Mahi Pono’s First Planting Signals Start to “Re-Greening” Maui
By Wendy Osher
Mahi Pono held a formal blessing ceremony today, marking the start of its first row crop planting since purchasing more than 41,000 acres of land in Central Maui in December 2018.
“Today marks Mahi Pono’s first major step in returning the land to active agriculture production, increasing local food production and helping to achieve food security for Maui, and our state,” said Shan Tsutsui, senior vice president of operations for Mahi Pono.
Mahi Pono executives called the event a historic moment for Maui as it transitions towards diversified agriculture. Lawmakers say the ceremonial event signals the return of active agricultural production to Central Maui and the “re-greening” of the central plain.
“Flying in from Oʻahu, it just broke my heart to see how dry it was, and so I was just so excited to see the plantings begin,” said State Representative Troy Hashimoto (District 8: Kahakuloa, Waiheʻe, Waiehu, Puʻuohala, Wailuku, Waikapū).
Company executives have said the purchase “ensures the continued use of these lands for agriculture, the preservation of green, open space in Central Maui, and a consistent and long-term source of revenue for the local economy.”
First Crop Choice is Potatoes
The first crop is on 40 acres and includes yellow, white and red potatoes, which will be ready for harvest in approximately three months. In addition to potatoes, our 2019 crop plan includes avocados, papayas, oranges, lemons, limes, coffee and macadamia nuts.
According to Mahi Pono, the choice in crop was two-fold–first looking at ways to become more sustainable by replacing imported products with those that are locally grown.
Tsutsui said, “In addition, the soil will do other things to help our soil re-mediate itself. There’s opportunities for us to move forward on a crop that wouldn’t need windbreaks to be put up ahead of time—(that) was also another factor of why potatoes were first.”
“Maui’s soil is ideal for growing potatoes and we are optimistic that potatoes will be a very successful crop, with the potential of becoming another signature Maui-grown product. We plan to rotate the planting and harvesting of approximately 10-acres at a time, reducing our need to import the potatoes from out-of-state,” said Tsutsui.
“This is a turning point for agriculture on Maui as former sugar cane fields return to active farming after standing idle for many years,” Maui Mayor Michael Victorino said. “This holds the promise of rewarding jobs for our residents, fresh produce for local dining tables and green, open space in our Central Maui valley. I believe that Mahi Pono will help our county become a leader in diversified agriculture for our local families here on Maui and across Hawaiʻi.”
Acting Mayor Sandy Baz said he ”looks forward to the greening of Maui again.” He said the efforts by Mahi Pono will help Maui to create food security and become more sustainable.
Mahi Pono crews are actively clearing other fields in preparation for planting. The next crop to be planted will be citrus trees – limes, lemons and mandarin oranges. Other crops scheduled for planting in 2019 include avocados and papayas; this is in addition to forage and cover crops that are currently being planted.
In May, the company announced its 2019 crop plan saying Mahi Pono’s long-term plans will include scaling up citrus fruit, coffee and grass-fed beef.
What’s Being Done About Field Maintenance?
During the Summer Fire Season
The ceremonial planting occurred as a 200 acre fire burned to the northeast in old sugar cane lands in Pāʻia. We asked company managers what’s being done to maintain their thousands of acres that are still un-planted, amid the summer fire season.
Darren Strand, General Manager of Farming Operations for Mahi Pono said, “We’re maintaining firebreaks and we’re trying to reduce risk in areas that we know will have either high susceptibility to fire or potential damage to structures or risk to people.”
As part of the maintenance strategy, Strand says large firebreaks have been cut along Haleakalā Highway, below the Pukalani community and around the Maui Baseyard. Over the next three-and-a-half years, Strand says all of the company’s acreage will have some type of crop on it.
“Most of it (will be) permanent crops like citrus, avacados, macadamia nuts and coffee. So as we move into that, certainly, the first step for us is planting potatoes in moving towards converting all these brown, dry acres into viable crop land,” said Strand.
Hundreds of Applications Under Review for
Mahi Pono Community Farm / Ag Park Lots
In July, Mahi Pono announced the acceptance of applications for Hawaiʻi residents and small local businesses interested in applying for a two-, five- or 10-acre parcels at its agriculture park. The first phase of the community farm available for lease will only include two- and five- acre lots on 40 acres of land in a 250 acre field in Puʻunēnē along Maui Veterans Highway. These lots can only be used for farming activities.
Mahi Pono’s community relations director, Tiare Lawrence said hundreds of people have expressed interest in the affordable community farm lots.
“To be here today is very exciting times for Maui,” said Lawrence. “This is an historic moment for Maui and I believe that Mahi Pono will play a major factor as we move forward in food security, sustainability and really revitalizing the agriculture industry here on Maui.”
Lawrence spoke about Tsutsui’s work during his time as former Lieutenant Governor for the state of Hawaiʻi. “He was very passionate about getting local food into our schools. Many months ago we started a keiki poi project and we helped to facilitate getting kalo in our local schools,” said Lawrence.
That project resulted in the delivery of poi to seven schools in Maui County, including communities in Hāna and on Molokaʻi. “Our next phase is getting local grown Central Maui potatoes into our school sites,” she said.
“We realize at Mahi Pono, a lot of these projects that we want to do, we can’t do without partnerships,” according to Lawrence.
Kaimana Brummel the engagement lead for the Blue Zones Project is one of those partners.
“We work to make healthy choices easier in Central Maui,” said Brummel. “I really see in our partnership with Mahi Pono that we’re taking a step right here on Maui to make that change. While I believe that Mahi Pono will be the beacon of sustainable agriculture through their partnership, which they have shown from their day one with Blue Zones Project and with HEAL, the Health Eating Active Living organization, that they are going to be a part of turning the tide of health on Maui through food and sustainability.”
Lawrence said the ag park is a work in progress. ”Our community farm was really a gift to the community and allowing our community to have access to land where they can sustain themselves—whether for commercial use or just feeding their families,” she said.
“As we work to return the land back to active agriculture production, providing an ag park for community farming has been an essential part of Mahi Pono’s long-term plans,” said Tsutsui, said in an earlier press release. “Increasing local food production and achieving food security is essential to Maui and our state, the ag park will provide small local farmers the opportunity to grow a variety of crops and bring them to market as well as value added food products for export.”
Future leases will be available on three additional identified plots and will include five- and 10-acres parcels intended for business use while the two-acre parcels are available for subsistence farming. The lease rates for lots will be $150 per acre, per year for the duration of the lease. Applicants must be a U.S. Citizen and Hawaiʻi resident for three or more years.
“The ag park parcels are ready to farm and have access to irrigation, windbreaks and ungulate fencing around the perimeter of the fields. It may be an ambitious goal, but we hope to have the leases executed as soon as possible and have the first local farmers on the land before the end of this year,” said Tsutsui in a press release issued in July.
Mahi Pono’s Community Advisory Board is chaired by Robert “Uncle Bobby” Pahia, owner of Hoaloha Farms. Members include: Vincent Mina, president of the Hawai‘i Farmers Union United, Maui County representative on the Hawai‘i State Board of Agriculture, and owner of Kahanu ‘Āina Greens LLC; James “Kimo” Falconer, owner of MauiGrown Coffee; and Ryan Earehart, owner of Oko’a Organic Farm. The advisory board is tasked with reviewing applications and providing recommendations on farmers and crops that best fit the agricultural needs of the island.