[MauiTime first broke the story of the sale of Alexander & Baldwin’s old sugarcane lands in November 2018. Our ongoing Changing Maui: Mahi Pono series investigates the new owners of these massive land holdings and the changes they will bring to Maui. View our coverage dating back to November by clicking here. It is part of Changing Maui, a larger series on the changes facing Maui County.]
[Editor’s note: This story has been updated since its original posting. This is the version that ran in the Feb. 7 edition of MauiTime.]
There’s an old joke: How do porcupines make love? Very, very carefully. Well, a delegation from Maui’s newest and biggest landowner Mahi Pono participated in a quills a-quivering meeting last week with an estimated 50 members of the Alliance of Maui Community Associations. The MP posse included parent company Pomona Farming’s big dog Ryon Paton, on island for another round of meet-and-greets, senior vice president of operations Shan Tsutsui, consultant Sean Lester, and booster Tiare Lawrence (I say “booster” because the issue of whether she is actually employed by MP remained unanswered at press time). Not present: MP president Ann Chin. The group was invited to the association’s monthly meeting at the Kaunoa Senior Center in Spreckelsville.
Those who attended said the delegation’s hour-long appearance at the two-hour meeting had its ups and downs. Members from community associations around the island wished them well but also pressed hard for details on the December $262 million sale of – well, we’re not exactly sure how many acres there are at this point, more on that shortly – former Alexander & Baldwin sugarcane land and East Maui watershed to MP. MP is the result of a joint venture between California agricultural investment company Pomona Farming and Canada’s Public Sector Pension Investment Board (PSP Investments).
The media was specifically not invited to this meeting; organizers worried that the press might inhibit participants and reduce candid discussion. So I relied on notes taken during the meeting, as well as input from those who attended, some for attribution, others on background.
Among the big headlines: MP intends to plant coffee and citrus, and raise cattle (which had been revealed during meetings with various politicians this past month, but not publicly until now). The company has already brought in “the best citrus experts in the world” from Sunkist, who said the land is “very suitable” for citrus. West Maui coffee grower Kimo Falconer was mentioned as someone who will be involved in MP’s coffee operations.
Mahi Pono plans to invest in a slaughterhouse (a revelation that isn’t going over well with local animal rights activists, judging from online discussions). It plans to develop “superfoods.” There will be opportunities for farmers. It will look into new uses for old cane haul roads. It will create a processing, packaging, distribution center that might be available to the public. It will provide lots of jobs. There will be better “food security.” By the time the operation is up and running, the Mahi Pono investment could run as high as $600 million (including the purchase price).
Those were the high points. The low points? That the high points didn’t have much in the way of details.
“About half the people thought, ‘Gosh, this is a new opportunity, a new chance. Let’s work with these guys and see if we can make this a reality,’” said Ha‘iku Community Association president Lucienne de Naie after the meeting. “The others felt that the hard questions weren’t being answered, and their trust level wasn’t very high.”
De Naie’s personal opinion: “They didn’t know much about what they had bought.”
Which brings us to a prime example: the acreage. When moderator Dick Mayer introduced the Mahi Pono group, he mentioned the 41,000 acres of farmland and 15,000 acres of watershed purchased. Tsutsui, according to those who were there, corrected him and said the total acreage was 40,000. Then Paton corrected Tsutsui, saying the total acreage was 60,000.
Afterwards, Mayer reflected, “That struck me as very odd.”
So at this point, I guess we should just say that Mahi Pono owns a big ol’ mess of land in Central Maui until it can clarify matters.
There were other unknowns. At one point, Paton said he couldn’t make major commitments on most issues without consulting with higher-ups. Who would that be? Paton was one of the founders of Trinitas Partners, which started the company’s whole agricultural investment ball rolling in the San Joaquin Valley and was directly involved in the merger with PSP Investments. Perhaps the Canadian pension fund is playing a more active role than merely banker.
Other unclarified issues: There are no estimates of water use. No maps of the exact parcels purchased were provided or discussed. The land hasn’t been allocated yet for specific crops. Questions about disputed titles to Hawaiian lands remain questions.
“I think they need to have a real sense that there is a deep hurt in the Hawaiian community over that land and the water,” de Naie reflected. “If they want to be successful, it’s part of [Mahi Pono’s] kuleana to reach out and get people talking about it and find out if there’s any solutions on the horizon.”
There was at least one definite “no.” That was the answer when an attendee asked if MP would be willing to put all of its acquired land into a conservation easement to show good faith regarding its no-development promise. Paton reportedly replied that the pension fund wouldn’t go for it, but he didn’t explain why.
And speaking of PSP Investments, much remains unclear about the intentions of the venture’s financial backer. Paton and others continue to emphasize that PSP’s investment is long-term and not dependent on instant income – so called “patient money.” That concerned Pa‘ia businessman Martin Brass, who used to work on Wall Street in mergers and acquisitions. He vigorously questioned Paton about those statements during the meeting.
“I hope they can pull this off, but there’s no such thing as free money,” Brass explained in an interview last week. “It’s an ambitious effort that has many risks to it. If this project can’t generate a return at some point in the future, there will be some manager whose compensation is based on this portfolio and if this [Mahi Pono] part isn’t performing… they’re going to get rid of it.”
That, in Brass’ opinion, “is probably the biggest risk of everything being discussed, that at some point [the land] could go back on the block, with uncertain protections for the Important Agricultural Lands.”
Kihei Community Association president Mike Moran commended Mahi Pono representatives for even showing up. “There have been lots of developers who would never have bothered.”
But Moran echoed the sentiments expressed by others when he said of Paton, who did most of the talking at the meeting, “He didn’t seem so well-informed about Maui. Maybe I was expecting too much, but if he was going to do all the talking, maybe he should have been better prepared. I hope he’ll give it another shot as he learns more. We all want it to succeed.”
Moran also wasn’t thrilled by the crops mentioned. “How much coffee are they going to grow? It’s not food. It can’t sustain us.”
It didn’t sound like coffee, cattle, and citrus were at the forefront of Mahi Pono’s meeting with Mayor Michael Victorino last week.
“Squash, cabbage, and corn,” were the potential Mahi Pono crops Victorino mentioned during an interview with KAOI’s Jack Gist, although he added that nothing had been finalized. “It gives me a lot of hope that we will see green fields out there again, raising edible crops.”
Victorino said he was “really, really excited” by the possibility of a collaboration between Mahi Pono and Maui County. However, like many of the people who attended the community association meeting, Victorino also expressed “apprehension. Like I told them… the proof is in the pudding. I’m watching. Everybody’s watching. Be careful what you say because we’ll hold your feet to the fire.”
MP’s Tsutsui did not respond to a request for comment on this meeting, or on many other questions submitted to him by MauiTime since the December 20 sale.
Photo 1 courtesy of Alexander and Baldwin
Photo 2 courtesy Kihei Community Association