In a place where up to 85% of food is imported and the drought and overpopulation of axis deer are so bad that the governor earlier this year declared it a disaster, the candidates who want to serve as mayor of Maui County will have a momentous task ahead of them to strengthen the islands’ food system.
Boosting food security and figuring out how to make locally grown foods more accessible — and affordable — for Maui, Molokai and Lanai residents are top priorities for both Mayor Michael Victorino, who’s running for a second four-year term, and retired Judge Richard Bissen, who’s challenging him in the Nov. 8 general election.
Both candidates have made grand campaign promises to find ways to help support the county’s farmers and ranchers while also investing in agriculture as a way to diversify Maui’s tourism-dependent economy. But the way they plan to get it all done differs.
Victorino said he wants to build on the progress made during his first term by supporting the new Department of Agriculture, expanding the availability of county-owned land for local farmers and upgrading water systems to ensure there’s enough of a steady and affordable supply to grow crops.
Bissen, on the other hand, has spent months on the campaign trail talking about his big plan to finally transform the devastating overpopulation of deer on Maui into a thriving local industry, while at the same time using county funding to build industrial-scale processing facilities so local farmers and entrepreneurs have the infrastructure to compete with outside imports.
Regardless of who voters choose, Maui County’s next chief executive will be able to tap — and shape — the county’s fledgling Department of Agriculture to make good on their campaign promises.
The department is the first county-level agency of its kind in the state, created after voters in 2020 overwhelmingly supported a charter amendment to create the new arm of local government. Instead of enforcing rules like its state and federal counterparts, the agency that launched in July is charged with advocating for and securing money on behalf of Maui County food producers.
Although Victorino didn’t support establishing the department when it went in front of voters in 2020, he said in a recent interview that he now views it as a key player to bring federal and state dollars to farmers and ranchers. The department has added two grant writers, he said, but it hopes to hire a total of seven by the end of the county’s next budget year, which runs through June.
“There are literally hundreds of millions of dollars that are available each and every year from the various departments: USDA and FDA,” Victorino said, adding that right now, the county doesn’t have the bandwidth to pursue all of the funding that’s out there.
He also wants to focus on reducing barriers that farmers run into when trying to secure land and water. One of the main ways to do this, Victorino said, is by expanding access at the county’s agricultural parks, where the government gives local farmers access to plots through long-term leases at affordable rates. Much of the land is currently divided into 10- to 30-acre parcels, so Victorino wants to see smaller parcels offered — for example, two- or three-acre lots — to make it more accessible to small farmers.
Bissen said in a recent interview that he agrees that the lack of access to land and water are the biggest barriers to local farmers. But in talking with them over the course of his campaign, he said he learned that the county needs to examine some of its current programs meant to help them because rules and restrictions may be shutting some people out.
“I hear ranchers and farmers … complain to me about not being able to qualify for certain grant monies because they’re either too big or too small,” he said.
Among the other issues Bissen wants to see the local government take a more active role in: building expertise within the Department of Agriculture to help food producers price products so they’re competitive with mainland imports; purchasing county-owned farming equipment that can be rented at low rates to farmers who might not otherwise be able to afford it; and investing in building a food processing facility for the community, so local vendors can use equipment like dehydrators and find help storing and distributing their products.
Throughout the course of this election season, both candidates have also made bold promises to deal with the deer, but they have different ideas on how to do that.
Victorino says he plans to mitigate the problem by hitting up the federal government for health inspectors who are needed to sell the meat, and purchasing more mobile slaughterhouses that can be deployed to nonprofits and hunters. The county recently purchased two, which should be up and running by the start of the year, he said.
“I hope and pray and I get re-elected because I want to be here to see all of this come to fruition,” Victorino said.
Bissen, on the other hand, has said that one of his top priorities will be figuring out how to turn the invasive species into food — and a source of income — for more local families by investing not only in mobile slaughterhouses, but also processing facilities and distribution networks to market venison for humans — and meat for pet food, too. But in the meantime, he said the county needs to look at eradication in some places where the situation is so critical that property owners just need the herds off their land.
“They are growing faster than we can control and it is without question the biggest concern for our watersheds,” Bissen said at a recent debate. “So when I say ‘eradicate’ that is exactly the word I mean.”
No matter who voters elect, Maui County residents who work in the local food system have their own ideas on what they’d like to see the next county leader accomplish.
Hunter Betts, an avid hunter, commercial fisherman and restaurant owner on Maui, wants the next administration to tackle the overpopulation of deer in a way that focuses on equity. If the county is going to make big investments, he wants the government to support a greater number of local hunters, rather than the select few who have been granted access to the private lands where most of the herds are — or are allowed on to that land because they bring high-end clients with them who pay to hunt.
Instead, Betts would like to see the county take the lead on spearheading programs that could feed more local families. On the mainland, Betts said, there’s a program called Help Us Stop Hunger that allows hunters to donate meat to food banks; in an ideal world, he’d want Maui to find a way to funnel venison to supply local schools.
“Anybody who lives here who’s not really rich understands the struggle,” Betts said.
Although the invasive species problem has been one of the biggest issues this campaign season, that’s not the only long-festering problem that farmers want to see the county focus on solving.
For Gerry Ross, a farmer in Kula, the No. 1 issue he wants the next mayor to address is figuring out how to turn the county’s food waste into nutrient-rich compost. Local governments across the world, including Honolulu, offer community composting programs that give residents the chance to either drop off or have their food and green waste picked up at the curb to then be transformed into mulch and compost to feed farms and home gardens.
A group of farmers has been pushing for this for over a decade, Ross said, but there’s been little movement. If the next administration had the political will to launch a program, he said, it could bolster healthy soil while also reducing waste in the landfill.
“It’s an opportunity that is just sitting there,” Ross said. “The administration has to take a real proactive role in it.”
To help break down longstanding barriers, Autumn Ness, who helped start the Maui Food Hub, a nonprofit that serves as a middleman for farmers who want to sell their produce to Maui families, said she thinks the county’s next leader should assign staff to be solely dedicated to solving the community’s most pressing agricultural issues.
Take the county’s agricultural parks, for example: In 2018, the county purchased an additional 262 acres to expand the Kula Agricultural Park, but the process to open that up to farmers has been slow going. Ness said the next mayor should assign a staffer whose sole job is to make the land available in the next year.
She also wants to see the next county leader assign someone to look into restoring Maui County’s fish ponds and tap another staffer to tackle Maui’s deer problem. There’s currently a county task force, community hunting club and a number of county officials looking at the issue, but because there are so many players involved, progress can be slow, Ness said.
“Sometimes just paying one person to be the person that organizes everybody else is a really, really good investment,” she said.
Besides weighing in on the race for mayor, Maui County voters this year will choose who they think is best qualified to serve in all nine Maui County Council seats. They’ll also vote on more than a dozen charter amendments that could drastically change how the local government operates.
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.
“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Stupski Foundation, Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.
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