Mahi Pono said it plans to produce high-quality, nongenetically modified food for local consumption with export potential; provide local partners with resources, such as farming expertise, equipment and farming capital; offer water in an agricultural park for use by small, local farmers and create jobs for local residents with job training and educational programs for employees. The new owners said they have no plans to convert any of the land to nonagricultural uses.

Pomona Farming will provide the farming expertise and resources with financial backing from the pension investment board, but decisions for Mahi Pono will be made on Maui, Tsutsui said.

“Mahi Pono will be Maui’s company,” he emphasized. “I’m excited about this opportunity. It’s the new chapter of agriculture on Maui.”

He acknowledged the community’s desire to maintain the green lands of the Central Maui plain.

“That’s why this position is something that is not for me, just a job, it’s really an opportunity to, hopefully, be part of something really special going forward,” Tsutsui said.

He called it a “once in a generation” position.

“We got one chance to get it right,” Tsutsui said. “It’s the beginning, knowing that I will be able to play a role in how this all rolls out. It’s exciting. I don’t think I ever had a challenge like this.”

Tsutsui will continue serving as a managing partner with Strategies 360, a strategic positioning firm. He left his lieutenant governor position at the end of January 2018 to join Strategies 360 and to spend more time with his family on Maui. Prior to that, he was a Maui state senator and was the first Senate president from Maui.

“Throughout his years of service, Shan has been a strong advocate and leader in supporting and promoting local food production and sustainable agriculture in Hawaii,” said Ann Chin, Mahi Pono president. “As a Maui native, he is sensitive to the needs of the community and embodies our commitment to being responsible stewards of the land and a catalyst for growth.”

Questions about Pomona Farming and its background and history have been swirling around the community with groups seeking information about the company since the sale. Tsutsui shed a little light on the company, saying that its partners and clients include Sunkist, Mariani, Maui Cattle Co. and Maui Grown Coffee. He said company board members include fourth-generation farmers.

Pomona Farming’s website says that it grows almonds, sunflowers, corn, organic alfalfa, cattle and other crops.

As far as what Mahi Pono will do with the 41,000 acres, Tsutsui said the company has been meeting with community leaders and stakeholders and especially with the Native Hawaiian community.

“We want to listen and learn about a lot of the traditional Hawaiian farming practices,” he said.

“The first step is to really listen and embrace and understand,” Tsutsui said. “We have so many experienced, so many knowledgeable people in our local community. The resources here have been untapped.

“We have a partner that is willing to invest in our community, to take its time, to learn then come up with a plan.”

While the plan is being developed, Tsutsui said he will be meeting with the Fire Department and members of the community on how best to manage the land and to deal with potential hazards, such as fire. A 2,500-acre brush fire in July burned fallow fields below Haliimaile, causing road closures.

Tsutsui said he will be meeting with fire officials in the next couple of weeks.

Under the terms of the sale, Mahi Pono purchased the farmlands; Kulolio Ranch, A&B’s grass-fed cattle project; and Central Maui Feedstocks, A&B’s energy crop project.

The sale also includes Mahi Pono assuming all diversified agricultural leases previously entered into by A&B and for A&B and Mahi Pono to partner in ownership and management of East Maui Irrigation Co., which manages A&B’s diversion system.

Water has been a thorny issue for A&B, which has diverted much of the water from streams in East Maui. The company has faced lawsuits and challenges by taro growers and Native Hawaiian practitioners in the state water commission and land board in recent years over the company’s diversions.

Last year, the water commission ordered more water returned to the streams in East Maui.

Tsutsui said said that Mahi Pono’s goal with water “is to use only what we need.” The company will seek out water use strategies from Native Hawaiian and longtime local farmers. Mahi Pono will look at current technologies to improve water use.

“Because . . . it is very valuable, we will view water as something that belongs to everybody,” Tsutsui said.

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

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