Last year Maui County residents overwhelmingly voted to create a new county-level department devoted to agriculture — a first in Hawaii and a pivotal step in the effort to fill the economic void created by the loss of sugar and pineapple.

Set to begin operations next July, the purpose of the department, as outlined in the county charter amendment that establishes it, is to boost the shaky state of food security, a problem made painfully clear by the fact that Hawaii residents routinely pay some of the highest prices in the nation for staples such as eggs and milk.  

The new department would also be tasked with increasing opportunities in agriculture, promoting healthy ecosystems and diversifying forms of agriculture.

But precisely where the agency will focus its efforts is still an open question.

“Agriculture is such a broad term,” said Kyle Franks of Green Goddess, a half-acre permaculture farm on Molokai. “I would love to see an agriculture department that promotes more organic and natural farming methods and that’s really different from what’s typically being done in most commercial ag operations.”

Some farmers were supportive of the charter amendment to create an agriculture department, while one farmers association on Maui opposed it. Hawaii Farm Bureau

Jennifer Karaca, who wrote the language in the charter amendment with county Councilman Shane Sinenci, said in her experience as a former legislative analyst, residents sometimes find fault with county departments for failing to accomplish certain things for which those departments aren’t actually responsible. 

To avoid that problem, the Maui County Department of Agriculture Community Impact Working Group has been conducting a public survey aimed at sussing out what the community expects out of the new agriculture department so that these priorities can then be formalized in the county charter.

Questions include whether the department should address things like invasive species and pests or work to improve access to affordable land and water.

“The agriculture sector has been feeling like there has been little to no support,” said Karaca, founder of The Common Ground, a Maui nonprofit focused on addressing food insecurity. 

Maui County already has an agricultural specialist who works under the auspices of the Office of Economic Development. But Karaca said the job of bolstering a sustainable regional agriculture system is far too enormous for one person to tackle.

“There is a severe lack of funding for agriculture which has caused a decline in the number of farms and the number of farm workers since the 1980s,” she said. “The infrastructure is severely degrading. There’s a lack of commercial kitchens and distribution facilities and workforce housing. Ag lands are constantly at risk of being resold or developed for things other than agriculture.”

By standing up a department whose mission is aligned with the agricultural sector’s needs, Karaca said there will be more opportunities to funnel funding and resources to address the gaps and shortcomings that inhibit the county’s farm and food industry.

“It’s not just about farmers,” she said. “I think all residents should be really concerned with the reality that we, as a county and a state, are incredibly food insecure.”

Maui taro farmer Penny Levin said she hopes the department will take on farm mentoring programs to help build the next generation of agricultural workers. 

She also wants to see an agency that encourages regenerative agricultural practices. And one that supports traditional Hawaiian starch crops like taro and breadfruit — not just because they’re Hawaiian but because they can help the state wean itself off its reliance on imports like rice and pasta.

“I’m excited about us getting an agriculture department,” she said. “Not having to wait for Oahu to make decisions for us is a good thing. Having our own agency in our own county is a good thing because it will mean that it’s more responsive.”

Fears Of Overregulation

Some farmers have raised concerns that the department might throw up added regulations that farmers would have to contend with.

To alleviate such worries, the county council added a line to the approved amendment language saying that the department’s primary purpose would be for advocacy — not regulation.

But some farmers remain troubled by the idea that the department might ultimately become just another regulatory body with a new set of rules to enforce.

Availability of affordable land is a major problem for farmers. Maui fruit and vegetable farmer Jordan Longman, right, has expanded his access to farmland by forging unique relationships with wealthy homeowners who, for various reasons, allow him to grow food on their property free of charge. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2021

“Farmers are regulated by a lot of different agencies already and to add a county department into the mix is concerning for a lot of people,” said Jamie Ronzello of Barking Deer Farm on Molokai. “But I don’t think that’s the intention.”

A member of the steering committee that’s developing a roll-out plan for the department, Ronzello said she wants to amplify the voice of Molokai agriculture workers whose concerns tend to be unique. 

A focal point for many Molokai farmers, she said, is figuring out a source of capital to help farmers erect fences around their crops to protect them from the mouths of starving axis deer.

During a period of drought that sickened and starved many animals earlier this year, deer devoured papaya, bananas, lilikoi, hibiscus and various other plants not normally part of their diet on any land that wasn’t fenced in, inflicting serious economic damage to some farmers.

“My sense is a lot of times these agencies get put in place without the voice of farmers really considered, so I’m hopeful that it is an opportunity to be sure that doesn’t happen with this department — I’m just not confident yet,” she said. “But I do hope it’s not another jump that we have to go through, another regulatory agency, because there are so many of those already for farmers to jump through.”

Another major uncertainty is how much the new department might cost.

The county won’t determine its allocation for the department until next spring when the mayor and county council settle on a budget. 

But Karaca said she anticipates the department will aggressively go after federal grants so that it doesn’t need to rely exclusively on money from the county.

“The goal of the department was not ever to be just a drain on taxpayer resources,” she said. 

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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