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Wanted: Agricultural director rooted in culture and land

County prepares to pick the head of its first-ever Agriculture Department

A farmer plows a field in the Kula Agricultural Park in April 2020. With the county’s brand-new Agriculture Department set to be established on July 1, the Maui County Council is ironing out qualifications for the director and deputy director that includes experience with local agricultural production and knowledge of native Hawaiian farming techniques. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

In recent weeks, Koa Hewahewa has tried to imagine what it would look like if he left his job at an Upcountry regenerative farm to apply for the position as head of the brand-new county Department of Agriculture.

It’s a conversation that Hewahewa thinks many farmers and ranchers are having as the county begins its search for its first-ever Agriculture Department director — should they tend to their fields or take on the historic task of guiding county agricultural operations?

“To tell you the truth, it is hard. Farmers already don’t have time to leave their farms,” Hewahewa, the director of forestry operations at Hokunui Maui, told a Maui County Council committee on Tuesday. “But I think as we gear on moving towards the future, we gotta somehow get involved with policy, because there’s lots of decisions being made by people who are not in the agricultural sector.”

Hewahewa, who is interested in the position, says whoever is chosen will have the chance to make “generational impacts.” He says he’d look for candidates in the farms and fishponds where people are actively feeding their families, people who know how to build food security because they’re already doing it.

Farmers, ranchers and other agricultural advocates say they want someone who’s connected to the land and culture and has a balance of field experience and administrative smarts.

Hoaloha Farms’ Bobby Pahia, who grows dryland kalo and manages about 300 acres leased from developer Mike Atherton in Waikapu, said it’s “very important that we pick the first two people on board carefully.”

“I hope we going look for people that have vision, and people that have experience,” Pahia said Tuesday evening during a county meeting on the Agriculture Department’s budget. “People that know the issues, that have actually dealt with these issues firsthand, is very, very important because without visionary leaders, we going be sailing the canoe as far as we can see and not knowing what’s beyond.”

Pahia, who sits on the Agriculture Working Group created in 2021 to help come up with recommendations for the department, added that “a lot of people did not support the Department of Agriculture from the get-go, and I hope that we take that into consideration when names are thrown into the hat as far as the positions of director and deputy director and the selection committee.”

On Tuesday, the council’s Agriculture and Public Trust Committee recommended a bill that would create qualifications for the director and deputy director of the future department, which is set to take effect July 1.

The bill would require the director and deputy director to each have at least:

• Five years of experience in the field of agriculture and in an administrative capacity, either in public service, private business or both.

• Five years of experience with agricultural production or food distribution systems in Hawaii.

• Three years of experience in managerial and budgetary experience; developing, supervising and coordinating agricultural programs or projects in Hawaii; working with various cultural backgrounds; and native Hawaiian agricultural farming techniques, such as biodynamic planting methods, no-till practices and kilo and ahupua’a connectivity systems.

In addition, the director must research issues, threats and solutions to the agricultural sector; is encouraged to attend continuing education to further their knowledge about the agricultural sector and solutions to challenges; and must collaborate with experts and the community to advance local agriculture.

Annual pay for the director and deputy director would be $90,000 and $70,000, respectively, as set by the Salary Commission earlier this month. It’s less than the $126,386 and $113,747 that would have aligned with the salaries of the Department of Transportation director and deputy, as recommended by Managing Director Sandy Baz. Some council members were concerned that the pay wouldn’t be enough to attract applicants.

Agriculture and Public Trust Committee Chairperson Shane Sinenci said that government has long failed to invest enough in agriculture but that he hopes the “labor of love” that farmers put into their craft will spread throughout the department.

“It’s definitely a labor of love, and we see that in the farmers, and we’re hoping that same value, that labor of love, will extend into the entire department where we can make some substantial changes and promote food security for everybody on the island,” he said Friday.

Sinenci and other council members will have a chance to shape the Agriculture Department’s future once Mayor Michael Victorino releases his proposed budget next week. He said it’s important that farmers of all sizes and backgrounds continue to share their input with the county.

“The success of the first-ever Department of Agriculture at the county level, it’s because of farmers small and large coming together and speaking with one another, having those discussions, sharing what works with each other, what we can do better, so that we can increase the agriculture sector on island, boost food security and diversify our economy moving forward into the future,” Sinenci said.

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

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