A state agency is advancing plans to promote agriculture in Central Oahu via a “food hub” that would support diversified crop production.
The Agribusiness Development Corp. recently published a draft environmental assessment laying out its concept for a crop-processing facility, research greenhouse, storage warehouse, office space, worker housing, farmers market and visitors center on 34 acres that formerly served as Dole Food Co.’s operating base in Whitmore Village near Wahiawa.
The project is intended to support farmers who lease portions of the 1,207 acres of nearby farmland ADC acquired in 2012 following the closure of Del Monte pineapple operations.
However, challenges facing the “Whitmore Food Hub” project include not having cost estimates, a business plan or a financing and development timetable. Some community leaders have also raised concerns about traffic and poor community engagement.
Jimmy Nakatani, ADC’s director, said a development timetable will rely in part on more farms being established in Central Oahu and on the North Shore to fuel demand for the hub.
A food hub would provide the infrastructure and facilities for farmers to aggregate, process, market and distribute food products to local consumers.
Such systems were more common before industrial agriculture displaced community-based farming. But re-establishing food hubs, which could help Hawaii become more food-secure and self-sufficient, isn’t something small farmers can typically afford.
“Public sector investment remains the best hope for developing the supply chain infrastructure necessary to overcome market and distribution choke holds,” states a Whitmore Food Hub conceptual plan produced for ADC by the University of Arkansas Community Design Center.
ADC considered three hub variations in its environmental assessment.
One envisioned turning Whitmore Avenue into a commercial “main street” flanked by the food hub. Another imagined food hub elements arranged around a village green. Both featured a pedestrian bridge over Kaukonahua Stream to connect the food hub to downtown Wahiawa.
The bridge was put forth by the University of Arkansas team, which also suggested a zip line and a spherical, multistory botanical pavilion with hanging gardens.
ADC ultimately opted for a simpler food hub without a bridge, zip line and pavilion and that would not make Whitmore Avenue a commercial main street.
The preferred plan involves building facilities more or less where former Dole warehouses, sheds, Quonset huts, greenhouses and offices were built between 1936 and 1973.
An initial phase is envisioned to include a 22,360-
square-foot research greenhouse and office complex, a 3,000-square-foot farmers market, a 72,000-square-foot warehouse and a 60,000-
square-foot food processing and production facility that would meet federal Food Safety Modernization Act requirements. A wastewater treatment system or a new connection to Wahiawa’s wastewater treatment system also are part of this phase.
A second phase would expand research, warehouse and food production facilities and create a visitors center and up to 100 micro-housing units for farmworkers.
ADC’s report said the project at full build-out could support 72 employees and attract 12,000 annual visitors.
Some community members have raised concerns about traffic, noise, infrastructure capacity and a lack of information.
“What happens to the lifestyle of these longtime Whitmore Village residents?” Jeanne Ishikawa, chairwoman of the Wahiawa-Whitmore Village Neighborhood Board, wrote in an October letter to ADC planning consultant PBR Hawaii.
The board in October voted unanimously against the food hub because of insufficient information, transparency and communication by ADC, despite a presentation by the agency at the October meeting.
Lei Learmont, who at the time represented the area in the state House, raised a similar complaint in an
October letter. “I am
concerned that the Agribusiness Development Corporation has not informed the community as to what has been happening in Whitmore,” she wrote.
Community-based development organization Wahiawa Fresh backs the food hub.
“We recognize the project’s potential as a major economic driver for our community, and we believe the project will bring job opportunities, career development, tourism and infrastructure/community design improvements, while preserving the historic agricultural nature of the area,” Darin Uesugi, the nonprofit’s board president, said in an October letter.
Shin Ho, co-owner of Kahuku-based Ho Farms, said it’s important that the state invests in infrastructure to help diversified farming grow, and that it makes sense to do that at Dole’s former headquarters.
“I think it’s an ideal location,” she said. “You’re surrounded by all the agricultural land.”
Ho Farms is one of several farms leasing former Del Monte pineapple land from ADC. The company leased 65 acres within the last year and has begun to raise cherry tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, eggplant and okra.
ADC said it has leased 600 acres of the 1,207 acres it acquired in 2012 from the George Galbraith Trust, which previously leased the land to Del Monte for pineapple farming that ceased in 2004.
The farmland was part of 1,743 acres the state bought for $25 million with $13 million in bond financing plus contributions from the Trust for Public Land, the Army, the city, the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs and developer D.R. Horton.
ADC bought most of the Dole headquarters in 2013 for $3.3 million and then acquired the balance along with about 250 acres of adjacent land in 2015 for
$5.6 million from Dole’s sister company, Castle &Cooke Hawaii.
Dole founder James Dole started his Hawaii pineapple business in Wahiawa in 1901 and developed Whitmore Village in 1947 to consolidate plantation camp housing. Dole still grows pineapple on 4,100 acres between Wahiawa and the North Shore.