As Michelle Galimba overlooks Kuahiwi Ranch’s coastal pasture, the past few years’ drought is evident: Just a few cattle graze, grass is thin on the ground.

Like many in Hawaii, the family operation is contending with persistent drought. Galimba and her brother Guy – who co-manages the ranch – are juggling their entirely grass-fed herd between pasturelands.

Galimba now also has Hawaii County Council District 6 constituents on her mind as one of a cohort of newly minted lawmakers. The inclusion of Galimba and others like her holds promise for Hawaii’s agricultural sector after what many consider more than a decade of political inaction.

Among Galimba’s priorities is ensuring there are incentives and subsidies for farmers across Hawaii County, whether they are big or small or focused on broccoli or beef.

Michelle Galimba stands outside her
Hawaii County Councilwoman and rancher Michelle Galimba wants to approach her time in office with a pragmatism she hopes will empower her community, in more than just agriculture. Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2022

Ranchers and farmers have long wanted representatives with a greater understanding of agriculture, and now they are pinning their hopes on bills being introduced to ensure Hawaii’s food system becomes more productive and profitable.

The 2022 legislative session was relatively successful, according to Hawaii Farm Bureau Executive Director Brian Miyamoto. And the momentum could continue, Miyamoto says.

Sixth generation Big Island rancher Tim Richards ascended from his County Council seat to the Senate, becoming vice chair of the Agriculture and Environment Committee. He’ll be joined there by Molokai Sen. Lynn DeCoite, a third-generation homestead farmer who says she wants communication to get better between regulators, legislators and the agricultural community.

Rep Lynn DeCoite during DHHL info meeting at the Capitol Auditorium.
Sen. Lynn DeCoite, pictured here in 2019, is a third-generation homestead farmer. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

In the House, Rep. Cedric Gates will helm the Agriculture and Food Systems Committee. It’s a role Gates could be a good fit for given his heavily agricultural constituency in Waianae, says Hunter Heaivilin of Hawaii Farmers Union United.

Heaivilin, a legislative advocate for HFUU, believes that the way the Senate and House committees have been populated — not just chaired — bodes well for agriculture moving forward.

Agriculture has been a popular talking point among politicians, though positive outcomes have been rare, Heaivilin says.

A web of compounding factors influence Hawaii’s agriculture and food system — from local grass species to global supply chains — issues that can be hard for legislators to understand, no matter their intentions.

“The easy answer is rarely right,” Heaivilin says.

Galimba has found herself chided for not quickly jumping into arguments or contentious issues, especially on social media.

“If you’re having a nuanced position, it comes off as being dishonest, unfortunately,” Galimba says.

Empowering A Home District

Most of Galimba’s life has been steeped in agriculture.

Her father Al was a rancher and dairyman, helping run the Meadow Gold Dairies’ Oahu operation before returning to the remote Ka’u district to ranch cattle. And though she loved her rural upbringing, surrounded by animals — especially horses — she did try other things.

She followed her interests at University of California Berkeley after high school, which led to her getting a Ph.D. in comparative literature. The reason for attaining the degree was similar to her postdoctoral return to ranching.

“It was total ‘follow your bliss’ stuff,” Galimba says.

An image of Kuahiwi Ranch from the hills looking towards the southern coast of Big Island, where it is evidently less green
Big Island farmers and ranchers have been dealing with years of drought. Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2022

Galimba didn’t aspire to politics, though she has been on more than a dozen boards and committees from community to federal levels, including Hawaii’s Board of Agriculture.

“I’m not a ‘big personality’ person and I hate public speaking and it’s very painful to do,” Galimba says.

Richards says Galimba is “no novice when it comes to leadership and policy.”

That will help when it comes to developing policies to empower her home district, which is both remote and economically challenged, he says.

“Agriculture is big there, but the agricultural economy needs a lot of work,” Richards says.

District 4 Sen. Tim Richards Courtesy: Ann Ferguson

On the county level, Galimba wants to focus on finding money to infuse businesses across the island, whether farming, ranching or in general. She also wants to ensure the county enforces its own land-use regulations, focuses on sustainability and continues to bolster environmental protections.

Richards’ main focus is ensuring equitable access to water and land statewide, though he wants to see the entire food system become efficient, sustainable and productive.

Richards and DeCoite both want to address Act 90, an almost 20-year-old law calling on the Department of Land and Natural Resources to transfer certain agricultural lands to the Department of Agriculture. The law has been contentious, due to disagreements over how best to manage Hawaii’s natural resources. DeCoite says she hopes the transfer of lands will finally happen this coming year, through an executive order from Gov. Josh Green.

“I’m hoping that he would, in good faith, because that would be the biggest win for food security,” DeCoite says.

Moving forward, Galimba has her sights set on how to help her district, and at the moment doesn’t have ambitions beyond that.

“I mean, I just kind of love my island,” Galimba says. “I’m not that crazy about being in airplanes all the time.”

“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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