State officials and stakeholders have suddenly found themselves asking who will carry on the work of the late James Nakatani.

The death of the state’s Agribusiness Development Corp. Executive Director James Nakatani has left a huge hole in not just the agricultural sector but also the public agency he has led for more than a decade. 

Lawmakers have joined many in the community in mourning the longtime farmer and agricultural advocate, holding a moment of silence Monday in his honor after he died early Sunday morning. He was 74.

Agribusiness Development Corp. Executive Directer Jimmy Nakatani died Sunday at age 74, following decades of service to agriculture in Hawaii. (Courtesy: ADC)

Nakatani’s death comes at a time when ADC projects he had played a part in spearheading were coming to fruition – such as the state acquisition of Wahiawa Dam and development of the Central Oahu Agriculture and Food Hub – which many say leaves a void in Hawaii’s agricultural leadership.  

Nakatani became one of the state’s most influential civic administrators, as the Waipahu High School and University of Hawaii graduate moved up the ranks after getting his start on his family’s watercress farm in Pearl City. 

At ADC, an agency charged with forging a new post-plantation era path for agriculture, Nakatani helped the organization acquire about 23,000 acres of agricultural land along with key infrastructure left by the Big Five sugar companies in Hawaii. 

“Many of us are mourning his loss,” Hawaii Farm Bureau Executive Director Brian Miyamoto said. “How do you fill that gap? How do you replace the irreplaceable?”

Family Farm To State Agriculture

After college, Nakatani worked on his family’s watercress farm and became president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau before going to work for the state.

His service spanned four administrations, beginning with his appointment as chair of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture in 1995, where he stayed until 2003. 

He was Congressman Ed Case’s state director in the early 2000s and became DOA’s deputy chair until his appointment as executive director of ADC in 2012. 

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Scott Enright was chair of ADC’s board of directors when Nakatani was hired and despite their occasional differences of opinion, they always agreed on what was needed to ensure the eventual prosperity of agriculture in Hawaii, Enright said. 

“The guy bled agriculture. Everything that he did and wanted was for ag,” Enright said. 

Those who worked with him say he represented almost every facet of the agricultural supply chain, from growing to manufacturing and sale. 

But one of his key focuses was ensuring that farmers would have access to affordable land and water in perpetuity, which informed much of his work at ADC. 

Nakatani leveraged tens of millions of state dollars to acquire land and key pieces of water infrastructure throughout Oahu and Kauai during his time at ADC. 

“His legacy will be those tens of thousands of acres that will stay in agriculture, rather than being housing, in central Oahu,” Enright said. 

Water flows near a reservoir located along Kaukonahua Road near Wailua, Oahu.
Nakatani focused much of his efforts through ADC on acquiring land and water infrastructure for farming.
(Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Under Nakatani, the ADC became integral to the development of the Whitmore Project, a multi-agency, public-private initiative championed by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz. It’s now called the Central Oahu Agriculture and Food Hub.

The food hub was central to Nakatani’s vision for agriculture, one that included diversified crops, processing facilities and infrastructure that would ensure farmers had access to not only land and water – through ADC ownership – but also markets, according to Dela Cruz. 

Nakatani took lessons from around the country and world, Dela Cruz said, seeking inspiration from Arkansas and Oregon to New Zealand for how Hawaii could ensure the eventual prosperity of post-plantation agriculture. 

Undaunted By Audit

Nakatani weathered harsh criticism after a 2021 state audit of the ADC found serious management issues.

The Hawaii State Auditor chastised ADC’s performance, saying it “found an agency that is generally unaware of its unique powers and exemptions, and has done little – if anything – toward achieving its statutory purpose.”  

Enright says that any failings by Nakatani are shared by the various boards he served, which were also lambasted in the state audit, while many of Nakatani’s colleagues believe he was unfairly criticized in the audit. 

Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz speaks to the Civil Beat Editorial Board, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022.
Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz’s relationship with Nakatani began in 2003, when Dela Cruz was elected to the Honolulu City Council. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022)

The audit became the subject of further investigation by a special House committee, though ADC continued to work and was this year continuing its acquisition of key infrastructure and various initiatives through the Legislature. 

On Wednesday, lawmakers announced that more than $100 million was directed to ADC in the final draft of the state budget bill, including $93.8 million for water infrastructure and land acquisition and $10 million for a food and product innovation network.

“With all the controversy and adversity, he still moved ahead. He didn’t shrink, like most people would. He didn’t tuck his tail,” Dela Cruz said. 

And while Nakatani could appear “curmudgeonly” and some bristled at his decisions, he commanded respect because “he was honest, he was fair and he believed in what he did,” Dela Cruz added.

Big Shoes To Fill

Nakatani’s death comes at a time when his goals were coming to fruition, raising the question of who will take over and how effective they might be. 

This could slow the pace at which ADC’s plans move forward. 

In the meantime, Mark Takemoto, Nakatani’s senior executive assistant, was chosen as acting director at an emergency meeting of ADC’s board of directors on Monday. 

Takemoto will remain in the role until Nakatani’s permanent replacement is found. 

Dela Cruz said he will work closely with whomever the board hires permanently as ADC executive director, and is confident the agency will continue to move forward.

The Farm Bureau says Nakatani left a footprint in the agency and agricultural sector.

“I don’t think his legacy is done,” Miyamoto said. “I think his legacy is agriculture itself.”

“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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