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Molokai woman is tapped to be county agricultural director

Rogerene ‘Kali’ Arce still requires council confirmation; Weston Yap named deputy

Maui County Department of Agriculture Director appointee Rogerene “Kali” Arce (from right) and Deputy Director appointee Weston Yap receive a Hawaiian blessing from Kumu Hula Cody Pueo Pata during Wednesday’s invocation and leadership introduction at the Kula Agricultural Park. Arce, a homesteader from Molokai who has spent more than 30 years in agricultural-related work, must be confirmed to the position by the Maui County Council. Yap, who has worked in food safety and crop insurance, does not require council confirmation. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

PULEHU — From a young age, Rogerene “Kali” Arce loved being outdoors, a feeling that has carried her throughout her career.

“I just like being in the field, playing with bugs and getting dirty,” Arce told a group of county officials and invited guests at the Kula Agricultural Park Wednesday morning.

It is that passion for the outdoors that led Arce to a more-than-three-decade career on various islands in farming, agricultural education, agroforerstry, land conservation and ecosystem restoration.

And now, the 56-year-old Hoolehua resident has been appointed to lead the Maui County’s brand-new Department of Agriculture, the first such county department in the state.

Mayor Michael Victorino publicly introduced Arce at the agricultural park, along with his deputy selection, 40-year-old Weston Yap of Oahu. Yap was most recently a Hawaii Produce Safety program manager for the state Department of Agriculture.

Department of Agriculture Director appointee Rogerene “Kali” Arce talks with Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino.

Arce most recently served as acting program manager in the Natural Resources Management Division of Kalaupapa National Park on Molokai.

As the director nominee, Arce must be confirmed by the Maui County Council; Yap, as deputy director, does not need council confirmation.

Victorino said the selections was made on June 29 and that the two will officially start work around mid-July. He added that it may be the first time that a Molokai resident served as a department head for the county.

The two appointees will “make this department move forward,” Victorino said.

He admitted that in its early stages, he was not supportive of the department because “I didn’t want our farmers to be over-regulated.”

Deputy Director appointee Weston Yap looks on during the ceremony.

“But where we have taken it now and what we produced, the product, I think is a great step for the farmers in Maui County,” Victorino said.

In 2020, Maui County voters approved the establishment of the department by passing a charter amendment on the ballot.

With the backdrop of Kula-grown crops in the fields behind her, Arce said: “As director, my first kuleana will be to listen to our agriculture, crop and livestock producers and engage with them to learn how we can be an effective (department) and advocate for them.”

She added that she and Yap will hire a team to support the goals that the county’s Agriculture Working Group put together, which include developing sustainable regional agriculture, building economic resiliency, boosting resident health and food security by ensuring access to locally grown agricultural products, promoting healthy ecosystems through natural resource regeneration and protection, and developing programs to diversify and expand sustainable forms of agriculture.

As for her background, Arce said, “I have pretty much crossed all paths in agriculture,” from being a field person in the U.S. Department of Agriculture resource services office in Hilo right out of college to serving as an extension agent with the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Cooperative Extension Service.

She also went on to work in the “seed industry” which many see as “very controversial,” Arce acknowledged. State documents and past news reports indicate that Arce previously worked for Monsanto on Molokai.

“I wanted to learn myself what it was all about, and why people had questions,” she said.

She then worked for the nonprofit Molokai Land Trust.

Arce’s past jobs also include working as a lecturer at UH-Maui College teaching agriculture and Hawaiian field biology.

She added that she wants to be an example for other native Hawaiian women who also want a career in agriculture.

A graduate of Kamehameha Schools Kapalama, Arce earned a Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture from UH-Hilo. She also studied crop production, nursery management and livestock and Indonesian crop systems as part of a study abroad program.

In May 2020, she was awarded her Master of Science degree in agriculture from Washington State University after receiving a Certificate in Sustainable Agriculture the previous year.

As director, Arce said she will commute from Molokai to Maui and back, much like she did while working at Kalaupapa, though that commute was a three-mile trek in and out that she looked forward to.

Yap said Wednesday that he was excited about his new job that will plan for the future.

For more than a decade, he has worked in areas such as food safety and crop insurance.

“My career has been made on things that we worry about, but so often it’s always trying to help out after something happens,” he said.

What makes him excited is the ability to plan and “trying to get ahead” and “prepare and get on the same page before things happen.”

Yap has worked at Fresh Island Fish Co., Hawaiian Crown Chocolate and AgriLogic Crop Insurance Services. He has also served as a former bill analyst for the Hawaii Senate Ways and Means Committee and as an economic development specialist for the state Department of Agriculture.

Yap is a graduate of Punahou School on Oahu and the University of Washington.

The Advisory Selection Committee for the positions included William Jacintho, Vincent Mina, Bobby Pahia, Kilia Purdy-Avelino and Warren Watanabe.

“I believe the leadership provided by Rogerene ‘Kali’ Arce and Weston Yap will get agriculture where it needs to go in Maui County,” Pahia said in a news release Wednesday. “They have the education, experience and determination to oversee the important work of building this new department and make it a voice for positive change.”

The new Department of Agriculture office is located on Kaohu Street next to the rear parking lot of the Kalana O Maui building. For more information, see www.mauicounty.gov/2473/Department-of-Agriculture.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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