What’s Brewing? – Shaka Mamaki Maui Tea

World Tea News
By Aaron Kiel

Shaka Tea Expands Supply Chain to Maui

Shaka Tea – the first line of bottled iced teas on the market brewed with sustainably-grown, Hawaiian mamaki leaves – announced a supply chain expansion to the island of Maui with Mahi Pono, a Maui-based farming company, as an anchor partner. Selling their teas across the islands, the United States and Japan, Shaka Tea is committed to sustainable agriculture and economic abundance by connecting local supply chain to off-island demand, via the burgeoning mamaki industry.

“We are excited to expand our supply chain to Maui, launching with our partners at Mahi Pono, who will be planting mamaki seedlings this year with the goal to see a first harvest in mid 2021,” shared Bella Hughes, co-founder and president of Shaka Tea. “We believe in a resilient, agricultural future for Hawai’i that complements high-value and lightweight export crops, such as mamaki, to be grown alongside food crops for local use. “We appreciate Mahi Pono’s commitment to a vibrant, sustainable future rooted in community.”

Founded in 2016 by O’ahu born Bella Hughes and her husband Harrison Rice, Shaka Tea is an award-winning herbal tea company and the first line of Hawai’i-grown, RTD iced teas on the market brewed with mamaki, an ancient, adaptogenic superleaf that’s only found one place in the world: the Hawaiian archipelago. The company’s supply chain helps restore native ecosystem habitat through the planting of mamaki, which is the host plant for Hawai’i’s native and endangered pollinator butterfly, the Kamehameha Butterfly. Presently, Shaka Tea works with 16 small farms on Hawai’i Island who all handharvest their mamaki, which is then dried and processed at the company’s Hilo HQ.

“Within the next few months, Mahi Pono will start test trials of mamaki and we are very hopeful that it will thrive on the lands we steward in Central Maui,” said Shan Tstusui, Mahi Pono’s senior vice president of operations. “The initial mamaki crops will be grown in a polycrop style in our Chef’s Corner row crop project alongside other non-GMO crops including kale, sweet corn and green beans. We hope this will encourage other local farmers across the state to look at incorporating native and endemic plants, like mamaki, alongside their various food crops.”

By the end of 2020, Shaka Tea will have given away 25,000 mamaki seedlings on Hawai’i Island to get small farmers started and looks forward to giving away 5,000 mamaki seedlings to help small, independent Maui farmers who are part of the Ag Park get started in 2021.

To learn more, visit ShakaTea.com.

Mahi Pono Appoints Tsutsui as Senior VP of Operations


Former Hawai‘i Lieutenant Governor Shan Tsutsui will join Mahi Pono, LLC, as its Senior Vice President of Operations and will lead the farming venture on Maui.

“Throughout his years of service, Shan has been a strong advocate and leader in supporting and promoting local food production and sustainable agriculture in Hawai‘i,” said Ann Chin, Mahi Pono president. “As a Maui native, he is sensitive to the needs of the community and embodies our commitment to being responsible stewards of the land and a catalyst for growth.”

As Senior Vice President of Operations, Tsutsui’s responsibilities will include business strategy, management operations, community leadership, and government relations.

“Mahi Pono’s farming venture represents a significant step forward in advancing agricultural opportunities on Maui,” said Tsutsui. “It is an honor to be part of this initiative and be able to continue working toward strengthening agricultural sustainability in Hawai‘i, so that we can make a lasting impact on our keiki (children).”

On Dec. 10, Mahi Pono announced the purchase of approximately 41,000 acres of former Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company (HC&S) lands on the island of Maui from Alexander & Baldwin. Mahi Pono is planning a full range of agricultural operations and related uses. There are no plans to convert any of the lands to non-agricultural purposes. Mahi Pono’s plans help ensure the continued use of the former HC&S lands for agriculture, the preservation of green, open space in Central Maui, and a consistent and long-term source of revenue for the local economy.

“We are committed to becoming a positive contributor to the local community. In the coming months, I look forward to working closely with the Maui community to discuss the best ways to support and strengthen local agriculture,” added Tsutsui.

Tsutsui joins Mahi Pono from Strategies 360, a strategic positioning firm, where he will continue to serve as managing partner.

During his terms as the Lieutenant Governor of the State of Hawai‘i, he created and oversaw various programs and initiatives that supported and promoted education, sustainability and sports, including the Resource for Enrichment, Athletics, Culture and Health (R.E.A.C.H.) initiative, ‘Aina Pono Hawai‘i State Farm to School Initiative, Sports Development Initiative, among other programs. Previously, Tsutsui served as a Hawai‘i State Senator and became the first Senate President selected from Maui. He is a former small business owner and financial advisor.

Tsutsui graduated from the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics, and is a graduate of Maui High School. He resides on Maui with his wife Lyndelle and their three daughters.

Trinitas Partners Brings its Water Hammer to Maui

The Valley Citizen
By Eric Caine

Like any journalist in these days of escalating water prices amid growing scarcity, Deborah Rybak maintains a keen interest in agriculture. So late last December, when she learned 56,000 acres of farmland had changed hands on the island of Maui, her reporter’s radar went on full alert. Rybak writes for Maui Time, the island’s leading news journal.

The selling price alone—$262 million—was enough to pique her interest. Anyone with that kind of money would automatically have plenty of clout and would know, as Rybak knows, that Big Ag and water always intersect at nodes of political power.

She got even more intrigued when she tried learning about the buyers, who called themselves “Mahi Pono.” The loose translation is “to grow responsibly or ethically.” Early on, even the man who facilitated the sale couldn’t tell her much about the buyers. That bothered her, because the middleman was former Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii, Shan Tsutsui.

Even though he’d worked on the sale for six months, Tsutsui said all he knew was the buyer was named Pomona Farming. He couldn’t tell Rybak who the principals were.

By now Rybak was on full alert and it didn’t take her long to learn that Mahi Pono was only about a month old when it bought Alexander and Baldwin’s 56,000 acres. At 21 months, Pomona Farming was older, but its principal owners, Ryan Paton, Kirk Hoiberg and William Hooper, had been buying farmland for a least a decade. They were known to people who follow agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley as Trinitas Partners.

Trinitas came to the small town of Oakdale in 2008 with much of the same fanfare as they’ve generated with their arrival in Maui. Though the three Bay Area partners sold themselves as inspired by scripture and dedicated to enlightened farming practices, it didn’t help their case when most of the acreage Trinitas bought turned out to be former pasture land that was dependent on groundwater, especially after Trinitas planted water-guzzling almonds.

Trinitas had surreptitiously bought up the pasture land at bargain prices, then immediately increased its value by converting it to almond orchards, which were annexed into the Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) in 2013. Even after the annexation, Trinitas had only second tier water rights, and was thus primarily dependent on groundwater. Nonetheless, the land appreciated in value tremendously.

Trinitas took more hits to its reputation when it settled a couple of lawsuits brought by landowners who felt the Bay Area investors had misrepresented their intentions while buying out local farmers and cattle ranchers.

Other local growers who had waited years to be annexed into the district were incensed that Trinitas had skipped to the head of the line. They accused the investment group of favoring speculation over farming and predicted Trinitas would abandon the region when the price was right.

That prediction may or may not have come true recently, when Trinitas sold shares of its Oakdale properties to a Canadian investment firm. Some observers noted that the new buyer hasn’t paid off the annexation fees Trinitas financed at three percent, as required by the original contract with OID.

On the other hand, it’s possible that the new buyer is actually just another arm of the Trinitas empire, which, as Deborah Rybak has learned, features a bewildering array of LLCs and branches. In that case, Trinitas would have sold to itself, or to “Pomona Farming,” as it says in a letter of explanation to OID.

Whatever the case, the real concern for people in Maui, and anywhere else Big Ag gets involved in big sales, is water. More and more exchanges of farmland these days are about acquiring water rights and more and more people are wakening to the reality that whoever controls water rights controls the political process, and vice-versa. It’s a double feedback loop where water rights lead to power and power confers water rights.

And as of June 26, it appeared Trinitas, aka Pomona Farming, aka “Mahi Pono,” had reached an impasse with Maui County’s Board of Water Supply over water rights to its new land holdings. Problems between the board and Mahi Pono date back to ongoing controversies with Alexander and Baldwin (A&B), the original landowners.

The key question for members of the water board, and affected residents in general, is whether Mahi Pono will allow enough water to pass through its farming operation to serve “Upcountry” Maui. Norman Franco, a member on the Board of Water Supply said,

“I think people are tired of getting held hostage by A&B and now Mahi Pono,” when commenting on the impasse.

Franco was incensed because Mahi Pono has gone incommunicado despite requests from the Board of Water Supply and local media to explain its plans for utilizing the A&B water rights which came with the property. The water rights have been subject to controversy, mostly because they’ve been on a permanent “temporary” status which many interested parties believe gives the landowner too much control over the water without enough responsibility to maintain infrastructure for delivery. The water system is managed by East Maui Irrigation, which was part of the A&B buyout.

Mahi Pono went silent after a bill to maintain the status quo on its water rights failed.

Given what seems like inordinate power over water deliveries, Mahi Pono of late seems to be justifying Deborah Rybak’s early concerns about the buyout. Just a few days ago, there were reports that OID water attorney Tim O’Laughlin had become involved in the Mahi Pono controversy. Many Oakdale farmers believe O’Laughlin was a major player in giving Trinitas/Pomona Farming/Mahi Pono what they believe was sweetheart deal when Trinitas was annexed into the district.

At bottom, the Maui land purchase may in fact be a water purchase. As Mark Arax has documented so clearly in The Dreamt Land, Big Ag is also Big Water, and isn’t averse to buying and selling water for profit. The lesson is that if you are in or near a farming community, water is a commodity, it’s for sale, and a buyer is coming soon to a farm near

A&B sells former sugar land on Maui for $262M

Pacific Business New
By Janis L. Magin

Alexander & Baldwin has sold 41,000 acres of former sugar land that made up the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. plantation on Maui to a farming venture of California-based Pomona Farming LLC and Canada’s Public Sector Pension Investment Board for $262 million.

As part of the sale, the venture called Mahi Pono LLC also purchased Kulolio Ranch, A&B’s grass-fed cattle project; Central Maui Feedstocks, A&B’s energy crop project; and all of A&B’s diversified agriculture leases. A&B said it will also partner with Mahi Pono in the ownership and management of East Maui Irrigation Co.

Mahi Pono plans to cultivate “a broad range of food crops” on the land, including coffee, fruits and vegetables for local consumption and export, and plans to expand the beef project at Kulolio Ranch, Honolulu-based Alexander & Baldwin (NYSE: ALEX), said in a statement. Former Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui, who also served as a state senator representing Maui, worked as an advisor to Mahi Pono.

Ann Chin, president of Mahi Pono, said the group was “committed to sustainable agriculture.”

“With our purchase of this fertile land, we want to help ensure that Maui’s residents can produce agricultural products for future generations,” Chin said in a statement. “We want to expand Maui’s thriving and diversified agriculture industry. As we develop our plans, we will work closely with local stakeholders, including the agricultural community, our neighbors, government officials, civic leaders and the local community.”

All current A&B agricultural employees will be offered positions with Mahi Pono, both companies said. A&B closed the HC&S plantation at the end of 2016 after holding the last sugar harvest; nearly 700 workers lost their jobs with the closure.

“A&B’s commitment, when we made the difficult decision to close our sugar operations, was to team up with qualified farmers and transition these lands to a diversified agriculture model,” President and CEO Chris Benjamin said in a statement. “We acknowledged that this transition would take time, but could support the important goals of food and energy self-sufficiency for Hawaii, preserve productive agricultural lands, and stimulate new economic activity on Maui and in the state.”

A&B, which talked about diversified agriculture after the plantation closed, said it has held discussions with “hundreds of parties,” most interested in farming a single crop on the parts of the former plantation land.

Pomona Farming, based in Redwood City, California, says on its website that it “has significant experience farming diverse agricultural crops and managing cattle operations on over 100,000 acres” and lists such brands as Sunkist, Kraft, Maui Cattle Co. and MauiGrown Coffee as among its partners and clients. It appears to be affiliated with Trinitas Partners, a private equity company at the same address.

The Public Sector Pension Investment Board is one of Canada’s largest pension fund investment managers. The venture registered Mahi Pono LLC with Hawaii’s Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs on Dec. 6; Mahi Pono LLC and Mahi Pono Holdings LLC were also registered with the state of Delaware on Nov. 28. Pomona Farming LLC registered as a Delaware company on Feb. 28, 2017.

“In Mahi Pono, we have found a unique partner with proven farming expertise, established marketing channels, strong financial resources, and a long-term perspective,” Benjamin said. “Most importantly, they share our vision of seeing farming flourish across Central Maui for generations to come. This could be one of the most important advances for agriculture in Hawaii in many decades.”

Gov. David Ige and Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa each said the deal is important for maintaining Maui’s agricultural industry and for creating diversified food production.

“As a farmer myself, I understand the challenges of the business,” Arakawa said in a statement. “Alexander & Baldwin has found the right partner in Mahi Pono to continue our island’s long legacy of farming, while providing new jobs and economic activity for our Maui residents.”

With pineapple and sugar production gone, Hawaii weighs its agricultural future

Washington Post
By Brittany Lyte –

Tens of thousands of abandoned acres of farmland lie fallow on this island, cemeteries of Hawaii’s defunct plantation era, which met its end last year when the state’s last remaining sugar grower shut down an operation that had run for 146 years.

Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.’s sprawling sugar cane fields used to provide visitors to Maui a rolling green blanket as they arrived at the airport, but they are newly stagnant, joining other growers in a long decline. Facing competition from cheap foreign labor, a shortage of farmworkers and some of the nation’s highest land costs, the sugar and pineapple plantations that used to be the state’s lifeblood are not redeploying into active agriculture, raising questions about the industry’s future here.

“Pineapple is lost, sugar is lost, and we now have one sole industry, which is a very dangerous position to be in,” said Maui County Councilman Alika Atay. “We have put all our eggs into one basket, and that is tourism. But not everybody who lives on this island wants to work in the hotel industry, and it’s almost impossible to feed a family here working as a farmer. We are now seeing drastic displacement of young people leaving Maui because of a lack of economic opportunity.”

The closure of Maui’s last sugar producer marked a pivotal moment in Hawaii’s agricultural production. Since 1980, Hawaii’s total land use for agricultural production has shrunk by about 68 percent, according to data from the University of Hawaii.

Sugar had, at one point, been Hawaii’s top crop. Now the corn seed industry is the state’s dominant agricultural land user, followed by commercial forestry and macadamia nuts. But none of those products, not even when combined, come anywhere close to filling the economic void created by the loss of sugar and pineapple.

The state’s Agriculture Department is working on the issue with a depleted staff — 122 of its 360 positions are vacant, including the entire branch responsible for market analysis and tracking the state’s trends in food imports and production. The agency is narrowing its focus to court outside capital for investments in Hawaii food production and is studying the possibility of allowing farmers to inhabit small family homes alongside their crop beds. Tenant farming is now restricted on state agriculture land.

“There are tens of thousands of acres of good ag land, at least, currently sitting fallow in Hawaii, where we have some of the most expensive land in the world,” said Department of Agriculture Director Scott Enright. “At the same time, we’ve got a group of farmers who are aging out of the business. The next generation is coming in and finding if you’re going to try and start up a farm when you’re a 20-something with no track record, the banks aren’t going to lend to you. That’s a problem for us.”

The sugar industry, which helped usher Hawaii into statehood, steered the state’s politics and economy for more than a century. It helped build company towns inhabited by multiethnic field laborers from Asia and Europe.

With statehood came U.S. labor laws, inspiring Hawaii’s biggest sugar and pineapple producers to embrace cheaper foreign labor. As monocrop agriculture declined, the state put its economic faith in tourism, which accelerated as jet plane travel became faster and more affordable. Plantation companies either vanished or transitioned into land-development firms.

Some swaths of farmland have been sold off and developed into commercial or residential real estate, inspiring fears that Hawaii’s agrarian past could one day be lost to a more citified future.

“We have and we will continue to lose ag land to urban development,” Enright said.

HC&S is a division of Alexander & Baldwin, one of Hawaii’s largest commercial real estate holders.

The passage of the plantation heyday has been slow but impactful. In 1980, Hawaii hosted 14 sugar and four pineapple plantations that farmed more than 300,000 acres. In 2017, these two crops account for less than 5,000 acres. Once the largest pineapple plantation in the world, the island of Lanai’s former crop beds are now parched and deserted.

Hawaii spends as much as $3 billion a year to import 90 percent of its food, and residents routinely pay some of the highest prices in the nation for staples such as eggs and milk. Even the grain that feeds the cows on the islands’ two dairy farms is shipped in. Should a natural disaster affect the ability for cargo ships to arrive, the state’s 1.4 million residents and nearly 9 million annual visitors could be vulnerable to crippling food shortages.

The shaky state of food security in the world’s most isolated group of islands has prompted Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) to set a deadline of 2030 to double local agriculture production, a goal that some experts decry as unrealistic because Hawaii does not consistently track agricultural data about crop yields.

On an island chain that once was completely self-sufficient — before the arrival of Westerners in the late 1700s, indigenous Hawaiians thrived 2,500 miles from the nearest continent using sustainable farming and fishing methods — many believe a resurgence of agriculture is possible.

“There’s no reason why we should go to a grocery store and see a banana from Ecuador or Mexico. We can grow banana here,” Atay said. “Why do we go to the store and see mango from Chile, not mango from Maui, when Maui grows some of the sweetest-tasting mango in the world? Because in the last 200 years we never had the land and the water available — until now.”

HC&S has so far deployed 4,500 of its 36,000 farmland acres. A new grass-fed cattle operation aims to expand local beef production through a 300-calf management partnership with Maui Cattle Company. More than 95 percent of the beef consumed in Hawaii has been shipped in from the U.S. mainland. On Maui, HC&S hopes to cut that number to as low as 80 percent.

In addition to raising cattle, HC&S has dedicated 1,500 acres to grow sweet potato and crops that help produce energy. Hawaii’s eight main islands have the highest electricity prices in the nation, but a 250-acre orchard of pongamia trees, which produce biofuels, could help wean the state off its fossil fuel dependence, experts say.

Another 800 acres are being considered for an agricultural park for small-scale, local farmers.

“We’ve been talking about diversified agriculture and energy for 10 years, but nobody has found the magic bullet,” said Rick Volner, the former HC&S plantation manager who now oversees the company’s fledgling diversified agriculture program. “The hope was that we could launch right into it. Instead we’re trying to grow different crops to try and see what works.”

Elsewhere on the island, the shift away from agriculture is providing some immediate relief. Water diversions from hundreds of streams long fed the island’s sugar cane at the expense of the wetland taro crop cultivated by indigenous Hawaiians in rural east Maui. A storm of lawsuits over water rights coupled with the sugar industry’s gradual scale-back has led to some restoration of the natural water flow.

With water returned to the remote Wailua Nui Valley, a new program at a nearby public school is reintroducing local families to the culturally important practice of taro farming. Last year, more than 150 people in Maui’s Hana community pounded poi, the starchy Hawaiian staple food, for the first time in their lives.

“My grandchildren used to tell me, ‘Papa, what happened to the water?'” said sixth-generation taro farmer Edward Wendt. “King Sugar — that’s where our water went. Now that it’s flowing again, I must show and teach the younger generation as much as I can for as long as I can.”

Elsewhere on Maui, the Colorado-based land development firm Bio-Logical Capital manages an oceanfront cattle ranch and diversified organic fruit and vegetable farm on 3,600 acres formerly cultivated for sugar. The company’s goal is to invent a sustainable agricultural system that enriches the land, provides healthy, fresh food for the local population and lends itself to be duplicated as a model food-production system in communities across the globe.

“The land in Maui that was in sugar is some of the best ag land in the world,” said Bio-Logical CEO Grant McCargo. “But politically, how do you put that land back to good use?”

McCargo noted that the challenge for publicly traded companies is to manage risk with shareholder value.

“This really is a public policy question,” he said. “After all, we wouldn’t still be farming corn in this country if it weren’t for subsidies from the government.”