Council committee continues to address agriculture in county

CHAIR’S 3 MINUTES

Agriculture throughout Maui County is at a critical juncture. It was only a little over six months ago when Hawaii’s last remaining sugar plantation closed its doors.

At the time, there was uncertainty of the next chapter for local agriculture that still lingers today. What will be the plan for the 36,000 acres of lush green sugar cane land that had come to define the central valley?

It has not been easy and planning is still ongoing, but Alexander & Baldwin has been working to transition much of its former sugar lands to diversified agriculture. While some people may have expected instant results, identifying crops that grow and produce well, especially in varying microclimates, takes time.

Some early developments have already been announced, such as a partnership with Maui Cattle Co. to explore possibilities for Maui cattle ranchers to expand their operations and provide high-quality beef for the local market.

Another partnership with A&B will explore creating renewable energy from the seeds of the pongamia tree. TerViva plans to test the tree’s suitability and yield in a 250-acre demonstration project on former sugar land. According to its website, the company focuses on “transforming distressed agricultural lands into productive sources of protein and renewable bioenergy.”

Local government is also involved. The county and state are negotiating to acquire 869 acres of A&B land in the Omaopio/Pulehu vicinity to expand the Kula Agricultural Park. Farmland within the larger park will be leased at reasonable rates to farmers, with the goal of promoting local agriculture.

As A&B’s plans for former sugar land evolve, it is important for the Maui County Council and the community to understand A&B’s initiatives and partnerships. My plan is to bring together stakeholders for a presentation before the Policy, Economic Development and Agriculture Committee, which I chair, in the coming months.

Agriculture is critical to Maui’s future, and conversations on how to promote its future must take place regularly throughout our community. Although the use of A&B’s lands has been top of mind, supporting local farmers is equally important.

Through my monthly talk-story sessions at the Upcountry Farmers Market, and in conversations with farmers, they continually share with me the risks and challenges they face in their operations.

One of those challenges is the administrative paperwork when interfacing with the county. Historically, Maui County has been very supportive of farmers through discounted agricultural rates for water and real property taxes, along with expanded zoning uses.

Each of these benefits was introduced at a different time with varying requirements and a separate application process. In an effort to streamline the applications process, on July 17 my committee discussed the creation of a “One Farm Plan.” This new, consolidated process will incorporate a single application for multiple county agencies. The result will be less administrative paperwork for farmers so that they can focus on what they do best — farming.

The One Farm Plan discussion brought together multiple county departments and started the process of identifying solutions. Unfortunately, finding the answer is tougher than it may seem. Logistical and communication interactions must be sorted out at the administrative level, but I am confident the council is on the right path to resolving this issue.

Through each of these efforts, it gives me great excitement as we begin to write the next chapter of agriculture in Maui County.

To follow actions of the Policy, Economic Development and Agriculture Committee, go to mauicounty.us/agendas and submit testimony at pea.committee@mauicounty.us.

* Yuki Lei Sugimura is chairwoman of the County Council’s Policy, Economic Development and Agriculture Committee, and holds the council seat for the Upcountry residency area. “Chair’s 3 Minutes” is a weekly column to explain the latest news on county legislative matters. Go to mauicounty.us for more information.

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