Senator Accuses Agribusiness Board of Doing Nothing to Fulfill its Mission

posted in: August 2012 | 0

Step up or get lost. That’s basically is what state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz told board members of the state Agribusiness Development Corporation on July 11. That day, Dela Cruz outlined his vision to turn former plantation lands in central O`ahu into a thriving agricultural hub.

“If you guys aren’t up to the challenge, that’s fine. We can find someone else,” he said.

He blew into the state Department of Agriculture Plant Quarantine Division’s board room with his power point presentation, recounting the ADC’s history and reminding board members of all of the agency’s special powers to side-step the bureaucracy that bogs down other state agencies. ADC leases and licenses aren’t restricted to any particular term or qualification process and they can be directly negotiated. Simply put, the ADC can put farmers on the land faster and easier than any other state department.

Dela Cruz, who grew up in Central O`ahu, launched into his Whitmore Village Development Plan to revitalize current and former plantation lands there. He had pushed hard for it during the past legislative session via various bills. Some passed, others didn’t. Still, his goal to “create some kind of synergy and scale” to allow young O`ahu farmers to pursue agriculture remained.

A major component of his plan, the use of more than 1,000 acres of Galbraith Estate land, falls under the ADC’s purview. Or it will once the purchase from the Bank of Hawai`i, the estate’s trustee, is finalized. In the next few months, the Trust for Public Land is expected to complete the $25 million purchase of 1,723 acres, 500 of which will then be transferred to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. The remaining 1,223 acres will go to the ADC.

Dela Cruz has recommended that the ADC enter into a memorandum of agreement with OHA to transfer management of its 500-acre parcel, except for a five-acre archaeological site containing the Kukaniloko Birthstones, to the ADC.

“Once ADC takes possession of the Galbraith Estate, it will be able to offer long-term license agreements and public-private partnership contracts to a number of local farmers for the use of 50 to 200 acres each within the 1,723-acre plan,” Dela Cruz writes in a summary of the Whitmore Village plan.

“Twelve-hundred acres is not enough,” he told the ADC board. “We need access to water and infrastructure. We need to deal with food safety, marketing, distribution,” he said, adding that he envisioned a co-op arrangement, “with ADC being the nucleus.”

Dela Cruz had hoped to add 500 acres in Kunia, currently under the DOA’s control, to the ADC’s inventory, but legislation he had introduced supporting that transfer failed in the face of strong opposition from DOA director Russell Kokubun. Even so, Dela Cruz envisions farmers with ADC leases for the Kunia lands, prepping the Galbraith Estate lands “so ADC can quickly jump-start the Whitmore Village Agricultural Development Plan.”

Despite failing to bring the Kunia lands under ADC control, Dela Cruz succeeded in passing legislation (Act 106) to acquire Dole Food Co.’s 24-acre former processing and packaging plant in Whitmore Village for $3.6 million.

“We could create an ag industrial park,” said Dela Cruz, who visited the site with ADC board member and former DOA director Letitia Uyehara.

“If we were to do something like this, [it] would be a one-stop shop” for people to pick up products from farmers and for farmers to package their produce securely and safely.

Dela Cruz also asked for the ADC’s help in acquiring 257 acres from Dole that have access to irrigation water from Lake Wilson. In fact, it includes the land under the lake. The land is worth $5.6 million and already supports two farmers, he said. As far as future tenants, he noted that Dole, which is already growing cacao on ten acres in Waialua, has said it would need 150 acres to grow enough to make it worth processing locally rather than in San Francisco.

The University of Hawai`i’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources is also experimenting with growing blueberries and tea at Poamoho, which is 15 minutes away from Whitmore Village, he added.

When Dela Cruz finished, several board members expressed their support for his concept, but wondered how it would be accomplished.

ADC board member and Department of Land and Natural Resources water deputy William Tam noted that the ADC has only four staff members to tackle such an ambitious proposal.

“Is there some thought to providing funds for more staff?” he asked.

“Not necessary,” Dela Cruz responded. The ADC has the ability to enter in to public-private partnerships. Farmers can do a lot of the work on their own with the right foundation and incentives, he argued.

“Farmers say if they get a long-term lease, they can get loans to [make improvements]. You have to use your land as leverage,” he said.

Tam, a former state deputy attorney general, then pointed out that negotiating arrangements with farmers, businesses, and other government agencies takes time.

“You can contract [it out],” Dela Cruz replied. “We see a lot of farmers that don’t have that luxury of time. … We have to become creative.”

ADC member David Reitow said the Whitmore plan was nice concept but will require “an awful lot of work getting this from the ground up.”

“If you don’t want to do the work, you shouldn’t be part of the board,” Dela Cruz responded, then went on the attack. “The law gives you so many unique advantages. … ADC does not even have a project to allow it to fulfill its mission. You haven’t produced anything that the law allows you to produce.” (With regard to Dela Cruz’s last comment, he cites in his own Whitmore Village plan summary the ADC’s partnership with Kaua`i’s Kekaha Agriculture Association to operate and maintain the vast plantation infrastructure as an example of the agency’s power, flexibility, and agility.)

Dela Cruz pointed to his and his staff’s efforts to produce the Whitmore Village Development Plan as an example of how to get things done.

“We haven’t taken years to do this. We’re not looking for excuses. We all drank the Kool-Aid [about food sustainability]. … The governor really needs to talk to the DOA to get it to understand we need those [Kunia] lands. The state’s taken a lot of hits because of Ho`opili, and Koa Ridge,” he said of recent decisions by the state Land Use Commission to place large swaths of agricultural land on O`ahu in the Urban District.

Every time agricultural land is placed in an urban zone, people want to know what the state’s plan is to get fallow land up and running, he continued. That, he argued, is the ADC’s job.

Regarding the ADC’s 2008 strategic plan, Dela Cruz asked, “What excuses does this board have that it hasn’t updated its plan, its benchmarks, shown results? … I’d hate to see the ADC become another bureaucracy.

When ADC board member Paula Hegele asked how many people are looking for land and how many partners the ADC will need to support the 1,700 acres, Dela Cruz said that’s what she should work on with staff.

“A lot of the pieces are already done,” he said, and his staff is working on doing more, like working with the Hawai`i Agriculture Foundation on applying for funds to purchase Dole’s 257 acres.

“That’s just us, not the ADC. That’s why I don’t want to hear any excuses. My office only has two people and we’ve been meeting with Dole, Castle and Cooke. We’ve been meeting with farmers,” he said. “There are already opportunities for partnership.”

When he finished, everyone in the room laughed a little when ADC board chair Marissa Sandblom thanked him for starting off the meeting.

“I’ll be back,” Dela Cruz promised. Dela Cruz is chair of the Senate Committee on Water, Land, and Housing.

— Teresa Dawson

Volume 23, Number 2 August 2012

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