On Friday morning two key Hawaii lawmakers, U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele and state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, got together in Wahiawa to tour what Dela Cruz is calling a big new thing for Hawaii agriculture.
There in the heart of Dela Cruz’s district, the University of Hawaii is building a center for value-added agriculture products in an old warehouse formerly owned by Tamura’s, the island grocer known for fine wines and ahi poke.
The Wahiawa Value Added Product Development Center marks a major transformation for the 1.6 acre parcel acquired by the state-owned Agribusiness Development Corp. in 2014. Charged with building a diversified agriculture industry in Hawaii, the ADC has been roundly criticized for buying up former plantation land but not putting it back into production.
In recent years, the Legislature has appropriated more than a quarter of a billion dollars to the ADC, including about $23.4 million for operations and another $238 million for capital investments.
The old Tamura’s warehouse was one of the ADC’s more visible question marks: a vacant, $4.3 million white elephant in the middle of a town near Oahu’s North Shore.
On Monday, the ADC will be on the firing line when a House investigative committee starts two days of hearings centered on a review of the ADC conducted by the Hawaii State Auditor. The ADC’s executive director, Jimmy Nakatani, and ADC’s senior executive assistant, Myra Kaichi, are scheduled to testify on Tuesday.
But on Friday, the ADC was in the limelight. Dela Cruz, who is chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee and the ADC’s most prominent supporter, guided a tour aimed at showing that the ADC is at least beginning to do something big, and to explain how that big thing fits into a broader vision for agriculture on Oahu. Also on the tour was Kahele, a freshman congressman who previously worked with Dela Cruz in the Hawaii Senate and Hawaii Senate Vice President Michelle Kidani.
Kahele vowed to monitor the 2023 federal farm bill to ensure Hawaii can land money for its agriculture industry on Oahu and the neighbor islands. The key, he said, will be to talk to stakeholders for details of what they need most. Too much of the discussion about supporting ag, Kahele said, has lacked substance.
“Up until now, it’s really just been headlines and talking points,” he said.
Dela Cruz, whose district includes Wahiawa and nearby former plantation lands, has long called for supporting Hawaii farmers by creating more agriculture-based products — not just fresh produce and proteins to consume locally as food, but also packaged goods to export. Adding value means manufacturing produce into things like jams, roasted coffee and chocolate made from Hawaiian cacao. As Dela Cruz sees it, this kind of activity is a win for farmers, entrepreneurs and Hawaii’s economy, which could benefit from the manufacturing jobs as well as the jobs on the farms.
He wants the Wahiawa Value Added Product Development Center to be a magnet for other companies and a place where students can learn the business and generate ideas for new products while possibly creating new markets for farmers.
“Hopefully this will help farming get sexier, so people really want to get into it,” Dela Cruz said.
Also in the works: the state has put out a request for proposals to acquire equipment that producers can use to extend the shelf life of processed products, especially things like juices and dips. Known as high-pressure processing, the technique uses pressure to pasteurize food and can allow Hawaii companies to export perishable foods far outside the state.
Meli James, co-founder of Mana Up, a business and consumer brands accelerator that works with local food companies, commended state officials for working with farmers, business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs to see what the food industry needed most. She called the high-pressure processor a big boost for companies like Ulu Mana Inc., which makes products like hummus from Hawaiian ulu or breadfruit.
“I think its game changing,” she said. Extending expiration dates means opening the works to more exports from Hawaii, said James, who also is president of the Hawaii Venture Capital Association.
“If you actually want to create a value-added product, you can take it all the way now,” she said in an interview. “The world becomes your oyster when it comes to value-added ag.”
Brian Miyamoto, executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, said it’s key for farmers and producers to be able to work together and share equipment. The Wahiawa center, he said, can be part of a hub for doing that.
“Farmers can’t afford to do everything themselves individually,” said Miyamoto, who was also on Friday’s tour.
The University of Hawaii Community Colleges division is overseeing the $12 million construction project, which will be managed primarily by Leeward Community College and the community college system.
The idea is to provide training not just for food processing but also marketing and packaging, “the whole gamut of how to produce a product and sell a product,” said Michael Unebasami, the community colleges’ vice president for administrative affairs.
UH is also planning a certificate course in Agricultural Entrepreneurship, according to a project summary prepared by UH.
After visiting the value-added center, Dela Cruz’s entourage moved across town to Lake Wilson, one of Hawaii’s largest reservoirs and the main irrigation source for Oahu’s thriving pineapple fields. The group was joined by Kyle Barber, manager of agriculture for Dole Food Co. Hawaii, which owns a dam and spillway that controls the lake.
Barber said the system has enough water for Dole to use 8 million gallons with plenty left over for other farmers, which now use about 8 million gallons per day. The system once provided water for the entire Waialua sugar operation, he said, and can provide 40 million gallons per day.
Dela Cruz said he is working on a deal under which Dole would donate the dam and irrigation system to the state, on the condition that Dole can use up to 8 million gallons a day.
Kahele said there’s federal money available under a dam safety program to pay for an estimated $20 million in needed upgrades to the dam and spillway.
Ho Farms in Wahiawa is perhaps best known for its cucumbers and cherry and grape tomatoes sold in local supermarkets. Less well-known is that Ho Farms moved its operati0ns from Kahuku to Wahiawa, where it now operates on about 120 acres, under leases entered in 2018 and 2020 with the ADC.
Neil Ho, the second-generation owner, explained that previously, in Kahuku, the farm had a five-year lease, which made it difficult for the farm to justify building infrastructure like irrigation systems for growing crops.
A 25-year lease with ADC means Ho Farms can think about investing more in its land.
“The ADC has allowed us to think about farming as a long-term business,” he said.
While one happy farmer is hardly conclusive proof that the ADC is making the best use of the lands it controls, Dela Cruz pointed to Ho as anecdotal evidence that the agency is heading in the right direction.
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