For the past few years, the state Legislature has sunk tens of millions of dollars into state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz’s and the state Agribusiness Development Corporation’s vision of turning the Whitmore area in North-Central O`ahu into a thriving agricultural center. Thousands of acres of land have been or are slated to be acquired from the former Galbraith Estate, Castle & Cooke, and the Dole Food Company. Plans are underway to develop a much-needed irrigation system, to secure water sources adequate to serve the lands purchased, and to create a ‘food hub’ complete with cafes, workforce housing, processing and packaging facilities, and — per Dela Cruz’s wishes — a pedestrian bridge that connects the area to Wahiawa town.
Jeff Melrose, a Hilo-based planner who in 2015 oversaw the preparation of the Statewide Agricultural Baseline Project, suggested at a recent talk sponsored by the University of Hawai`i’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning and the American Planning Association that state ownership is one way to increase the likelihood that farming will, indeed, occur on agricultural lands and not be turned into fake farms or upzoned for urban development. However, he added, “There’s a limit to how much the public should spend.” He said he didn’t think the state should buy up all of the thousands of acres Dole has up for sale, but the Whitmore area — one of a number of agricultural “hotspots” throughout the state — is “the right place to invest in at this point in time.”
Indeed, the biennium budget Gov. David Ige released last month doesn’t allocate any money for the purchase of agricultural land. It does, however, call for $4 million in general obligation bonds to be used in fiscal year 2018 for a “state packing and processing facility,” which may include the food hub planned for more than 200 acres of former Dole lands in the Whitmore area.
The budget also anticipates that the Department of Agriculture’s loan program, which has a ceiling of $5 million, will likely see an increase in demand “as the Galbraith lands are made available to farmers.” It also seeks a legislative allocation of $5 million to that program.
Currently, limited water resources restrict farming to fewer than half of the 1,200 acres of former Galbraith lands managed by the ADC. Melrose noted that stringent food safety regulations may also hamper full utilization of the lands.
“Getting to scale is a big deal. A lot of little farmers are going to lose because of food safety regulations. They’ve gotta have domestic water,” he said, adding that a larger farmer may be able to help achieve that.
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Arkansas, Hawaii Experts
Draft Plan for Food Hub
When the state Agribusiness Development Corporation spent several million dollars a few years ago buying 280 acres in the Whitmore area from the Dole Food Company, it knew that the land had potential to become a diversified ag-industrial complex, but it didn’t really have any notion of how to make it happen, given that nothing like it exists in the state.
While the ADC had an idea that it wanted public-private partnerships to drive the development, when it came time to issue a request for proposals and a request for qualifications to get facilities built, “that’s where we got stalled,” ADC executive director James Nakatani told the agency’s board of directors in November. “You need to know what you want,” he continued, and the ADC didn’t know what it wanted. In fact, Nakatani said it’s still working out what kinds of processing facilities it wants to include.
Enter the University of Arkansas and the University of Hawai`i, which the ADC hired last year to craft a “food hub” master plan.
“We got approval for $400,000 … to find someone with experience,” Nakatani told the agency’s board of directors in May. The planners at the University of Arkansas, in particular, are “more versed in small communities in ag. We don’t have that much experience master planning for an ag community,” he said.
At the board’s November meeting, Nakatani added, “This will not only benefit Hawai`i. It could be a national model … for rural areas in agriculture.” Representatives from the University of Arkansas Office of Sustainability and Community Design Center and the University of Hawai`i’s School of Architecture then briefed the board on what they envisioned the development of the property to be.
Having a layout similar to that of a school campus, replete with tree-lined walkways and a common lawn/athletic field, the parcel would also include a technology plaza, shops, eateries, facilities for processing and packaging food, housing, and even terraces of taro patches.
“The campus model is one that gets stronger over time,” said Ken McCown, head of the University of Arkansas’s Landscape Architecture Department.
Possible tenants could include a local poi processor and a coffee roaster that could sell value-added products, McCown said. He and his students also envision about 30 housing units, each about 400 to 500 square feet, for farm workers or people who might be visiting and working in the “ag tech hub.”
In addition, McCown said, “Senator Dela Cruz was adamant about having a bridge that connects Whitmore Village to Wahiawa.”
Nakatani said he thought that much of the development could be achieved through private-public partnerships, but suggested that the packing plant might need to be publicly funded since “there’s no real money in that.”
A final master plan was expected to be completed soon.
— Teresa Dawson