Gov. David Ige’s plan to veto a $500,000 healthy soils program is being criticized by advocates for what they say is faulty logic.

Senate Bill 2989Hawaii Grown calls for the Department of Agriculture to establish a healthy soils program that would include a state soil assessment, a set of best practices and incentives for farmers and ranchers to work in a soil- and climate-friendly manner.

But the governor has said implementing such a program would be equivalent to setting up an entire new division under DOA, both in terms of cost and workforce. And he said Senate Bill 2056 already sets forth a statewide soil classification survey by 2024.

The House has indicated it will not override the governor’s veto if he goes through with it as planned before Tuesday’s deadline.

Nonetheless, advocates for the bill say the $500,000 injection was not supposed to fund the program in its entirety, just launch it, essentially leaving DOA to come up with its future. Meanwhile, DOA says such a task is too onerous.

Soil Bob Shaffer Coffee Big Island Hawaii Grown
Soil is seen as an important defense against climate change, as it stores massive amounts of carbon, while also acting as a foundation for productive agriculture. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

Healthy soil practices have come to be seen as integral to both sustainable agriculture and environmental health, as the world’s soils are a bank for carbon and help reduce erosion and retain water. For farmers and ranchers in Hawaii, healthy soils can require fewer fertilizers and other agricultural inputs, which saves money.

California’s Healthy Soils Program reduces about 108,075 tons in greenhouse gases emissions annually and this year is receiving more than $85 million from the state budget. It awarded $66 million to farmers for soil-friendly practices in 2021.

Hawaii’s DOA, while a much smaller department in a smaller state, is set to receive $52.9 million this year, in total.

DOA maintains that, in comparing it to the California initiative, it will be far too costly to implement, according to DOA Director Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser. She says DOA does not know exactly how much a healthy soils program would cost and lacks the expertise to manage the program.

“The (DOA) does not possess the elements of a science-based soil management and education program,” Shimabukuro-Gesier said in an email. “And neither the expertise nor resources to establish what is needed to operate a responsible, transparent, and effective statewide program to increase soil health and soil carbon capture.”

Sen Mike Gabbard speaks to media during Governor Ige's bill signing ceremony. 8 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Sen. Mike Gabbard says the rationale behind Gov. David Ige’s intent to veto his healthy soils bill is misguided. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

Sen. Mike Gabbard, who introduced the bill, says the appropriated $500,000 “is not peanuts” and was supposed to help the department get the program off the ground, though he doubted whether implementing such a program would require forming an entirely new division under DOA.

“All the funding doesn’t have to be there at the beginning,” Gabbard said. “Once you get someone in there, they will be able to get the funding and (federal) grants for a functional soils program.”

The bill’s language, formulated with Hawaii Farmers Union United, gives DOA some latitude by requiring it to submit reports on progress, along with recommendations, including any further proposed legislation — essentially leaving it free to make further requests of the Legislature in the future.

But DOA and the Ige administration point to other legislative initiatives which they believe provide the same function, such as the statewide soil classification survey and carbon sequestration incentive program, both of which the governor has already enacted.

Conventional agricultural techniques are now seen as bad for the soil, as they release carbon stocks through excessive tilling. Flickr: Matthew Dillon

The soil classification survey is being implemented to inform regulation, while the carbon sequestration incentive program had a wider scope than soil. The healthy soils program, on the other hand, is meant to educate farmers and ranchers on how to keep good soil, while also providing them incentives to do so.

HFUU government relations representative Hunter Heaivilin said, “The governor’s veto clearly confuses the classification of soils with programing to support healthy soil management.”

Heaivilin says if a lack of prescriptive language is an issue, along with the department’s apparent lack of expertise, it speaks to a larger issue of an underpowered and insufficiently resourced DOA workforce.

“If the Department of Agriculture needs more prescription around how to address healthy soils at all, within the state, I think that signals another kind of issue,” Heaivilin said.

The bill received wide support and is one of several that demonstrates a broad-based interest in regenerative agricultural practices and an openness to adopting climate-friendly farming and ranching methods.

Given the widespread support and that the bill is at the final legislative hurdle, vetoing it would be a missed opportunity, Heaivilin says. Other regenerative agricultural practices that found legislative support this year, such as a compost reimbursement pilot program that was made permanent and a new cover crop pilot program, indicate an agricultural shift.

“There’s clearly momentum here,” Heaivilin said. “Housing those programs under a single roof — where producers can come to see what’s going on, what works and what resources are out there — seems like a no-brainer opportunity.”

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.

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