[Editor’s note: This story was updated on May 22.]
[In November 2018, MauiTime first broke the story of the $267-million sale of 56,000 acres of Alexander & Baldwin sugarcane land and watershed to Mahi Pono, a joint venture between California-based Pomona Farming and a Canadian pension fund. Our Changing Maui: Mahi Pono series examines all facets of the sale and the chages it will bring to Maui. It is part of Changing Maui, a larger series about changes facing Maui County.]
Mahi Pono General Manager Larry Nixon abruptly resigned from the company Tuesday, less than 16 weeks after he was hired. In an email to colleagues that was obtained by MauiTime, Nixon wrote, “This was a decision I didn’t take lightly, I really wanted to be on this team during this transition and to be with you when it fired up. Don’t mistake my early departure as anything other than a change in direction for me.”
The resignation came as a shock to Mahi Pono management, according to insiders, and does not bode well for the company. Nixon was the only real farmer on the leadership team and certainly the only person in the Maui operation with experience in launching large-scale agricultural operations.
In a short email to staff, Mahi Pono’s California-based president Ann Chin said, “Larry Nixon has informed us that he will be resigning his position as general manager of farming operations. Mahi Pono is extremely grateful to Larry for his commitment and dedication since joining our team.“
She said Darren Strand would assume Nixon’s duties in the interim. Strand, former president of Hali’imaile Pineapple Co., joined Alexander & Baldwin as head of ag operations in 2018, after the company shut down its sugarcane operations. Most recently he worked for Nixon at Mahi Pono. It’s beginning to feel as though A&B never left the building.
Nothing is known about Nixon’s reasons for resigning, and his email indicated that he has no immediate plans to leave Maui. “I haven’t even decided what my next steps are, so I will get to enjoy your progress from the other side of the fence,” he wrote. He did not return calls from MauiTime for comment.
Nixon, 48, joined the company in January. His resume included jobs at two of the largest growers in California as well as local experience on the Big Island growing macadamia nuts for MacFarm. He immediately delighted Mahi Pono skeptics with his candid pronouncements and solid attention to the project at hand, preparing Central Maui’s soil for growing crops. Until then, Mahi Pono’s leadership consisted of senior vice president of operations Shan Tsutsui, a politician-turned-lobbyist who freely acknowledged his lack of farming expertise at community meetings held soon after Mahi Pono purchased 41,000 acres of former A&B sugarcane lands for $267 million in December.
In a lengthy interview with MauiTime in late February, Nixon expressed dismay at the condition of the A&B sugar lands saying, “I don’t think they were the best farmers in the world… [the land] is just messy.” He said he wanted less pesticides and more bees, and promised to change the plantation-era culture when A&B employees officially became Mahi Pono employees on March 1.
What Nixon didn’t want to get involved in, he stressed, was anything to do with politics or water issues. “A&B had the message, ‘Well, if it comes across our land, we’ll divert it and use it,’” he said in the interview. “I don’t need it. We can do better than this, than these open ditches which worked 150 years ago. We need to be better neighbors and get a method for transmission that works… From a farming perspective, there’s enough for all of us.”
Nixon prepared an initial crop plan that includes planting avocados, bell peppers, white pineapple, oranges, lemons, limes, coffee, and macadamia nuts.
“The project will be successful, still deliver on time and be something you all should be proud of,” Nixon wrote to his colleagues.”
So… what the hell?
That pretty much sums up the sentiments of people who commented on an early version of this story on Facebook. “Gee, tell us why,” wrote one poster.
That’s an answer only Nixon can furnish, and right now he isn’t talking. However, this might be a good time for an update on Mahi Pono, born of a union between Canadian pension fund PSP – which is bankrolling the deal – and California-based Trinitas Partners, which is in charge of operations and has been responsible for most of the lousy optics the company has generated since its inception.
Since January, Trinitas has been laser-focused on three main areas of Mahi Pono: public relations, water bill lobbying, and farming.
The initial community-wide charm offensive was spearheaded by Shan Tsutsui, who was hired by Trinitas to run Mahi Pono operations, although he kept his job at the Honolulu-based lobbying firm, Strategies 360, which seemed strange at the time. Tsutsui brought aboard community activists Sean Lester and Tiare Lawrence to help spread the good news about Mahi Pono (Farming! Local food!). The trio avoided public meetings, instead choosing to attend smaller niche group gatherings in an attempt to mitigate non-positive input from residents who were no strangers to off-island owners making big promises.
These meetings were always full of references to the Trinitas “Principals,” which made them sound like aliens from an old “Twilight Zone” episode. In fact, some of The Principals came to an Alliance of Community Associations meeting in January where they couldn’t even agree on how many acres had been purchased (56,000). In attendance was principal Ryan Paton, who is fond of discussing his evangelical Christianity as well as his status as “a steward of the land.” After enduring questions during that meeting that obviously irritated him, Paton disappeared from the glad-handing, leaving it to the local team to manage.
That merry trio disbanded soon after. The minute the state legislature convened in mid-January, Tsutsui was gone, off to lobby with colleagues from Strategies 360 for passage of HB1326, which quickly was dubbed the “Corporate Water Theft Bill” by conservation, progressive, and Native Hawaiian groups that opposed it, among others. The bill sought to extend temporary water leases to companies like Mahi Pono, rather than forcing them to take the appropriate steps to apply for a permanent lease. It became clear that Trinitas had hired Tsutsui not for his Maui ties, but for the perceived juice he held at the Legislature (Tsutsui served as a senator and president of the Senate) and as a former lieutenant governor. Tsutsui’s pro-HB1326 stance evaporated any good will Mahi Pono had briefly enjoyed in East Maui as water-diversion weary farmers prepared to be bamboozled by yet another legislative water-swipe.
Sean Lester sent out a late-night email criticizing groups like the Sierra Club for opposing the bill and disappeared from Mahi Pono shortly thereafter. Conversely, Tiare Lawrence publicly stated her opposition to the bill early in the process. So instead of keeping HB1326 opponents quiet – as Trinitas must have hoped would happen if they hired her – Lawrence stayed on the sidelines as the bill’s opponents lobbied so effectively that they successfully defeated the bill. And as for Tsutsui’s juice? Well, the bill died in his old Senate stomping grounds…
Now, amidst the still-ashy fallout from that legislative failure, comes the exit of the one individual who actually seemed to be improving Mahi Pono’s local image. Larry Nixon’s crews made front-page news as they enriched minerally exhausted soil, cut down sugarcane, and began to fence the land in anticipation of some 2,000 acres of crops that, as promised, were destined for local markets. It is in Nixon’s mysterious resignation that Trinitas has again failed. Either it badly muffed the interview process and hired the wrong man, or created a climate so inhospitable that the right man made a quick exit. Either way, it would seem Trinitas has some explaining to do – especially to banker PSP.