[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. It is part of Changing Maui, a larger series on the changes facing Maui County.]
It started with a conversation I had with Shan Tsutsui a few weeks back. A group of Mahi Pono’s California overlords had just concluded their first official visit to the island to glad-hand politicians and other agricultural “stakeholders.”
At the time, I was bugging Tsutsui – Mahi Pono’s local representative – for an interview with Ryon Paton, one of the visitors to Maui and a co-founder of Trinitas Partners. Trinitas Partners operates dozens of farming subsidiaries in central California, including the Pomona Farming partnership with a Canadian pension fund, which, in December, bought 41,000 acres of former Alexander & Baldwin ag land and 15,000 acres of watershed for $262 million and created Mahi Pono to run it.
Tsutsui turned down my interview request. Paton and pals had already left for O‘ahu, he said.
“Why, are they going to buy land over there, too?” I teased.
Tsutsui chuckled briefly, but apparently, it’s no joke.
“Well, we’re going to look for other opportunities if it’s in ag,” he explained. “That was a directive from the governor for us to consider other farming opportunities and partnerships. It may not be necessarily acquisitions or purchasing of land; it could result in partnerships with existing farmers who need investment capital.”
Pretty impressive – a directive from the governor. Except Governor David Ige denied that he issued any kind of “directive,” when I called his office last week. In fact, his scheduler was unable to find an appointment with Mahi Pono on his calendar at all.
That clarified, the governor said he isn’t opposed to working with the company.
“We are looking for businesses and farmers who are interested in helping us achieve our goal of doubling local food production” Ige said. “We do know that the market is largely on O‘ahu, so clearly, we’re looking for businesses that would be interested. If Mahi Pono is interested in investing in activities on O‘ahu to expand food production, we definitely would welcome that,” Ige said.
When Tsutsui made his now-disputed Mahi Pono gubernatorial directive and partnership comments, he also mentioned the plight of O’ahu’s Nalo Farms, which closed down in Waimanalo last month after a series of 2018 weather events destroyed the farm. In April, severe flooding washed away fencing, irrigation structure, and a dozen acres of the family farm’s coveted Nalo Greens, a staple on restaurant menus throughout O’ahu. Subsequent storms in the months that followed made it impossible for Nalo to recover, owner Dean Okimoto told me last week. Okimoto, a respected agricultural leader in Hawai‘i, estimates that the devastation cost him $1 million. All he has left now are 2.5 acres, which are up for sale.
Okimoto said he’d read about Mahi Pono and thinks what the company has announced (that it plans to grow crops to feed Hawai‘i) sounded “really good for ag.” He said he hadn’t heard from anyone at the company yet, but had been told by Maui friends that Shan Tsutsui “would be calling me. I don’t have enough land to sell, but they might be interested in the [Nalo Greens] name, which is respected,” he said.
Nalo Farms isn’t alone in its troubles. It’s been a bad year for agriculture around the state. Flooding in Kaua‘i overwhelmed farmers, and the volcanic eruption on the Big Island destroyed hundreds of acres of cropland.
“In many cases, a lot of our local farmers run on a month-to-month basis,” said Tsutsui. “They get a big storm or hurricane barreling through and the floods ruin you for one season and that’s it. So there may be those sort of partnership opportunities to consider.”
So if a company were looking to make agricultural investments – as Mahi Pono apparently is – there are numerous possibilities.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch – specifically the 56,000-acre one that Mahi Pono now owns – there is still uncertainty about what the new owners intend to do.
A map outlining the exact parcels purchased still has not materialized. The one that was recently distributed to select organizations was merely a copy of an existing A&B map, Mahi Pono consultant Sean Lester acknowledged. Tsutsui said the map “is the only one we have right now” and said he would see “if we are getting others soon.” As for what Mahi Pono intends to do with the land, the same three items keep circulating in gossip: cattle, coffee and oranges, but nothing has been confirmed or announced.
In the meantime, the Hawai‘i State Legislature opened its 2019 session last week, and Tsutsui and community activist Tiare Lawrence were spotted among the many other lobbyists and interest group representatives making the rounds Thursday. It’s unclear whether Tsutsui was visiting lawmakers wearing his senior vice president of Mahi Pono operations hat, or in his capacity as a managing partner of the Strategies 360 “strategic positioning” firm, which put together the Mahi Pono deal in the first place.
When asked about her presence, Lawrence emphasized that she accompanied Tsutsui “not as a paid employee, but as a community organizer who is passionate about feeding our people.” She added, “Mahi Pono has publicly stated multiple times the desire for local food production. I was there to support Mahi Pono efforts for food security in Hawai‘i.”
Lawrence’s food security passion is commendable and shared by most residents who want to see more of their food grown locally. However, Mahi Pono co-owner Trinitas Partners hasn’t engaged in a lot of food security activity in the 11 years the company has been operating in California. Up until last year, the investment group pretty much focused on monocropping thousands of acres of almonds in Central California’s San Joaquin Valley.
In an interview published by the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, its senior attorney, Adam Keats, described the amount of San Joaquin Valley acreage devoted to almonds as “insane,” calling the crop a “poster child for the wastefulness of Big Ag.” He noted that almonds and other nut trees, which have largely replaced vegetable row crops, weren’t grown for food security, but as “commodity crops” for “high-profit” export. Keats added, “When food and water are mere commodities, it’s easy to end up with a system where almonds are grown for export to Asia, while we import our vegetables and fruit from South America.”
Efforts to understand whether Trinitas/Pomona has undergone a significant change of heart between its almond mentality on display in the San Joaquin Valley and the “food security” philosophy expressed as part of its Maui acquisition have been thwarted so far by company principals, who have yet to respond to MauiTime’s repeated requests for interviews.
Image 1 courtesy Mahi Pono
Image 3 courtesy Facebook/Nalo Farms