Cost-benefit ag park analysis

It sounds great — a proposal to nearly triple the 445-acre Kula Agricultural Park by purchasing 869 acres of former sugar cane land from Alexander & Baldwin.

While the notion has merit, it raises questions and warrants caution.

The county is in talks with A&B to strike a deal. So, the price tag has yet to be set. What’s known is that the state Legislature has set aside $5 million for the deal, and the county is adding $1 million.

So far, the ag park on Pulehu Road supports 26 farmers on lots ranging from 10 to 30 acres. Assuming the two new thirds support 52 farmers, the cost would be $19,231 per farmer for each $1 million cost of the land alone.

Then, there’s the question of how fertile the land would be. The new acreage is at a lower elevation than the current ag park and so it would be hotter and windier, according to Kenneth Yamamura, agricultural specialist with the county Office of Economic Development.

He reported that bananas, papayas, cucumbers, pineapple, tomatoes, sweet corn, potatoes and chickpeas could grow in the expanded ag park. There’s local consumer demand, but how would the Maui production costs compare with the Mainland competition? Would consumers and taxpayers benefit?

The Office of Economic Development is rightly studying issues such as types of crops, lot sizes, farming methods and water availability. Mayor Alan Arakawa says there’s a 55 million-gallon former Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. reservoir that would be acquired as part of the deal, and it could provide nonpotable irrigation water to the expanded ag park through gravity-fed lines.

Another issue is affordable housing for farmworkers. Housing already is scarce, but would the purchased land be used for farming and housing, perhaps rental housing, as well? Would the county build the housing? And at what cost?

Finally, farming is hard work. The idea for ag park expansion hinges on the assumption that there’s an ample supply of aspiring farmers, although that’s questionable given Maui County’s low 3 percent unemployment as of May.

Clearly much work lies ahead in formulating a well-thought-out plan for farmers, taxpayers and consumers. New jobs and more ag business would benefit and diversify Maui’s economy. And, there’s a need to find productive uses for the 36,000 acres of former sugar lands. However, the benefits of an expanded ag park should not be outweighed by its costs.

Farming’s a risky business. Bad weather, pests or just plain bad luck can turn a field of dreams into a nightmare.

* Editorials reflect the opinion of the publisher.