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Mahi Pono LLC hopes former sugar plantation land will yield signature crops

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  • Video by Andrew Gomes; Photos by Bryan Berkowitz / Special to the Star-Advertiser

    Mahi Pono is turning 41,000 acres of mostly fallow former sugar cane land on Maui into a diversified crop farm.


    A 300-foot well is one of 11 on the land that Mahi Pono might need to dilute to irrigate certain crops not as salt-tolerant as sugar.


    Mahi Pono Senior Vice President of Operations Shan Tsutsui estimates reestablishing crops throughout the former plantation could take five to 10 years.


    Justin Teixeira is an Upcountry Maui farmer who joined Mahi Pono as land preparation and cultural resource manager.

PUUNENE, MAUI >> “Maui potato” isn’t an established and prestigious brand like Maui onion or Maui pineapple — but that could soon change.

Mahi Pono LLC, the partnership that bought 41,000 acres of mostly fallow Central Maui farmland last year after Alexander & Baldwin Inc. quit growing sugar cane there in 2016 after 146 years, is focusing on ordinary white, yellow and red potato varieties as part of its first new piece of an ambitious diversified agriculture development plan.

Weekly harvests of around 10,000 to 30,000 pounds of the starchy vegetables are expected to hit retail outlets on Maui by the end of the year.

Seed potatoes, which take only three months to mature, began going into the ground last month on 40 acres that conservatively should be able to produce 400,000 pounds of saleable spuds.


Acres bought by Mahi Pono LLC

Projected pounds of potatoes to be harvested weekly

Yearly rent per acre Mahi Pono LLC plans to charge for community plots

Amount Mahi Pono LLC paid A&B for the land in December

Mahi Pono officials are optimistic that potatoes can become a “signature” crop for Maui, saying Idaho farmers have given them positive feedback. Still, whether potatoes can develop any sort of cachet close to onions or pineapples if they grow well on the island is still a guess.

“It’s never been commercially produced here,” said Justin Teixeira, an Upcountry Maui farmer who joined Mahi Pono as land preparation and cultural resource manager.

If the potatoes do well, more fields could be filled with them, which is something Mahi Pono is about to test out for a handful of other crops.

On another 40-acre site, tilled dirt is about to be filled with tree cuttings grafted to rootstock that three or four years from now should be an orchard producing lemons, limes, oranges, mandarins and avocados. Planting of papaya, coffee and macadamia nut crops also is slated to happen this month.

To some degree Mahi Pono’s initial crops are experimental because they haven’t been grown commercially on a large scale in Central Maui, and many fields on the former sugar plantation have different microclimates and soil attributions.

“We’re learning,” said Darren Strand, a former Maui Land & Pineapple Co. executive who now directs agricultural operations for Mahi Pono.

Other crops under consideration or planned include mango, onions, banana, lilikoi, plumeria and mamaki.

Mahi Pono also plans to provide an undetermined amount of land to small farmers for commercial and subsistence use.

Initial “community farm” plots of 2, 5 or 10 acres are available in a roughly 300-acre field next to the orchard site.

Rent is $150 per acre per year, and Mahi Pono intends to offer irrigation water, equipment and other resources to tenants at affordable rates, according to Shan Tsutsui, a former state legislator and lieutenant governor who is Mahi Pono’s senior vice president of operations.

Tiare Lawrence, Mahi Pono director of community relations, said the partnership began soliciting applications around the beginning of August and had received more than 100 in the first two weeks.

“There’s strong, strong interest,” she said.

Initial farmers are expected to have use of the site by the end of the year.

Tsutsui said the 300-acre field is only a start for community farming and that expansion will depend largely on demand. “We’re not setting a cap,” he said.

Breaking new ground

Some elements of Mahi Pono’s plan represent new agricultural systems for Hawaii — things that haven’t been tried before or succeeded in the past on a large scale, according to Strand.

For example, the planned 40 acres of citrus trees will be the biggest organized citrus orchard in the state, he said.

The 40-acre citrus site, which is part of a 200-acre field Mahi Pono envisions filling out with Tahitian lime trees, represents what the partnership is calling its “showcase field.”

The 200 acres, Field No. 902 during its sugar cane days, are adjacent to and visible from Maui Veterans Highway running between Kahului and Kihei.

When expansive green foliage returns to this area and the adjacent community farm field, many Maui residents and visitors will see evidence of Mahi Pono progressing in its mission to return once-verdant fields now dominated by dry grass and re-sprouted cane to food production.

Some people expected that new farming would have happened faster after Mahi Pono bought the land from A&B in December for $262 million. But a lot of preparation and planning work had to be done, Tsu­tsui said, including buying equipment, fencing fields, installing irrigation, researching crops and hiring personnel.

Even figuring out how brackish water from 11 wells on the land might have to be diluted to feed certain crops is necessary because the high salt tolerance of sugar cane doesn’t apply.

Mahi Pono also is largely deviating from A&B’s diversified crop plan.

Fluid plan

A&B had been planning a transition out of sugar cane for at least a year before it closed Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. in December 2016. The plan A&B devised was largely based on livestock and bioenergy crops using about 9,000 acres for each, or about half the plantation.

Other pieces of A&B’s plan included 4,470 acres of grain crops that could serve as animal feed, a dairy on 4,000 acres, mango and avocado orchards on 3,065 acres, pongamia orchards covering 2,476 acres, diversified farm leases for 1,951 acres, agricultural parks covering 1,027 acres and 907 acres of coffee and cacao.

A&B was largely interested in finding partners to help realize its transition plan.

By the fall of 2016, A&B had established 182 acres of sorghum, nearly 10 acres of energy cane, 8 acres of purple bana grass, close to 5 acres of corn, 3 acres of soybeans and 2 acres of sunflower as part of energy crop trials. The company also was raising 100 cattle on 180 acres planted with grass and legumes in partnership with several Maui ranches.

“I think we know what we’re focusing on,” Rick Volner, HC&S general manager, said at the time.

As part of the land sale, Mahi Pono inherited the cattle operation, which now includes 1,300 animals on 3,500 acres of grazing pastures as well as 700 acres leased to a sweet potato farmer and 30 acres planted with pongamia, an oil seed tree being farmed by a company called TerViva. A contract for a solar energy farm on up to 500 acres also was inherited.

No dairy is part of Mahi Pono’s plan, and there isn’t much focus on energy crops.

In fact, Field No. 902, where A&B had its energy crop trials, is now furrowed rows of dirt ready for fruit trees.

Tsutsui said the focus is to raise food for consumption statewide, with some possible opportunities for export. He also said no genetically modified crops are planned and that organic farming has significant potential because the land has been fallow for three years.

“We’re committed to being an agricultural company and an agricultural company only,” he said.

Mahi Pono, a partnership of California-based farm management company Pomona Farming LLC and Canadian pension fund manager Public Sector Pension Investment Board, intends to carry out most farm operations itself.

The partnership started by retaining the dozen or so HC&S employees still working on the diversified farm initiative when the land was sold. Since then Mahi Pono staff has grown to 48, including other former HC&S workers, and hiring is expected to continue as farming expands. (About 675 employees worked at HC&S when A&B announced its shutdown plan.)

Tough row to hoe

A successful transition for the former plantation to diversified agriculture has doubters who have noted that smaller such efforts by other Hawaii sugar plantation landowners have fizzled or failed in recent decades. Farming also is subject to pests, disease, drought and flooding, which can ruin crops and businesses.

Another crucial factor is access to diverted stream water, a contentious issue on Maui, where taro farmers and others had long battled A&B to curb the company’s allocation of surface water from mountain streams. Mahi Pono inherited this ongoing issue.

Warren Watanabe, executive director of the Maui County Farm Bureau, said many local farmers are hopeful Mahi Pono succeeds because a huge diversified farm can help support vendors that other farmers rely upon and can make farm products more available and affordable if there’s large demand.

“We need different scales of agriculture, from large to small,” he said. “We all benefit from it.”

Watanabe calls Mahi Pono’s plan a major undertaking that isn’t going to happen quickly given the somewhat experimental stage.

“It’s still kind of a wait-and-see,” he said. But he added, “We’re glad to see that the transition is progressing. We really want them to succeed because we want agriculture in the central valley.”

Tsutsui said a lot of work still needs to be done, including development of processing, packaging, marketing and distribution facilities. Windbreaks and a lot more fencing and irrigation also still need to be put in.

Much of this work is dependent on seeing what crops do well on the land and in the market, which will determine which crops Mahi Pono decides to scale up.

Tsutsui declined to project a rough total cost to reach full scale, but he said $8 million has been spent since January on equipment, including tractors that can be directed by computer using a global positioning system for precision tasks, and that an additional $6 million in equipment has been ordered.

Reestablishing crops throughout the former plantation site could take five to 10 years, Tsutsui estimated.

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