Alexander and Baldwin today announced the sale of some 41,000 acres of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company land – an action first reported last month by MauiTime. The land was sold for $262 million to Mahi Pono, LLC – a farming venture between California-based agriculture group Pomona Farming, LLC, and Canadian pension investment managers Public Sector Pension Investment Board.
“The agreement provides for the sale of the former Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company lands to Mahi Pono LLC (Mahi Pono) for purposes of cultivating a variety of food and energy crops, ensuring the continued agricultural use of these lands, the preservation of green, open space in Central Maui, and a consistent and long-term source of revenue for the local economy,” A&B said in a statement.
“Our farming plan is for conventional production, but we are exploring options for some organic production as well,” a Mahi Pono spokeswoman told MauiTime. The plans do not include genetically modified organisms (GMOs), she added.
Neither Mahi Pono nor A&B could provide a map detailing the plan for the purchased lands, but said they hoped to share that information at the beginning of next year.
“Our priority is to produce high-quality food for the local market, with export potential,” she said, but did not disclose the acreage that would be used for local food versus exports. When asked how many acres would be reserved for local farmers, she said, “We will be reaching out to the local farming community over the next few months to discuss the best ways to support local farmers.
“Maui is a special place that will have its own farming plan, but the Pomona team is committed to its history of employing the best farming practices, using natural resources responsibly, and acting as a positive contributor to the local community,” the spokeswoman added.
MauiTime reported on the final stages of the sale of A&B’s Central Valley land as word of the deal circulated widely last month, drawing public interest and concern regarding the fate of the old sugarcane lands.
“It was revealed that A&B is nearing completion of a sale to a group who are not from Hawaii. This revelation brings up some questions,” Bill Greenleaf, a farmer, co-owner of Greenleaf Farms, and former Hawai‘i Farmers Union chapter president, said at the time. “What will they grow? Will it feed the people of Hawaii or be non-food crops? Will their cultivation practices add more run-off to our reefs and CO2 to our air?”
Based in the the San Joaquin Valley town of Oakdale, Pomona Farming has some 100,000 acres in agricultural crops and cattle operations. The crops include alfalfa, almonds, cotton, forage crops, sugar beets and wheat, among others. Its partners include big names like Sunkist, Mariani, Toyota, 7-11, Kind, Kraft, and Glico, and local names like MauiGrown Coffee and Maui Cattle Company.
“The Mahi Pono team has significant experience… with a focus purely on agriculture and a track record of making long-term investments in farming projects,” A&B’s effusive press release stated. “All of A&B’s existing agricultural personnel will be offered positions with Mahi Pono, to put their experience and knowledge to use to help further Mahi Pono’s farm plan.”
While the name of the purchasing entity is now public, details of the plans for Maui’s Central Valley – which has been identified as significant in Hawai‘i’s move towards food security and sustainability – remain blurry.
“Maui Tomorrow is reviewing the implications of this major development,” the environmental advocacy organization said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the new owner, Mahi Pono, and will encourage them to adopt regenerative agricultural methods. Regenerative farming uses much less water; this will leave more for kalo farming, native stream life and other instream public trust uses. Regenerative agriculture can substantially increase crop yields while sequestering carbon, thus helping to fight climate change. We will also encourage Mahi Pono to grow healthy food that people on Maui can eat.”
Hawai‘i Farmers Union United President Vincent Mina was cautious but hopeful.
“When you’re dealing with so much land that’s been monocropped with petrochemicals being used as a way to grow that monocrop for a long time, it needs a lot of remediation attention. People who purchase land of this size need a return on their investment, so a lot of people, when they do [purchase], don’t necessarily put the attention to growing the soil first, growing the life of the land first, before they plant crops,” he said.
“I don’t know this company, I’m not gonna say that they’re not gonna do this kind of stewardship practices, but at the same time – based on results – we’ll see what happens.”
“I know people are going to be upset about this sale,” he added. “For me, I don’t get too wrapped up in it. I just feel like we have plenty to work with. Let’s get to work and do the best with what we have.”
“I think where we shoot ourself in the foot is that we go out there and put a stick in somebody’s eye or company’s eye and then say, ‘Hey I wanna build a relationship with you,’” Mina continued. “It just doesn’t work like that. It’s all about relationships not only with one another but with the land and I’m just hopeful that somewhere along the way here we can be good partners, good community agricultural partners, and we can find ways to work with one another.”
Maui’s state senators were optimistic.
Senators Gilbert Keith-Agaran (District 5-Wailuku, Waihe‘e, Kahului), Rosalyn Baker (District 6-South and West Maui), and J. Kalani English (District 7-Hana, East and Upcountry Maui, Moloka‘i, Lana‘i and Kaho‘olawe) released a joint statement praising the deal.
“I am happy A&B found farmers as partners who are committed to keeping Central Maui in productive agriculture – especially because Mahi Pono appears to understand the importance of food sustainability for the long-term life of our island community,” Sen. Agaran said.
Sen. Baker added, “This is an important investment in our future, as it again demonstrates the viability of diversified agriculture, but also because of the value it places on our workers, our environment, and our quality of life.”
“There’s a lot of moving parts here,” Mina said. “I’m a farmer: I grow food for people to be able to be well. Outside of that, I really don’t have any say about when land sales happen, and the companies that buy the land do what they do. I’m happy it’s gonna be kept in agriculture. They’re incredible lands.“
Photo courtesy Alexander and Baldwin