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Farmers say ‘no’ to proposed county Department of Agriculture

VIEWPOINT

Very soon, voters in Maui County will be receiving their ballots. Among your many choices on the ballot will be a charter amendment question: “Shall the Charter be amended, effective July 1, 2022, to establish a Department of Agriculture to develop a sustainable regional agricultural system for Maui County?” On the surface it may sound harmless, but there is a lot behind the simple question that should cause you to strongly consider voting NO.

During the first week of September, the Maui County Farm Bureau polled its members to determine how our farmers and ranchers felt about the proposal to create a county Department of Agriculture. The results revealed a strong objection to the proposal with 84 percent of farmers and ranchers responding, saying “no” to the ballot question.

There are four major reasons our members voiced such strong opposition:

• This is not the right time to expand government. Revenues are plummeting and many of our residents are without jobs, some even losing their homes — in fact, the unemployment rate has hit 21 percent on Maui, and the future is uncertain. Setting up this department as described will cost taxpayers several million dollars and is projected by its proponents to cost at least another $5 million to $10 million per year to fund it. At a time when government should be streamlining its operations, more financial burden on our residents is unwarranted.

• The goals of the proposed new county department duplicate or conflict with many other federal and state organizations that regulate, advocate for and oversee agriculture activity. Farmers must comply with laws, regulations, and policies under U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, the Hawaii Department of Health and many others. Farmers and ranchers also work closely with the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Farm Service Agency, the Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and others who play a role in guiding agricultural producers. We should be enhancing and encouraging these existing partnerships instead of trying to duplicate them.

• Farmers don’t need another bureaucracy to regulate their activities. Farmers testified at the council hearings that this will be yet another regulatory bureaucracy, making farming more difficult rather than helping. Their fears are justified — the proposal included an entire division of compliance and enforcement within the new department. Although the details have since been removed, the council added language to allow the new department to regulate and enforce against farmers. This places farmers in Maui County at an unfair disadvantage since every new rule and restriction will only apply to Maui farmers, not to farmers in any other county. This will make it more expensive and more difficult for Maui farmers to compete with other farms throughout the state, or from the Mainland.

• Creating an entirely new department is no small undertaking. It requires a change in our county constitution. Its goals and objectives, not to mention costs to taxpayers, should be well-reasoned. Maui has a Charter Commission whose purpose is to thoroughly vet proposed charter amendments and conduct a robust community outreach effort. They meet only once every 10 years, but they are scheduled to convene next year. Unfortunately, with no advance consultation with the state Department of Agriculture or Maui’s dedicated long-time farmers, the council, in a 6-3 vote, chose to bypass the Charter Commission in its rush to create this new department.

The farm and ranch members of the Maui County Farm Bureau grow and raise nearly every agricultural product on Maui, including vegetables, flowers and nursery products, livestock, tree crops, fruits, eggs, poultry, seeds and more, as well as producing value-added agriculture products. Our farmers are as diverse as our crops, but our collective voice is strong on this issue, vote no on this charter amendment.

* Teena Rasmussen and her family are owners of a third-generation flower farm in Kula established in 1979. Rasmussen is currently serving as the volunteer president of the Maui County Farm Bureau.

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