The director of Maui’s newly launched county department of agriculture is expected to be announced on Wednesday following an almost two-year wait.

The agency, which launched officially on Friday, has been in the works since November 2020, when Maui County residents voted to implement it. Island residents were concerned over food security, over-dependence on tourism and the decline in agricultural production across the state.

More details about the department’s future and vision are expected to be shared Wednesday, though community members who have helped chart its future say it has one core function: to advocate for farmers and ranchers.

There has been broad-based support for the department from the community, as it seeks to lessen its economic reliance on tourism through the Maui County Department of Agriculture Community Impact Working Group.

While the process of voting for the department revealed some fissures in Maui’s agricultural sector, as some argued it would lead to more regulation, farmers and ranchers had come to present a united front, according to working group member Reba Lopez. 

“It’s going to be an advocacy department,” Lopez said. That means working with farms, not regulating them, like the Hawaii Department of Agriculture. “The difference is going to become apparent in the next year.”

The result of community discussion is a four-pronged focus on addressing water access issues, regulator barriers, government hurdles and helping to facilitate growth in the industry, according to Lopez, president of the Haleakala chapter of Hawaii Farmers Union United.

Ed Wendt taro farm patch loi in Wailua Maui wide view.
Maui is the first county in the state to adopt and implement its own department of agriculture, to help farmers deal with regulatory oversight from state and federal departments. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

That’s because the county’s department will aim to address existing barriers — housing, land access, labor, access to funding — and provide solutions, issues that farmers have raised in the working group’s surveying.

Maui County locator mapSouth Maui council member Kelly King says part of the problem is that farmers and ranchers feel disenfranchised by the state Department of Agriculture, as its direction and focus is typically spread across the state.

“The average farmer doesn’t really have access to the state Department of Agriculture,” King said.

As a consequence, farmers have been left to fend for themselves, without access to grants and programs that could make their lives easier. “Most local farmers don’t farm to make a killing, they farm to make a living,” she said. “They don’t have people to write these grants and find grant applications.”

That’s one thing Lopez says the department will help with, while also advocating for agriculture on the state level, on behalf of farmers, to address the common issues in agriculture – from the cost of labor and doing business, climate change, as well as water and land access.

“What kind of fire do you have to hold their feet to, to inspire change? That comes from the community.” — Hawaii Taro Farm founder Bobby Pahia.

The advocacy comes as farmers try to contend with the unique agricultural conditions laid out for them by the state, which has shown little evidence that it is bolstering agricultural production and locally grown food in Hawaii.

One example of lawmakers’ inaction is the portion of the state budget — less than 1% — allocated to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, says Hawaii Taro Farm founder Bobby Pahia.

“My message to everyone that I speak to is that we need to increase agriculture from a government level,” Pahia said.

But for the government to put words into action, it requires pressure from the community. “We know that long lasting change happens at the legislative point of things. But what kind of fire do you have to hold their feet to, to inspire change? That comes from the community,” he said.

Early Issues

Though the community is enthused about the department’s potential, doubt has been cast over the current administration’s interest in agriculture — Mayor Mike Victorino was opposed to its formation.

The department received $1.4 million out of the county’s record-setting $1.06 billion budget for the year, which proponents believe illustrates Victorino’s lack of enthusiasm.

Maybe it’s good to get a slow start if we end up with a format that doesn’t end up working,” said King, who is running against Victorino for mayor this year.

The mayoral elections will have an effect on the department’s future, as the new director’s role will be tied to Victorino’s tenure. 

Jennifer Karaca, who wrote the charter amendment’s language with Councilman Shane Sinenci, says between $3 million and $5 million would have been a more appropriate budget given how large the county is and the myriad issues each island faces.

“We have two other islands that are having significant struggles with their food systems,” Karaca said. The current budget covers the salaries of eight employees, all on Maui. “The more people we have, hands on, the quicker it can be developed.”

Karaca says communication between the community, the council and the administration had been minimal.

“We’ve had to fight the whole time with the administration,” she said. “This is something that could completely change the community for the better and it’s like they’re dragging their feet.”

Nonetheless, in a statement on Friday, Victorino said the department’s launch was of “historic importance” and its role is vital to helping diversify Maui’s economy.

Finding A Leader

According to Pahia, who was on the Advisory Selection Committee, there was an influx of applicants — many from the mainland — and the committee’s recommended candidate was entrenched in Maui County agriculture.

The county put out a call for applications for the director and deputy director roles in April, later raising both salaries to over $100,000 after concerns were raised over pay disparities with other county departmental roles.

Whoever is selected as director of the department faces an uncertain tenure too, as their role is tied to the current mayor, who may not be voted back into office next year.

Along with the deputy director, who is expected to be announced on Wednesday, the director will be charged with filling out the department’s remaining roles.

Victorino said he was impressed by the pool of applicants and their local knowledge, and thankful to the working group.

“At the onset, I was very clear with the working group that we needed a department that would be a strong voice and an advocate for farming and ranching on Maui, and I am confident we are building the team to achieve that,” Victorino said.

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

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

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