Bill impacts farmers, but ignores them too

The Maui County Council recently introduced a bill that would mandate additional regulations on farms that are so burdensome that a significant number of stunned farmers called the Maui County Farm Bureau, worried this bill will force them to shut down.

On its surface, the bill is anti-pesticides. But many of our farmers are calling it anti-agriculture. It targets only farmers, conveniently ignores facts, and was introduced without consulting the people who will be most impacted by it – the farmers.

The recent discovery of aggressive little fire ants on Maui is a reminder that pesticides are used to control and prevent the spread of unwanted pests. Pesticides are useful and should be used properly. They are an important tool that enables farmers to provide safe, affordable and reliable agricultural products for the people of Maui.

Farmers, like all licensed users of pesticides, undergo rigorous professional training and we have a tremendous incentive to abide by the numerous state and federal laws governing responsible pesticide usage. Our priority is to protect the health of the farmers who apply the pesticide as well as the safety of the products we produce for our customers. Failure to do so is not an option. Misuse can have negative health consequences for farmworkers and can result in huge penalties such as: large fines, sanctions against the farm, lawsuits and potential criminal charges. Farmers shoulder a huge responsibility in using pesticides and honor this responsibility by being good stewards. So when this anti-agriculture bill was introduced, we were flabbergasted.

This bill is frightening for a number of reasons:

* It ignores the voices of the farmers. This bill targets farmers, but there has been no dialogue with our farmers about potential impacts to them. An estimated 2,500 families in our county depend on agriculture or agriculture-related businesses for their livelihoods. Farmers were shocked to learn that an agricultural bill was introduced without consulting our farming community.

* Those behind the bill didn’t do their homework. If you want a solution, you need to first identify the problem. But what exactly is the problem? Are there illnesses or deaths in Maui County caused by improper pesticide use on our farms? What does the scientific or medical evidence indicate? There are numerous other users of pesticides, why target farmers?

* Have we studied the unintended negative consequences if this bill were to pass? Without all of the facts, this bill will result in serious negative consequences to agriculture but offer no benefit to the community.

* Farmers are scared they will be forced out of business. Family farmers have indicated this heavy-handed bill will make it impossible for them to continue running their farms. One grower said that if he were to comply with the onerous elements of this proposed bill, he’d be able to farm on only a very narrow strip of land – not enough for his small business to survive.

* The bill will be costly to taxpayers and may unnecessarily expose the county to legal challenges. An almost identical bill on Kauai has resulted in a lawsuit against Kauai County, which passed the bill even though council members had been warned by their attorneys that their bill had legal flaws. Even if Kauai County survives the legal challenge, the ordinance is expected to cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to enforce.

Mayor Alan Arakawa recently negotiated a memorandum of understanding with Monsanto, and similar discussions are underway with Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., to voluntarily provide information about pesticide use and farming operations over and above state and federal requirements. The agreement offers information to the county, doesn’t cost any more in taxpayer dollars and avoids potential legal problems. It was a civil and respectful way to achieve a win-win for all.

The farm bureau asks Maui County Council members to please remember their responsibility to all of their constituents and the greater Maui County community. We respectfully ask that decisions are based on fact and evidence, and not exclude or ignore the voices of those who will suffer the consequences of an anti-agriculture bill.

* Warren Watanabe is the executive director of the Maui County Farm Bureau.