Community farm near mill in Mahi Pono early plans

As the new company becomes half-owner of EMI, water issues remain to be sorted out

Mahi Pono is looking to place a community farm near the old Puunene Mill, a central and visible location that has access to water and is sheltered from the wind. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

WAILUKU — The first phase of Mahi Pono’s plans on Maui include a community farm that would allow local growers to rotate their crops and use the company’s equipment and services, said Ceil Howe III, principal of Mahi Pono.

Ever since Mahi Pono — a joint venture of California-based Pomona Farming and the Canadian Public Sector Pension Investment Board — announced its purchase of 41,000 acres of agricultural lands from Alexander & Baldwin on Dec. 20, community members have been eager to know what the company plans to grow.

And while the timeline and details of many of Mahi Pono’s plans are still unknown, Howe offered a glimpse into the company’s goals on Thursday.

“The first phase that will be rolled out will be a community farm, where we’re going to empower some local growers that already have existing crops, but they need a rotation,” Howe said. “They need land and water. And so we’re going to get equipment here, get the fields ready, give them some rotation and set that up, because they know what they’re doing here.”

The community farm would offer 1-, 5- and 10-acre blocks to local farmers, though the size could vary depending on the interest, Howe said. Farmers would be able to use the land and also have access to Mahi Pono’s equipment, management, budgeting and marketing services.

The East Maui Irrigation stream diversions were built in the 1870s. The sale of a 50 percent interest in EMI to Mahi Pono was completed today. State Department of Land and Natural Resources photo

Howe said Mahi Pono is looking at placing the farm near the old Puunene Mill, a central and visible location that has access to water and is sheltered from the wind. The farm also would provide plots for research and offer an internship program for local high school and college students. It also would have an advisory board of local community members, who would set the rules and parameters.

When asked how much Mahi Pono might lease out the land for, Shan Tsutsui, senior vice president of operations for Mahi Pono, said that the company is still working out the details.

“We would like to launch the community farm this year,” the former lieutenant governor said. “We haven’t finalized the format yet, but our goal is to help small farmers thrive by providing simple access to land and farming resources.”

Mahi Pono also has inherited A&B’s diversified agriculture ventures, including Kulolio Ranch, 5,500 acres of grass-fed cattle operations; Central Maui Feedstocks, a 500-acre project of corn, sorghum and soybeans to be used at the Wailuku-Kahului wastewater treatment plant; and its 250-acre trial of energy crops, including pongamia, according to A&B’s website.

Mahi Pono has said it plans to produce high-quality, nongenetically modified food for local consumption with export potential, and added that it has no plans to convert any of the land to nonagricultural uses.

Tsutsui and Howe said Thursday that future plans also include planting “leafy green vegetable crops” over the next six to eight months; eventually adding citrus, macadamia nuts and avocados for the local market; setting up a farmer’s market; and expanding the cattle operations and biofuel crop trials.

“We’re very conscious of the water system and where to put crops so we don’t overburden one area versus another area,” Howe said. “So we’re really taking our time planning all those out. The crop plan is still in evolution because we’re learning and listening, and we’re talking to different suppliers.”

Howe, a fourth generation farmer from Stratford, Calif., said his experience on large farming operations has taught him that “things have to start slow, because if you don’t have a really great plan . . . you’ll make mistakes.”

“What appears at times to be a lack of progress is actually just deep dives into planning and listening so we can build something with the right foundation that is sustainable for a long period,” Howe said.

Rep. Lynn DeCoite, a Molokai farmer and state lawmaker, said she’d be happy to support agriculture in the central valley, but wanted to know more about what Mahi Pono planned to grow and how it would handle the water.

“Mahi Pono was quick to announce, but now everyone is waiting on one plan, and now they are expecting basically blind faith?” said DeCoite, who represents Molokai, Lanai and East Maui. “If you need water for farming, tell us what you going grow. Not hold it and tell me you going think about what you going grow.”

On Jan. 24, DeCoite and fellow Maui County representatives Angus McKelvey and Tina Wildberger introduced House Bill 1573, which would prohibit the Board of Land and Natural Resources from approving any permit that allows for diversions of East Maui streams for commercial purposes. DeCoite said that would mean that current diversions would have to stop too, though the bill would not impact water supply to users under the county system. Sen. Kalani English introduced a companion bill, Senate Bill 1488.

“If this bill passes, the only way they get water and issuance of permit is if they complete the EA (environmental assessment), which was asked for three years ago,” DeCoite said.

But other bills create competing scenarios. Senate Bill 829, introduced by Maui County Sens. Gil Keith-Agaran and Roz Baker and Sen. Clarence Nishihara, would allow revocable water permits to be extended through 2021. Another Keith-Agaran measure, Senate Bill 1116, would allow holdovers of revocable water permits to continue until pending applications for leases are resolved. It also would expedite contested cases for one-year holdovers and allow the holdover to continue during the proceedings. Eight lawmakers, including Rep. Kyle Yamashita, introduced a companion bill, House Bill 1326.

“They get to continue to finish up the studies and the application for a long-term lease that EMI (East Maui Irrigation) has pending,” Keith-Agaran said.

As part of the deal completed back in December, A&B agreed to sell 50 percent of its ownership interest in EMI, which includes 15,000 acres, to Mahi Pono for $2.7 million, effective today. A&B plans to eventually sell the other half of its interest, according to the agreement.

When asked how the partnership with EMI would work, Howe said that “we’re working through the process of perfecting all that.” He and EMI Operations Manager Mark Vaught said that EMI will continue to run as it always has, though with more staff.

“We still have absolute responsibility for managing that and meeting the IIFS (interim in-stream flow standards) that was set last June,” Vaught said.

In June, the state Commission on Water Resource Management ordered full restoration to 10 East Maui streams and limited or no diversions for another seven streams. Dean Uyeno, chief of the Stream Protection and Management Branch with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said Thursday that A&B has divided the restoration process into four categories — each requiring extensively more work in order to restore stream flow. One of the streams, for example, requires building “kind of like a bypass so the stream can flow over the ditch.”

Categories 1 and 2 each include 15 diversions that A&B plans to abandon. Category 3 includes 11 diversions and category 4 includes 29 diversions that A&B already has stopped using but needs formal permitting to abandon, Uyeno said. The commission will consider the category 2 diversions at its meeting Feb. 19.

Uyeno said Mahi Pono’s purchase of the lands doesn’t really change the stream restoration process.

“Whether it’s Mahi Pono or A&B, the plan, as we understood it, was to develop diversified ag,” he said.

Tsutsui said that Mahi Pono is “supportive” of the commission’s ruling on stream flows. He added that Mahi Pono has the capital to look into water storage, conservation and ways to capture rainfall, and that the company is “not intending to request any more than is currently being allocated.”

“Part of our plan is obviously to use only what we need and to be good stewards of it,” Tsutsui said. “We understand the value of water here. It is viewed different than it is in other parts of the world. As we continue to develop this plan, the different crop types that we want to put, where we put it, all would determine the amount of water that we need.”

Summer Sylva, an attorney with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. who represented East Maui residents in the 17-year legal battle to restore the streams, said that if Mahi Pono needs more time, “then they should also be waiting to divert the resources.”

She and Camille Kalama, another Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. attorney on the case, said that Mahi Pono’s newly acquired lands still include groundwater wells, though brackish, as well as streams on its property that extend into East Maui.

“All the community’s asking for is what are you going to grow, and how much water does it reasonably take to grow that?” Kalama said. “And if you leave the door open to as much as possible water from East Maui, then the community will just see this as a continuation of what’s been going on all this time, and I think that is the risk that Mahi Pono takes if they’re going to come in in the same position that A&B left.”

Sylva said Mahi Pono can prove itself a good steward by allowing water permits to be reviewed on a regular basis and not asking them to be held over indefinitely.

“Good stewards wouldn’t be afraid of subjecting themselves to annual review by agencies whose sole responsibility is to safeguard the public trust resources,” Sylva said. “If he (Tsutsui) is as confident as he says he is, then there’s no need to change laws to minimize the kinds of protections currently afforded the resource.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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