[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.]
Yet another corporate entity has manifested in the unfolding Mahi Pono saga, only this time, there’s an actual farmer involved. Why is he there? What will he be doing? The answer is currently as opaque as most everything surrounding the new mainland owners of Alexander & Baldwin’s former sugar cane fields.
The farmer is Ceil Howe III, 45, and he’s listed as a manager of Mahi Pono Holdings, a subsidiary wedged between Pomona Farming and Mahi Pono on the growing corporate tree of business entities established by the marriage of Pomona, a California investment group (and subsidiary of Trinitas Partners) and the Public Sector Pension Investment Board (PSP Investments), one of Canada’s largest investment managers. The fact that there is a Mahi Pono Holdings suggests that there may be future Hawai‘i real estate to add alongside Mahi Pono LLC. Mahi Pono Holdings was registered on December 24, four days after Mahi Pono purchased Alexander & Baldwin’s 41,000 acres of ag land and 15,000 acres of watershed for $262 million, or about $4,700 per acre.
The State of Hawai‘i business registration website lists Howe as a manager, along with Mark Drouin and Christian Bonneau. Drouin is Managing Director and Head of Natural Resources at PSP Investments. Bonneau is listed as “Senior Director—Natural Resources” at the company, which invests the pension funds of Canadian federal workers, such as the Canadian Royal Mounted Police. It’s understandable why they would be included as managers – after all, it’s PSP money that bankrolled the A&B land acquisition.
Howe’s involvement, however, is less clear cut. He is a third-generation member of a prominent Kings County, California farming family who owns Westlake Farms, once one of the largest agricultural operations in the county. The Howes are considered to be a founding family in that region, and their farm is located near Kettleman City, at the south end of the San Joaquin Valley on the edge of the Tulare Lake Basin.
(The story of Tulare Lake, fed by four rivers, is one of epic environmental malpractice. Once the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi River, it often grew to an area of some 700 square miles after spring runoff from the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains. However, beginning in the mid-1800s, booming agricultural water use led to the creation of dams, levees, canals, and other irrigation methods that effectively dried up the lake and devastated its ecosystem, which included massive wetlands. These days, Tulare Lake only reappears in the dry basin when there is flooding from heavy winter snowpack melt. In today’s drought-ridden California, that means almost never.)
Howe’s LinkedIn page lists him as the chief operating officer of Westlake Farms, a “partner” at Pomona Farming, and a business owner in C&J Farm Management. He’s also described in Trinitas Partners’ literature as its “Director of Farming.” In Kings County, Howe has served as a trustee for the Central Union Elementary School District and as a member of a local water board. Currently he sits on the advisory board for Waterfind USA, an offshoot of an Australian company that creates trading markets for water rights.
I tried unsuccessfully to contact Howe this week, personally and through Westlake Farms, where no one ever answered the phone. When I emailed my query about Howe’s duties at Mahi Pono Holdings to newly-named Mahi Pono Vice President of Operations Shan Tsutsui, he replied that Howe will be “helping put the local farming team together.” Tsutsui did not respond to a subsequent request to interview Howe. I would have contacted Howe’s bosses at Trinitas/Pomona, Ryon Paton and Kirk Hoiberg, but they have remained elusive, despite Paton’s statements in a corporate video vowing “a commitment to transparency and accountability from the top to the bottom.”
So it’s unclear what Howe will bring to the Mahi Pono effort, although – judging from his resume – water issues would be strongly suggested.
As for Howe’s family farm, Westlake, it’s been a bumptious history, according to articles in trade publications and newspaper stories.
Westlake Farms once encompassed some 60,000 acres, many devoted to growing cotton.
In 2001, according to an article in the Western Farm Press, the Howes abruptly decided to stop growing cotton, and, in the course of a year, went from one of California’s biggest cotton producers to growing none at all. Howe’s father thought there was too much uncertainty in the cotton market and had no desire to partner with any financiers to mitigate the circumstances. His decision was regarded as profoundly wise when cotton prices subsequently plummeted.
But that didn’t mean the farming operation thrived. In the post-cotton aftermath, 65 of the farm’s 80 employees were let go. Much of the land remained fallow and/or unfarmable and the family’s subsequent action in 2001 involved – literally – a really shitty idea. The Howes sold 14,500 Westlake acres to the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County for $27.4 million, according to the Los Angeles Times. The idea was to build a plant that would mix treated L.A. sewage with green waste (such as wood chips) to create compost that Westlake would then use to fertilize crops on the 12,000 acres it leased back from the new owners (for $300,000 per year).
In the deal’s aftermath, several local environmental groups sued Kings County for not considering air quality impacts and argued that the plans violated some parts of the California Environmental Quality Act. That case was settled.
The Howes initially made the deal anticipating that it would save Westlake Farms some $1 million a year on conventional fertilizer when the new “poo-tilizer” started flowing. However, lengthy delays plagued the project and, when it finally became operational in 2016, the output was a fraction of the original projections. The Howes filed suit to unwind their sale to the L.A. County Sanitation District. The status of that lawsuit is unknown.
Westlake shrank further, the Times reported, by selling more land to solar power developers “and others.” A 2016 article in the Hanford Sentinel stated that only 4,000 acres of pistachios, almonds, wheat, and alfalfa were being farmed at the once immense agricultural operation.
Those familiar with the family suggest that, given Westlake’s shrinkage, Howe is looking to expand his career options through Trinitas/Pomona, and now, apparently with Mahi Pono.
Image courtesy LinkedIn