Friendly Isle residents cope with seed company closure

Loss of 78 Molokai jobs equivalent to nearly 2,500 on Maui, over 14,000 on Oahu

Tiny green seedlings sprout from the ground on one of Mycogen’s farm plots in Hoolehua earlier this month. About 70 percent of the 420 acres that Mycogen owns and leases have been planted with cover crops of grass and legumes in preparation for the seed company’s departure later this year. With the harvests over and most workers laid off, Mycogen has all but shut down on Molokai. -- The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

On dozens of acres of red Hoolehua soil, tiny green seedlings are popping out of the ground. The cover crops of grass and legumes are the signs of a new chapter on 420 acres of Mycogen-farmed land, soon to be vacated as the seed crop research company consolidates its operations to Kauai and Oahu.

Except for a handful of workers, Mycogen Seeds on Molokai has all but closed down, with the final harvests completed and most of the workers relocated or laid off. And, while some may be happy to see the seed company go, the loss of jobs is tough to swallow.

“Molokai has been resilient in all of the sort of negative economic situations that we’ve been exposed to,” said Mycogen site leader Adolph Helm, one of seven remaining employees. “Hopefully, we can move in a way that we can take this kind of negative and turn it into a positive.”

In December, Dow-DuPont Agriculture announced it would shut down Mycogen on Molokai and cut jobs statewide. The news came three months after Dow, Mycogen’s parent company, merged with DuPont.

Helm said consolidating operations was a cost-saving move and reflected the changes in technology that have been shifting the industry to growing crops indoors.

Mycogen site leader Adolph Helm drives through one of Mycogen’s fields in Hoolehua. Helm is one of seven employees who’ve stayed behind to help close down the company through the end of the year. -- The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Mycogen Seeds on Molokai harvested its final crop of about 30 acres on March 21, followed by the last wave of layoffs on March 30, Helm said. Of the 78 people employed by the company, 19 were paid to relocate to either Kauai or the Mainland, three retired and seven stayed on to close down the site. Others went in search of jobs on-island.

While there’s no official shutdown date, the company is looking at closing the site by the last quarter of this year, Helm said.

The last big wave of layoffs in recent memory was when Molokai Ranch shut down operations and laid off about 120 employees in 2008. But the job landscape is different than it was back then, said Rob Stephenson, president of the Molokai Chamber of Commerce.

“Many of the employees of Molokai Ranch that were laid off when the ranch closed operations, they were able to find employment and be absorbed by the seed industry,” Stephenson said. “Now we find ourselves with another large loss of jobs, and there isn’t a large industry on island to absorb that.”

Stephenson said the loss of 78 jobs on sparsely populated Molokai is equivalent to 14,262 jobs in Honolulu or 2,466 jobs on Maui, based on the size of each island’s labor force as reported by the state in March.

A field of cover crops gets a shower of water. The fate of the former Mycogen lands depends on whoever buys them next. Mycogen site leader Adolph Helm said the company has gotten inquiries, but he could not disclose any names. -- The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Monsanto makes up the other half of the island’s seed industry with 67 to 87 full-time and seasonal employees and just under 2,300 acres, of which roughly 500 may be in active production at any given time, according to Dawn Bicoy, community affairs manager for Monsanto on Molokai.

Homegrown solutions

A decade ago, Catherine and Ivan Kawamae both lost their jobs at Molokai Ranch. Now, they’re losing their jobs again with the closure of Mycogen. Catherine Kawamae remembers what it was like after the ranch shut down — they were behind on their rent and water bills, and “it seemed like we were always trying to catch up.”

While she’s not sure what the future will hold, she’s optimistic.

“I think most of it is just keeping my faith in the Lord,” she said. “My faith in him is what keeps me calm and knowing that he has a plan for us.”

Catherine Kawamae has signed up for a number of training courses, including an entrepreneurship and computer class, and a “Garden to Farm” program that the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources is starting.

Kawamae said she wants to make good use of the 30 acres of Hoolehua homestead land where she and her husband live. The couple has 10 ducks and 14 chickens and has started trading eggs for vegetables, fish and even fruit trees from neighbors. After more people expressed interest in buying the eggs, Kawamae said she saw a potential business opportunity and is also thinking of investing in sheep and goats.

“There’s a lot of things ahead of me, so I’m not sure which direction I’m going to go,” she said.

As a scout for Mycogen, her job was to travel through the fields and document any problems with the crops, such as weeds, insects or diseases. Her husband is a facility maintenance technician and is still working for Mycogen. He expects to finish by the end of June.

Though the loss of so many jobs is hard on the community, Catherine Kawamae said she thinks Molokai is uniquely equipped to deal with it.

“When you live in the city, you’re much more dependent on income,” she said. “Whereas over here, there’s a lot of people that fish and hunt, so if we no more food on the table, there’s always that.”

At the start of this year’s legislative session, state Rep. Lynn DeCoite of Molokai proposed a bill that would fund job training and help displaced Mycogen workers. However, the measure died in conference committee.

“A lot of it had to do with what was going on in Kauai” following major flooding, DeCoite explained. “Monies were moved to help the relief of Kauai. . . . It wasn’t just that bill. There were many of them.”

However, Maui County appropriated $200,000 in its budget to help displaced Mycogen workers. The funds would provide financial assistance for rent and basic needs, and to prevent foreclosures.

DeCoite pointed out a problem that goes beyond funding — jobs are few on an island that typically has the state’s highest unemployment rates, which were at 4.8 percent as of April, compared with 2 percent statewide, according to the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

“We struggled to figure out, how do we train without job availability?” DeCoite asked.

Kelley Dudoit is the coordinator for the University of Hawaii Maui College’s Molokai Education Center. She said the college has been working with state and county agencies, and has met with employers on-island to see what their needs were.

Nurse’s aides, for example, are always in high demand, Dudoit said. The college also brought in an instructor from Maui to teach a one-day security guard certification class that was attended by 19 people, a mix of Mycogen workers and other residents.

The college’s “Garden to Farm” program also drew interest from Mycogen workers.

“The concept was to teach them how to farm at least for home consumption to help defer cost of food in this transition period,” Dudoit said. “They were going to set them up with mini-plots on our farm site in Hoolehua and teach them how to farm backyard style, and then allow them to take all the supplies and equipment . . . and then move it to their home.”

With Molokai’s unemployment office currently unstaffed, Dudoit said Alberta Patchen of the Workforce Development Division has been doing double duty to help workers wade through their unemployment claims.

“That’s something that I think needs to be addressed,” she said. “Even if it’s not economically feasible to have someone physically here all the time, more needs to be done.”

Seeds of change

Sentiments toward the seed companies on Molokai are mixed. They’re the island’s largest employers, but opponents have long decried the health risks.

In 2014 when the genetically modified organism moratorium initiative went on the Maui County ballot, Molokai residents voted 63 percent against it. When asked earlier this month what he thought of the Mycogen closure, Hoolehua farmer Bobby Alcain summarized an attitude that many share — good, “because of what they did to the land,” but bad, because of the loss of jobs, he said.

Molokai resident Keani Rawlins-Fernandez said her family’s homestead is about a quarter-mile away from Mycogen’s fields. While she is looking forward to a future beyond monocropping and pesticide use, she wasn’t quick to celebrate the shutdown.

“When HC&S (Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.) closed, people were happy and celebrated, and it was seen as very insensitive,” Rawlins-Fernandez said. “So while having agrochemical companies on Molokai was never part of our community’s vision, I do see this as an opportunity to start to get back on track to build upon what our community has envisioned for our island.”

She said that includes diversified agriculture and restoring Molokai’s image of aina momona — the abundant land that fed its people.

Mycogen has been farming about 420 acres in Hoolehua. The company owns 103 acres and leases the rest from the state departments of Agriculture and Hawaiian Home Lands. With the closure, the leased land “will either get reassigned or turned back to the owner of the lease,” Helm said.

About 70 percent of the 420 acres has been planted in cover crops to prevent runoff and start the rehabilitation process, Helm said. What happens next with the land depends on who buys it.

Helm said the company has gotten inquiries, but he couldn’t mention any names, though he said the list includes private companies and nonprofits.

There’s plenty of potential in Mycogen’s fairly new facilities — the 15,000-square-foot building that includes the front office was built in 2012, Helm said.

“It’s a workable facility that you could transform,” he said. “You can do food safety stuff. You could do food crop production. You could do research. Whether you’re researching agriculture or technology, this place is set up to be able to accommodate that.”

Helm was originally brought on by Cargill Hybrid Seed in 1997, before Mycogen bought Cargill in 2000. He said he plans to stay on as long as he’s needed before retiring.

Both DeCoite and Stephenson said they expect local businesses to feel the economic impacts once Mycogen is gone for good. In April, DeCoite said she anticipated places like Hikiola Cooperative to “see the ripple effects because Mycogen was a big buyer of Hikiola irrigation supplies, fertilizers, fencing, posts.”

“Part of us getting the cheaper rate to buy our supplies was because we could fill the containers full from the Mainland,” said DeCoite, who owns L&R Farms on Molokai.

Because Mycogen was also a big buyer of fuel, gas may have to sit in the islands’ tanks longer, and as a result, may cost more, she added.

But, Stephenson sees a silver lining overall.

“Molokai is a resilient people,” he said. “People here want to work, and in challenging times people become resourceful. Challenging times like these are the best times for people to innovate. There’s likely to be some new businesses that spring up out of necessity for people that are affected. The most important thing we can do as a community is to help one another.”

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