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Agriculture Department proposal draws testimony

Questions remain over cost, vetting and need

A Kula Agricultural Park field is irrigated Friday afternoon. Farming and food security were among the top issues for both the administration and the council in crafting the budget for next fiscal year. A council committee also is considering a proposal to create a new county Department of Agriculture. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

While many agree on the goal of growing diversified agriculture to reduce Maui County’s reliance on the Mainland, the Maui County Council and the agricultural community are debating whether creating another county government department would help or hinder the process.

More than 20 testifiers spoke Tuesday morning during a meeting of the Maui County Council’s Governance, Ethics and Transparency Committee, which is considering a proposal to amend the County Charter to establish a Department of Agriculture.

If approved by the council, the item would be placed on the November general election ballot for voters to decide.

Proposed by Council Member Shane Sinenci, the charter amendment would create a framework for the department, but the cost to staff it will depend on how much the administration and the council appropriate during the budget process, according to Gina Flammer, Sinenci’s executive assistant.

Sinenci told The Maui News that he envisions a smaller department to start, which could “run as low as $700,000 to establish and later run in line with our smaller county departments, like the departments of Emergency Management, Personnel and County Clerk, all which operate on a budget just under $2 million.”

A farm worker drives on a Kula Ag Park farm Friday. The County Council is mulling putting a charter amendment on the November ballot calling for the creation of a county Department of Agriculture.

He added that existing county staff dedicated to agriculture promotion would be moved to the department. Eventually, department growth can come with grant funding.

“This year, we appropriated $8.5 million in ag-related grants, so there is a strong will to see the agricultural sector thrive on Maui,” Sinenci said via email.

However, Teena Rasmussen, president of Maui County Farm Bureau that comprises 200 farm families on Maui, testified during the meeting that the nonprofit has “very serious concerns” about the creation of a new department.

She cited severe budget constraints to come due to the COVID-19 pandemic, overlap with other government agencies, descriptions of duties that appear regulatory in nature and not addressing core issues of concern to farmers, such as water, land, shipping and regulations.

She said the well-intentioned but unvetted proposal would “add a layer of cost and bureaucracy” to an already heavily regulated industry.

“We need an advocate, but we don’t need a regulator,” she said, urging the panel to spend more time collaborating with farming stakeholders, agencies and groups on the proposal.

Bobbie Patnode, who was representing the Agriculture Working Group, offered qualified support of the proposal, saying “more formalized county support will help existing departments understand better how to ensure farmers and ranchers receive the benefits the county has legislated, thereby increasing the success of our farmers and ranchers and well-being of our whole community.”

The group has worked since 2013 with the county administration to improve county processes tied to agriculture, farming and ranching.

Patnode said the Agriculture Working Group has not yet been able to meet to discuss the proposal, which she later said “needs work.” The group offered amendments, such as a requirement of five years in farming for the director position.

Small farmers, such as Gabe Johnson, an organic farmer on Lanai, said the department is needed. He pointed to the department’s potential to help Lanai better use its farmlands and find ways to streamline processing deer meat.

Evan Ryan, an Upcountry farmer for 20 years, said that he is in support of the department because it can provide information for the farming community on taxation, planning and water. It can also be a congealing force during a time of division.

“There are extreme politics happening right now within Maui’s ag community: Farm bureau versus farmers union, farmers union versus farm apprentice program, farmers market managers against other market managers,” Ryan said. “The (department) can work to be an advocate and support system for all ag groups.”

In a Council’s 3 Minutes column in The Maui News on June 13 that dealt with the proposal, Sinenci pointed to a report by the state that said more than 85 percent of Hawaii’s food is imported and a University of Hawaii study that found that the state’s agriculture industry had shrunk by more than two-thirds in the last 40 years.

Sinenci said that the proposal aims to promote food security and biosecurity while diversifying and strengthening Maui County’s economy. During the pandemic, Maui County’s unemployment rate rose to the highest in the state in May — 33.4 percent.

According to council documents, the Agriculture Department would increase economic opportunities in the farming sector; boost resident health and food security through locally grown agricultural products; and promote healthy ecosystems through natural-resource regeneration and protection.

The possible charter amendment was not discussed by committee members during its scheduled meeting due to time constraints. Chairman Mike Molina recessed the meeting until 10 a.m. Tuesday.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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