HC&S cane fields may become home for West Maui coffee expansion

The state House Committee on Agriculture will hear a bill this morning to help MauiGrown Coffee expand its West Maui plantation to fallow sugar cane lands and to create jobs for displaced Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. workers.

House Bill 1230 would authorize the state to issue special purpose revenue bonds for as much as $13 million to finance the cultivation of hundreds of acres of coffee in Central Maui. Private investors would buy the bonds and receive tax-exempt interest payments.

MauiGrown already cultivates several varieties of Arabica coffees on 500 acres in West Maui. James “Kimo” Falconer, a former director of agricultural research for Pioneer Mill, established MauiGrown in 2003.

On Thursday, Falconer said that A&B has 27,000 acres of undevelopable, important agricultural lands (out of 36,000 acres overall) and has “great interest” in finding farmers, he said. “Finding a farmer is not easy.”

A&B supports the revenue bond measure, spokesman Darren Pai said.

“Our goal is to get as much of our former sugar lands as possible transitioned to successful diversified agricultural operations,” Pai said. “MauiGrown Coffee is an experienced grower of coffee in West Maui. With this additional support, this proven operation may be able to expand its operations in Central Maui.”

Approximately half of A&B’s 7,000 acres on Kauai are in coffee cultivation.

A&B is working with a number of farmers and ranchers to turn the former Maui sugar plantation “into a diverse, comprehensive patchwork of agricultural activities,” Pai said. Options include biofuel crops, ranching, food crops and an agricultural park.

HC&S closed its Maui plantation at the end of last year, leaving 660 workers without jobs.

An estimated 275 workers continue to look for work or are in training and continuing education programs, according to A&B and county officials.

Falconer said that the coffee expansion project could start with 500 acres, “maybe more,” although the exact amount is “very nebulous.” A plantation of as much as 2,000 acres would be feasible, he said.

Maui County Office of Economic Development Director Teena Rasmussen said she’s “very supportive” of the bill, especially since a special purpose revenue bond spares tapping state funding and serves as a vehicle for the state to attract private investment.

“I think that’s terrific,” she said.

And, the timing for potentially providing jobs to former HC&S employees is favorable because unemployment benefits for displaced plantation workers could expire about the same time the expanded coffee plantation needs field workers, she said.

West Maui Rep. Angus McKelvey introduced the revenue bond bill. It would support Hawaii’s coffee-growing industry and provide prevailing-wage jobs.

“Coffee is the second most-traded commodity other than oil,” he said. “Success in diversified agriculture has been brewing on Maui all along. This will not only create new jobs  . . . but it will also increase revenues for the state and build on the success and reputation of Hawaii coffee.”

The bill sets a model for the state to support agriculture, he said.

McKelvey introduced the measure with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Richard Creagan. Committee Vice Chairwoman Lynn DeCoite of Molokai is listed as a co-sponsor.

The bill says coffee would be grown in the Haliimaile area, but Falconer said that the exact location hasn’t been nailed down. The maps he’s studied would put it in the vicinity of Pulehu and Omaopio roads.

Coffee growing favors higher elevations, and the West Maui plantation grows coffee on elevations from 350 to 900 feet, Falconer said. The A&B lands are higher, starting at 600 to 700 feet and reaching up to 1,000 to 1,200 feet.

And, there’s good sources of available water on the A&B lands, he added.

After surveying the land, “I took one look at it and said, ‘This would work,’ ” Falconer said.

But growing coffee takes time and patience.

A “very aggressive” planting plan would cover 100 acres per year, with 1,400 coffee seedlings per acre, Falconer said. It costs an estimated $13,000 per acre to set up a coffee-growing operation, he added.

Labor is part of the upfront costs, he said. Workers are needed to set up a nursery operation and prepare the ground for  plantings. But, once the plantation is established, “one guy can maintain 50 acres.”

Invasive pests are an ongoing concern for coffee growers, he said.

Last month, the coffee berry borer was discovered in Kipahulu, but not at Falconer’s West Maui plantation.

Such pests can be controlled, he said, but it’s not easy.

“In farming, you’re always fighting pests of some kind,” he said.

It’s taken nearly a decade for Falconer to establish the MauiGrown Coffee brand. But now, his West Maui plantation has turned away big coffee-roasting companies because demand exceeded supply, he said.

“We sell out of our coffee every year,” he said.

Before he was well established as a coffee grower, “I couldn’t even get a meeting with a simple coffee roaster in California,” Falconer said.

In 2014, MauiGrown took first place for its Maui Mokka coffee in a field of 77 entries in the Hawaii Coffee Association’s sixth Statewide Coffee Cupping Competition. An 8-ounce bag of Maui Mokka sells for $16.55, and a 5-pound bag costs $152.

MauiGrown’s first crop was harvested in 2004. From 1988 through 2001, the farm had been operated as Kaanapali Estate Coffee, a Pioneer Mill diversified agriculture project.

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.