Sharon Hurd is generally well liked in agricultural circles.
But her first foray with the Legislature, as Gov. Josh Green’s pick to lead the Department of Agriculture, was less than cordial. Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz ended up deferring her Jan. 11 budget briefing, saying she was unprepared and disorganized.
She went home and studied up on the myriad issues facing the department, from its lack of organization, chronic underfunding and absence of a systemic plan to achieve the state’s decade-old goal of doubling food production by 2030. Hurd returned two days later, and the hearing went smoothly.
“I got my marching orders,” Hurd said, adding that Dela Cruz did her a favor. “You have to be bold. You have to go big.”
Hurd still needs Senate confirmation to make her appointment permanent, but she’s getting to work in the meantime — as are lawmakers who want to improve Hawaii’s food security and agriculture overall.
For years, political rhetoric has hovered over food and agriculture with several piecemeal bills to increase government spending on local food. But the goalposts have been pushed back as any significant plans to address the litany of pitfalls in Hawaii’s food system have been virtually nonexistent.
Two bills have been introduced this session, which opened last week, that are aimed at corralling representatives from 20 different organizations to take a holistic approach to creating a sustainable food system.
Senate Bill 420 and Senate Bill 84, introduced by Sens. Mike Gabbard and Lorraine Inouye, respectively, would create such a working group under the Department of Agriculture or the Office of Planning and Sustainable Development.
Gabbard introduced a similar bill last year but it died in the Senate. Now entering his seventh year as chair of the Senate agriculture committee, he says it is high time a proper plan is put in place and that it’s his top priority for this year’s session.
“It’s a must,” Gabbard said.
Tight Purse Strings
The ag department has struggled with funding for years, receiving less than 1% of the state budget. The issue is raised consistently in agricultural circles, often used as an example of the dissonance between talk and action.
It’s a message Hurd received during her budget briefing. She said she learned between hearings this month at the Capitol that the Department of Agriculture doesn’t have much of a budget because it hasn’t asked for one. That’s something she hopes to change if confirmed.
The department’s funding woes only worsened last year because it could no longer tap into the Environmental Response, Energy, and Food Security Tax – commonly known as the barrel tax – since lawmakers yanked it as a source in 2021.
Aimed at food security and agricultural development, the tax siphoned 15 cents from every $1.05 of tax added to petroleum products but was diverted to the general fund after lawmakers took issue with how DOA was using the money.
Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke oversaw the House Finance Committee when the barrel tax when food security was struck from the statute. She described it as a “side slush fund.”
In fiscal year 2020, DOA used just short of $3.2 million from the barrel tax, with $900,000 for irrigation personnel and maintenance and $450,000 for Covid-19 relief grants for farmers. Funds were also allocated to organizations as grants to help attend conventions and used for general administrative costs.
“Any department would want that type of fund that they can tap, but that’s kind of subverting executive power and the legislative power,” Luke told Civil Beat in a recent interview. “Can you imagine the abuse and the lack of accountability?”
Hurd said the barrel tax revenue was a “safety net,” and reflected the department’s historic underfunding.
But Luke said the underlying issue is that DOA has not been aggressive or ambitious enough in asking for money.
House Agriculture and Food Systems Chair Cedric Gates has taken aim at the department’s operational funding, trying to fill the gap left by the barrel tax. His goal is to at least double the operational budget by taking money from general funds or special funds, which could come from new taxes.
More Than A Goal
For now, Hurd is working off a budget that was drafted by her predecessor, Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser. Since her appointment earlier this month, Hurd has made a plea for a further $800,000 this fiscal year, which ends June 30, and $900,000 for capital improvements in the coming fiscal year.
But she is thinking bigger.
Hurd has worked at DOA for 15 years, acting as the interface between Hawaii’s food system and state and federal governments, leveraging millions of dollars in grants, including microgrants, for farmers and ranchers.
Her experience in the department is cutting both ways. Some lawmakers fear that means she would just maintain the status quo, acting more as a state regulator than a promoter of agriculture.
But agriculture industry representatives are maintaining a cautious optimism, built off Hurd’s long history of helping put money into the hands of farmers.
“Any grower that’s outside of politics is going to support her because they all know who she is,” said Ken Love, president of Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers. “She’s just the right person — at the right time.”
It’s up in the air whether or when she will be confirmed by the Senate.
“In terms of her predecessors, I think they all tried,” Love said. “But I think they were responsible to others, and didn’t want to rock the boat.”
It has been just over three weeks since Hurd took the role, and it continues to be a learning curve as she acquaints herself more with ranching, procurement, biosecurity and other specifics of her department.
Her simple vision of “growing what we eat and eating what we grow” belies her understanding of the food system.
When Hurd talks about aquaculture, she considers the need for laboratories; talking about cattle and livestock, she discusses invasive species, irrigation, slaughterhouses and supply chains; when talking about making farms sustainable, she talks about the lack of housing, need for land, the need for interagency cooperation — especially with permitting issues.
The director alludes to bigger asks in the future, such as filling the gap left by the barrel tax with a “contingency fund,” along with other more ambitious requests such as an omnibus farm bill, akin to the federal Farm Bill.
But to do that, she said she has to continue listening to the legislators, along with players in the entire food system. And that’s what she plans to do.
“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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