With the future of a state agency in charge of transforming Hawaii’s old plantation lands into working farms in the balance, battle lines formed Friday between Gov. David Ige’s administration and big agricultural organizations on one side and lawmakers who say the agency has failed in its mission and should be dissolved on the other.

Hawaii Grown

The hearing before the Hawaii House Agriculture Committee produced no result, as the committee voted to defer until Friday a bill that would dissolve the corporation.

However, the hearing made clear that the embattled Hawaii Agribusiness Development Corp. still has powerful supporters – including, with some qualifications, Gov. David Ige’s agriculture chief — who want to keep it around. The ardent support comes despite two recent reports, by University of Hawaii economists and the Hawaii State Auditor, that concluded the 25-year-old agency is a failure.

Lawmakers have introduced a bill to dissolve the corporation and fold it into the Department of Agriculture. Although only a couple of the bill’s supporters showed up to testify during the virtual hearing, including Anne Frederick of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action, dozens submitted written testimony.

Jimmy Nakatani, executive director of the Agribusiness Development Corp., pictured in 2019, defended the agency during Friday’s hearing. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat

Meanwhile, ADC’s supporters are pushing back. During Friday’s hearing, the corporation was joined by the Department of Agriculture, the Hawaii Farm Bureau, the genetically modified seed industry, and a group called Friends of Waimanalo, which said it has started to work with the corporation.

Of the few who showed up to testify, most merely stood on submitted written testimony. Even Jimmy Nakatani, the corporation’s executive director, did nothing more that read his written testimony. In fact, Nakatani wouldn’t even answer a question posed by the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Amy Perruso, who represents the central Oahu district that includes former plantation land now controlled by the corporation.

In an interview after the hearing, Perusso said she was disappointed by Nakatani’s unwillingness to speak candidly to the committee. However, she said that was not unusual.

“We have great difficulty getting clear, specific, accurate answers from them on all kinds of issues,” she said.

Still powerful players stood behind the ADC with written testimony in support. They included Dole Food Co. Hawaii; the Kauai Chamber of Commerce; Crop Life America, a trade group representing chemical pesticide makers, and Robbie Melton, a former corporation board member who also served as chief executive of the Hawaii Technology Development Corp.

“Their goal is to help farmers and the agriculture industry,” Melton wrote in support. “They have many forward thinking ideas to improve the agri industry in Hawaii.”

But some who have taken a close look at the corporation recently have been unimpressed. For example, the bill cited a report by the Hawaii State Auditor, released in January, that found the 25-year-old corporation has done little to fill the economic void caused by the collapse of Hawaii’s sugar and pineapple plantations.

A report by University of Hawaii economists, meanwhile, called the ADC a “fiasco.”

Perusso pointed out that the ADC is not merely an obscure entity attached to the Department of Agriculture. The corporation has the power to acquire and develop lands for agriculture, and to that end the Legislature in recent years has appropriated more than a quarter of a billion dollars to the ADC, including about $23.4 million for operations and $238 million for capital investments. Despite such large investments, it has been difficult for lawmakers and the public to see how the money has been spent and how well the corporation has been fulfilling its mission.

Meanwhile the corporation and the Department of Agriculture have so strongly resisted attempts to hold the corporation accountable that in 2018 the agency opposed a measure to help the Hawaii papaya industry because the measure also required an audit of the ADC. At the time, Nakatani said he was too busy to be audited, and then-agriculture department director Scott Enright agreed.

Perusso said she was confident that the bill will pass out of the committee next week. In the meantime, she said she was also encouraged by the testimony of the current Hawaii Agriculture Board chair, Phyllis Shimibukuro-Geiser, who suggested that the department could take over the corporation’s key functions of managing land as well as things like irrigation systems.

Even though Shimibukuro-Geiser technically opposed the bill, Perusso said such a move would be a step in the right direction when it comes to getting an out for farmers to use to grow food in Hawaii.

“We need to really focus our attention on small farmers,” she said. “And the Department of Agriculture is the one to do that.”

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