Governor talks ag with Maui farmers

While on Maui for the Maui Fair and a town hall meeting, Gov. David Ige continued to express interest in agriculture by requesting meetings with local farmers.

Maui County Farm Bureau Director Mae Nakahata, Executive Director Warren Watanabe and Hawaii Farm Bureau President Randy Cabral were only too happy to oblige, setting up farm visits with commercial farmers engaged in a number of different ventures, as well as multigenerational farm families.

“We wanted to show him that there are young farmers out there,” Nakahata said.

The governor also enjoyed more talk story around a lengthy lunch featuring some of the same vegetables the Watanabe farm family (no relation to Warren) provides to the school lunch program.

“He ate two servings of everything, so he really liked it,” Warren Watanabe said. “Everyone brought their products for him to see.”

Heidi and Tommy Watanabe, third-generation farmers who are taking over the farming operations of their parents, talked about their experiences with the procurement process for the school lunch program.  They also discussed how they also grow vegetables for wholesalers and restaurants, and recently expanded into poultry and are supplying eggs to small markets.

Chauncy Monden, a fourth-generation family farmer whose wildly popular Kula Country Farms is the state’s largest producer of strawberries (one of the highest risk imports for transporting invasive species), as well as other crops, discussed the difficulties he’s facing as he develops value-added products.

The governor was also interested in hearing how Geoff Haines and his son, Nathan, are able to keep their prices affordable, and still make a profit, when selling their hydroponically grown produce to Costco and local chefs.

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“Farmers are trying to support the single mother of three so she can provide wholesome, local food for her children and also save for their college education,” Nakahata said. “The Haines are trying to grow at very competitive prices.

Jim Heid had one of the world’s largest flower operations, supplying protea to Europe and elsewhere until the airline shutdown that followed 9/11 destroyed his market. Now he’s in charge of landscaping at the Grand Wailea. He told the governor about his dream of returning to farming on some of the land that will be made available with the closure of HC&S.

Brandon Shim told Gov. Ige that the spotted wilt virus that wiped out Hawaii’s iceberg lettuce market has been found in California, which could mean an end to cheap iceberg imports to the Islands.

Brendan Balthazar of Diamond B Ranch discussed the obstacles that ranchers face in transporting their cattle to the mainland for finishing and slaughter.

Darren Strand of Maui Gold Pineapples talked about the export market, and trade with Maui’s sister city, Fukuyama.

All the farmers emphasized initiatives needed to assist them to comply with new federal food safety certification requirements, including the need for local facilities to conduct the required water tests. They also all agreed upon their crucial need for dependable and affordable water.

“We emphasized this was just an introduction to the wide range of topics concerning Hawaii’s commercial farmers,” the Farm Bureau’s Watanabe said. “We really need a state plan of how to do agriculture. The majority of our farmers are in their 60s, but we do have some young farmers, too. They need help to stay in business because the regulatory and controversy burden is so hard. They need people to stand up and support them. The governor was very receptive to follow up.”