Mahi Pono farmers pivot amid pandemic

Maui News
by Kehaulani Cerizo –

New crops go to market; 3,500 acres of plantings slated this year –

Wind. Drought. Pests. Farming in Central Maui already holds a unique set of challenges. Add a global pandemic and agriculture operations are tested in a whole new way.

So Mahi Pono, the largest agriculture company on Maui, has made key changes to its operations in light of coronavirus.

The pandemic affected everything from shipping costs — a 46 percent increase in Young Brothers rates took effect last year — to in-field work that needed COVID-19 safety protocols. Restaurants and hotels — major markets for local produce — closed, causing the company to look at the type and scale of its crops.

One bright spot of the pandemic is that it emphasized the need for food sustainability, making farming more essential than ever, Mahi Pono officials said.

“We’re an island state that continues to import about 90 percent of all of our food; that makes us vulnerable every time there’s a natural disaster, shipping issues or a global pandemic,” said Shan Tsutsui, Mahi Pono chief operating officer.

During a recent farm tour, Tsutsui and Mahi Pono officials discussed the pandemic’s impact on last year’s farm plan and products made available in 2020, along with adjustments they’ve made to this year’s plan.

They highlighted the Chef’s Corner project, a test plot for new crops; the progress of the company’s community farm, which rents parcels to local farmers; and recent plantings that have done surprisingly well, including watermelon, broccolini, kale and green beans.

Instead of producing a signature crop, Mahi Pono wants to be known for an array of locally grown foods — a big departure from the monocrop of sugar cane that has occupied Central Maui fields for more than a century.

“Transforming former sugar cane fields into diversified agriculture is not an easy task,” Tsutsui said. “It takes time, hard work and financial commitment.”

Watermelon for the people

Chase Stevenson, Mahi Pono Chef’s Corner farm manager, showed off its rows of green, yellow and purple beans, butternut and kabocha squash, red kale, green kale, dinosaur kale, bok choy, green onions and orange sweet potato.

The corner, comprising about 40 acres of organically managed land off Maui Veterans Highway, tests what works best for Mahi Pono farmers and for the market, Stevenson said. From there, farmers scale and grow. Each time the crop is rotated, it improves the soil.

Stevenson, who has about a decade of Maui farming experience at Kula Agriculture Park and in Haliimaile, said farming in the central plains is both challenging and rewarding.

“You never know what you’re going to run into. It is fun even though it doesn’t sound fun — it keeps things interesting,” Stevenson said, laughing.

Some crops, such as watermelon, were a pleasant surprise. Watermelon grown on about a half-acre was consumed almost entirely by the local market with the remainder shipped to the Big Island, Tsutsui said. Because it was a hit, watermelon fields will be expanded with yields scheduled for summer.

Darren Strand, vice president of agricultural outreach and business development, said the company is learning that beans, broccolini and kale do really well, but with COVID-19 causing restaurant and hospitality markets to scale back, it’s hard to move produce that would typically sell easily.

“Anything you grow with a good quality and a consistent supply, you are going to be able to move,” Strand said. “Hopefully things are going to turn around in the next month or so and we will be positioned with this project, and some potatoes, onions and papayas, to be ready to hit that and run.”

Farther south, sweet onions are at various stages of growth, with some ready for April or May harvest. Non-GMO solo and sunrise papaya trees that were sticks last year have shot up and are producing well.

In all, Mahi Pono will plant more than 3,500 new acres of crops this year, according to Grant Nakama, vice president of operations.

Another program, the Mahi Pono community farm, expects tenants to move in by the end of this month. The program provides “farm ready” land, including water, to local growers for $150 per acre a year. Tentative agreements have been reached with 14 farmers and small businesses for an initial 60 acres. A second phase of community farmland will add more acreage, officials said.

Pivoting amid the pandemic

Despite the pandemic, Mahi Pono last year brought its products to market under the Maui Harvest brand. Potatoes were sold at Whole Foods in Kahului, Honolulu and Kailua; watermelon, KTA Market in Hilo; papayas, Takamiya Market in Wailuku; watermelon, potatoes, eggplant, Pukalani Superette; papayas, Target in Kahului; broccolini, Tamuras in Kahului and Lahaina; and watermelon, Times Supermarket in Kihei and Honokowai.

An extra emphasis was placed on row crops after the onset of the pandemic in order to provide more locally grown potatoes, onions and papaya.

“This shift allowed us to donate more than 60,000 pounds of produce to nonprofit organizations like Maui Food Bank, Hawaii Foodbank and Chef Hui that directly helped those in need,” Tsutsui said.

Another area of growth despite the pandemic was Mahi Pono’s staff. The company went from 150 employees at the start of 2020 to about 260 employees at the beginning of this year.

“As an essential business during the pandemic, we were fortunate to be able to continue farming, expand operations and hire more employees,” said Mark Vaught, vice president of farm development.

Vaught, Nakama and Tsutsui were promoted in 2020. Tsutsui succeeded Tim O’Laughlin, who relocated to California to focus on new initiatives for both Mahi Pono and Pomona Farming, a news release said.

When it cames to water in 2020, Nakama said Mahi Pono made “every effort to be efficient.”

In 2020 the company diverted an average of 22.7 million gallons per day from East Maui — below the state interim in-stream flow standards and half the allowable water allocation under the Alexander & Baldwin revocable permit, he added.

“The amount of water was the minimum needed to support our agricultural operations and to meet our obligations to the County of Maui for Upcountry residents and water users,” Nakama said.

Looking forward, he said the company will continue to divert only what is needed to meet crop and Maui County obligations.

For ‘generations to come’

Mahi Pono, a joint venture between a California farming company and a Canadian pension fund, acquired 41,000 acres of former sugar cane land and half of the East Maui Irrigation water delivery system from Alexander & Baldwin in late 2018.

Since the purchase, Mahi Pono officials have said they should be viewed separately from A&B, which has a controversial history of water use and sugar cane operations.

Still, Albert Perez, executive director and co-founder of environmental group Maui Tomorrow Foundation, said the future of the new company remains uncertain because A&B has a hand in its success due to A&B’s control of East Maui water rights.

He added that the foundation is working with regenerative farmers to provide Mahi Pono a list of suggestions that will boost soil fertility, reduce and eliminate the need for pesticides, minimize windblown dust and increase the water retaining capacity of the soil.

“However, we are hopeful that under the leadership of Maui native Shan Tsutsui, sustainable, value-added agriculture that provides local food security will truly be the goal,” said Perez, who recently toured the farm.

Tsutsui, the former Hawaii lieutenant governor, said his life has been dedicated to public service. He said he sees Mahi Pono, which provides student internships and nonprofit programs, as the next chapter of community outreach.

“For me, it has been rewarding to be able to be a part something that’s going to have a major, positive impact on our community for many generations to come,” he said. “Not only are we growing crops for consumption, but we are also ensuring that Central Maui will remain undeveloped and in agriculture well into the future.”

Tsutsui said that in its short time, Mahi Pono has been working tirelessly, especially during a pivotal pandemic year. This includes clearing the land, researching the best crops that would thrive in Central Maui’s soil and climate, investing in modern farming technology and equipment, planting and maintaining fields, and implementing a food processing system and distribution channels.

It also established relationships with distributors, wholesalers and chefs to get Maui Harvest produce into stores, restaurants and homes, he said.

But like all worthy endeavors, changing the course of history will take time, Tsutsui said.

“We still have a long a road ahead,” he said. “We really want the public to be patient and understand that this will take time, but we are committed to delivering quality, Maui-grown produce.”

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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MAHI PONO 2021 FARM PLAN AT A GLANCE

Crops already in the ground:

• Citrus: More than 1,800 acres. Along Haleakala, Maui Veterans and Kuihelani highways and Central Maui interior fields.

• Coffee: More than 150 acres. Right below Pukalani.

• Potato: More than 50 acres. In western fields between Maui Veterans and Kuihelani highways.

• Onions: More than 50 acres. In western fields between Maui Veterans and Kuihelani highways.

• Papaya: More than 20 acres. In Central Maui interior fields.

• Avocado: More than 10 acres. Near Maui Humane Society and Maui Veterans Highway.

Planting this year:

• 3,500 more acres of citrus.

• 150 more acres of coffee.

• Replanting onions and potatoes.

• 20 more acres of papaya.

An additional 20 acres to be planted in the Chef’s Corner project (in western fields between Maui Veterans and Kuihelani highways), which will serve as a test plot for potential new crops.

Time to eat local

The Cougar Connection
By Natalie Clay –

Hawaii, despite its reputation as paradise, has its fair share of problems, one of which is food security. Currently, Hawaii only produces roughly 10-15% of its necessary food supply, while the remaining 85-90% is imported from across the ocean. Relying on the importation of food usually means consuming foods with more pesticides and genetic modifications that lack the nutrients of fresh produce. But most importantly, imported food leaves the islands vulnerable to tragedies that can disrupt shipping. Eating local food is a much safer option, supports local workers, and promotes land sustainability in a time where development is ever increasing. Unfortunately, Hawaii’s government has not been taking the serious action needed to improve this situation—therefore, it is time for the community to step in.

In the 2016 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress, Governor David Ige said, “I’m committed to doubling Hawaii’s food production by 2020,” endorsing many projects, startups, partnerships and funds to meet this goal. For Scott Enright, Chair of the Department of Agriculture, Ige had just sent the department into “hyper-drive”. However, Ige failed to meet this goal and has since extended the deadline to 2030. Even after the goal’s extension, Ige and the Hawaii Department of Agriculture (HDOA) have not been able to determine the status and progression of the goal. The Department of Agriculture doesn’t even have baseline information as to how much local food the state was producing in the first place, nor do they know how many farmers are producing food for a living. Lawmakers such as Rep. Matt Lopresti had been questioning the Governor’s and the HDOA’s ability to achieve this goal since the beginning. “So we’re going to double I don’t know, which is I don’t know times two. What’s the metric we’re going to be using?,” Lopresti said. It is clear that we must hold our government officials accountable to fulfilling their promises, especially for such an essential need.

It is important as citizens of a democracy to use our voices to promote change. The traditional ways of using that voice are still valid, such as writing letters to legislators, signing petitions, and speaking up at neighborhood board meetings. It must be made clear that in future elections, a candidate’s dedication to improving food security is a determining factor. Oftentimes the government does not hear the voices of the few, but the voices of the many, so it is important to encourage others to become active in this issue as well. If officials see that this issue is of utmost importance to the people of Hawaii, they will work harder at achieving their goals.

There are also ways that we as individuals can support the farmers who provide local food, particularly direct purchase of their produce. For those in the Hawaii Kai area, there are five farms right behind the Kaiser High School campus, some of which feature stands where you can purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. And all over the state there are community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs where you can order bags full of local produce. Some of these programs, such as Oahu Fresh, even offer the convenience of subscription and delivery. Local farms also struggle with the cost of importing fertilizer and animal feed, so you can also donate your food waste to farms that accept it, such as Keiki and Plow, one of the farms behind Kaiser. Any way you can support local food, from attending Agriculture Awareness Day at the capital, to buying Paniolo Cattle Co. beef at Safeway, helps to improve food security in our island community.

Promoting local food production is the best way to fight Hawaii’s struggle with food security. Since our government is struggling to improve the situation, we must take action ourselves. We can stress that Hawaii’s agriculture is necessary, and that officials who do not strive to improve its circumstances will not be elected again. Hawaii will soon be islands that know nothing other than importation, but if we support our local farmers, we can lead Hawaii into a greener, more fertile future.

How chef Peter Merriman fosters a culture of excellence

Pacific Business News
By A. Kam Napier

There are a couple of reasons why Peter Merriman is our Business Leadership Hawaii 2020 Career Achievement honoree. First, there is his decades-long work as a legend in the industry, as one of the founding members of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement in 1991, in which he not only established consistently excellent Neighbor Island restaurants, but played a key role in helping to grow the farms that could supply the entire industry. Second, is his willingness to take chances. We thought it noteworthy that Merriman, who might well have rested on these accomplishments, took the leap of becoming a partner in Handcrafted Restaurants in 2011.

At their peak, before the Covid-19 economy, the four restaurants of Meriman’s Hawaii and five restaurants of Handcrafted employed about 1,200 people. Handcrafted was honored in PBN’s 2015 Hawaii’s Best Workplaces. It’s a long way from his Hawaii debut in 1983 when the Pittsburgh-born Merriman accepted a job as the cook for the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel. Two years later, he was named executive chef of the resort’s new Gallery Restaurant. In 1988, he went out on his own, opening Merriman’s in Waimea on Hawaii Island.

The Mauna Lani is also where he learned some business advice that has stayed with him, from customers who have been successful with large businesses. One such informal mentor was Larry Dean, who had grown and sold an early Internet check- cashing business. By the time he sold it, Dean told him, the software was beyond him but he had people for that, it was more important that he “foster the culture.”

Merriman said his team can attest to the fact that, “to this day, I still walk around saying, ‘I’m gonna fostah the cultah!’” as Dean, a Southerner, used to say it. “That’s really fundamental to the way I approach business because I like to delegate a lot of responsibility and authority, making an environment where smart people can do well — in this way, I will do well.”

The other advice came from Robert Holder of the Atlanta-based Holder Corp., a builder and developer whose enterprises had grown enormously through that city’s boom. “Bob told me, ‘When you own a business, only do what only you can do’,” recalled Merriman. “I had to take myself out of the kitchen to be successful at the business part, so that advice has been really, really valuable. And I find it really useful down the chain, too, in that I can tell my managers the same thing — you have somebody else who can do that job, let them do that and you do the job they cannot do.”

Merriman said he still struggles with letting go, but he recently made his biggest delegation yet when he appointed Christina Schenk, his former controller, as CEO of Merriman’s Hawaii, the first CEO who wasn’t Merriman himself. “And she does a better job than me, which is very cool,” he said. “She pretty much runs everything on the Merriman’s side of the business, and I am really fostering the culture. On the Monkeypod side, Sarah Hill runs everything over there.”

Merriman’s partnership with Handcrafted is a 50-50 ownership deal founded with Bill Terry, whom Merriman had become friends with when Terry was with TS Restaurants, and it presented Merriman with an opportunity to see through an unrealized dream — owning a café, offering what he calls “accessible food.”

“When I opened in Waimea, I started out with a café but the only way to make it succeed was to push it upscale because we didn’t have the volume of customers,” Merriman said.

When PBN caught up with Merriman in late September for this article, the Covid economy was an unavoidable subject. He had used Paycheck Program Program money to keep people on as long as possible, but has had to do furloughs and some layoffs. When asked what the industry will need to do to survive, he went immediately to business fundamentals.

“We need to figure out where this market is going to settle, we’re talking about 80% swings in volume and no business can plan for that,” he said. “I think there’s going to have to be a total reset on the structure of how restaurant deals work between tenant, landlord and lender in the state of Hawaii, maybe the entire country. What has been in place to this day is no longer reasonable and that is, minimum rent, plus CAM plus percentage of revenue. That minimum rent turned out to be a killer because basically, that was using the tenant to guarantee the landlord against any downturns in the market like we’re having. The landlords of course say, ‘we owe our lenders, so we need that money’ and there’s some truth to that too. Banks, too, could help by offering small businesses longer terms on loans.”

“It’s a dead run, we’re all driving on debt, Alexander Hamilton would be happy,” he said. “For restaurants, we know the demand is not there now, we know it’s not going to be where it used to be, and our models were so incredibly tight — if 7% is the average profit then even a 10% loss can collapse the whole thing.”

We talked about the farming community as well, given the tight tie between his industry and theirs, and whether or not agriculture can be viable as one of the replacements for tourism, as is sometimes suggested when people talk about what else Hawaii could be doing. The challenge there, he said, is that the farms are quite dependent on the numbers of visitors we’re used to, supporting the number and kinds of restaurants that buy from farmers, ranchers and fishermen.

“I can pay more, and I do pay more, for grocery items than people who shop at grocery stores,” he said, “We’re the high-end outlet for farmers, which is especially good if they haven’t hit their volumes yet. If they can get a high price for the items they’re selling from us, it’s very useful. The farmers have done better than I expected up to this point, and some have been able to sell to the grocery stores but at a reduced rate. For the smaller farms, for those just starting out, they’re the ones who are really damaged.”

While money concerns are top of mind for the industry right now, it isn’t something Merriman generally allows to be the sole focus of his companies. Each restaurant is led by a general manager and a chef, in tandem, as opposed to restaurant companies that put only a general manager at the top.

“Chefs are very powerful in our organization,” he said, noting that he still designs about 75% of the dishes himself. “We don’t want to become bean counters, our origin story is from cooking, not from counting dollars and while we can maybe get good at that, at accounting, it doesn’t mean that’s who we are. We make a conscious effort in our company meetings to talk about food, even if it’s just down to the level of, ‘where did you eat that was really great?’ We believe the culture of a company is what it talks about, so if all we do is run around talking about dollars and cents, that’s who will be.

“I feel we are in the food business, but most importantly, we’re in the guest experience business, which the food supplies,” he said. “If we don’t remember that on a regular basis, our culture will change despite our best thoughts.”

And that is what “fostering the culture” looks like, in action.