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Future could be bright for diversified ag on Maui

Agriculture in Hawaii has changed dramatically over the last four decades.

This year will see the final harvest from Hawaii’s largest farm and last sugar plantation, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company on Maui.

The planned transition from 36,000 acres of sugarcane to diversified crop and animal production, if successful, would be the biggest change in Maui’s agricultural landscape in 150 years.

Sugarcane on MauiSugarcane fields along the north shore of Maui

Replacing a significant portion of former sugarcane (and pineapple) plantation lands with diversified agriculture has been quite difficult to accomplish – since 1980 the statewide acreage in crop land has fallen 57%, and that of pasture land has fallen 31%.

The recent Statewide Agricultural Land Use Baseline 2015 study documents the many complicating forces influencing these land use transitions since plantation closures began in the 1980s.

G Earth Launiupoko“It’s going to be all dry – no more nothing.” The Pioneer Mill sugar plantation closed in 1999, and most of the area has not remained in agriculture. Above: Google Earth image date of January 12, 2013, shows the former Pioneer sugarcane lands south and east of Lahaina.

With the challenges of the high costs of inputs, the availability of less expensive imported products, and the transportation costs of getting products to the main consumer market on Oahu or beyond, can one be both rational and optimistic about diversified agriculture replacing sugarcane on Maui?

It will not be easy, but I believe there are several encouraging indicators.

Alexander and Baldwin (A&B), the parent company of HC&S, has experience in diversification of sugarcane land. The transformation of some of their former McBryde Sugar Company land to Kauai Coffee in 1987 represents Hawaii’s largest diversified agricultural project in the past 50 years, and today it is the largest coffee farm in the US at 3,100 acres.

In 2009, A&B voluntarily designated 27,000 acres of the HC&S plantation as ‘Important Agricultural Lands’ (IAL), which by state law prevents its non-agricultural development.

This agricultural preservation of much of Maui’s central isthmus, with its naturally fertile alluvial soils, is by far the largest IAL designation of crop land in the state.

This long term commitment to diversified agriculture represents a major opportunity to advance our goals for enhanced food security and energy independence.

Trials with collaborators are already underway on HC&S land to examine leases for cattle grazing operations: the Maui Cattle Company is a consortium of six ranches with over 8,000 head of cattle specializing in all natural, grass-fed beef, and having increased access to high quality grazing land would also help them achieve their vision of a sustainable ranching industry on Maui.

Energy crops are also being evaluated, with existing trials examining feedstocks for bioenergy, biodiesel and biogas.

Evaluation of multi-purpose industrial hemp is also being considered.

HC&S plans to develop an agricultural park that will lease lots, with first preference given to their displaced employees.

Maui County will also soon be doubling the size of its Kula Ag Park. The expansion of agricultural parks promotes diversified agriculture by offering long term leases with the availability of water, which can be difficult to obtain.

Other unique strengths of HC&S which favors successful diversification include expertise in disciplines required for managing an integrated agricultural business and a parent company in A&B that has the resources and commitment to facilitate a methodical approach that will likely occur in phases and take several years.

A critical piece to achieving successful diversification will, of course, be the resolution of how much irrigation water will be made available from East Maui sources.

It will surely be less than what has been used with sugarcane, and hopefully future allocations can be agreed upon that will provide sufficient amounts for diversified agriculture, domestic and environmental needs of all users in East, Central and upcountry Maui.

If equitable approaches to the water issues are applied, there is justified optimism for diversified agriculture replacing the last sugarcane fields.

* * *

This article originally appeared in the Honolulu Star Advertiser on June 15, 2016 (subscription required)

Additional information:

Weighing Maui’s Farming Future, A. Gomes, Honolulu Star Advertiser; copy and paste this URL into a web browser: http://www.pressreader.com/usa/honolulu-star-advertiser/20160117/282432758157677

A Systems Approach for Investigating Water, Energy, and Food Scenarios in East-Central Maui, CW King, 2013.

High-Yield Feedstock and Biomass Conversion Technology for Renewable Energy and Economic Development, A Hashimoto, 2015.

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