How This Group Hopes To Change Hawaii’s Agricultural Landscape

by Esha Chhabra

“Hawaii’s food system is broken,” says Constanze Niedermaier of Common Ground, a new platform to find regeneratively grown Hawaiian foods.

The islands export 80% of their crop, and import 90% of their food products, despite being a fertile land which has the potential to grow an abundance of its own needs.

John Parziale has been a farmer in Kauai for over 20 years, growing crops like ginger and turmeric. He’s seen the farming challenges first-hand: an emphasis on monocropping, high land costs that prevent young (and new) farmers from getting into the profession, and the emphasis on exports instead of self-sufficiency.

That’s why Niedermaier, Parziale, and others have come together, backed by a group of like-minded eco-forward investors, to create a hub for local food entrepreneurs: The Common Ground is a physical space in Kauai that serves as a base for a new food community focused on regenerative agriculture on the islands. With an accelerator and an incubator, Common Ground wants to support small and medium size food businesses who are trying to deviate from the conventional model of agriculture.

They include enterprises such as Maui Nui, which makes a venison jerky bar with wild-caught Axis deer, which have become an invasive species in Hawaii, explains Niedermaier, and yet are a nutritional meat. There’s Vintage Vinegars which produces a raw pineapple vinegar made from excess fruit and otherwise waste, at a pineapple processing unit (one of Hawaii’s most popular exports). Or ulu-based products that have provided an alternative to traditional grains and wheat-centric pastas; ulu, or breadfruit, is grown widely in the tropics and plays a pivotal role in agroforestry on the islands, says Parziale.

While the physical space set on an 83-acre agricultural campus once home to Kilauea Sugar Plantation and Guava Kai Plantation will serve as a meeting place for these entrepreneurs, allowing them to convene, share, ideas, and cross-collaborate, Common Ground has also launched an online marketplace to reach consumers beyond the islands. “We want people across America to discover these stories and products,” he says.

For Parziale who is a passionate advocate for a healthier food system and now operates a 5-acre farm which serves as a model and testing ground for those looking to convert to permaculture or regenerative practices, this is a heart-felt mission. “Agriculture has become one of the most destructive human activities on earth. Either we change, and model our agricultural systems after ecosystems, or regenerative agriculture is going to sprout from the ashes of our civilization.”

Agroforestry plays a huge role in this transformation for Hawaii. Unlike mainland farms that can rely on vast open spaces to have rows of planted crops, in Hawaii, its tree fruits, such as breadfruit, nuts, coffee, cacao, and more, can help produce a more regenerative system, Parziale says. The trees not only help keep carbon in the soils, but provide shade, help retain water, and allow for intercropping.

The last two decades, he says, have seen a massive consolidation in how we produce and consume food. “That has to change. Those destructive and extractive agricultural products have to be reckoned with.”

Common Ground’s campus will open in 2022. But till then, the online marketplace is available for consumers around the U.S. to discover some of these new innovative food companies, and get a taste of the islands, through a regenerative lens.

Can solar and farming co-exist? Dutch trial hopes to prove a perfect match

Renew Economy
by Sophie Vorrath

Swedish multinational power company Vattenfall has unveiled plans to carry out a four-year pilot project in the Netherlands, looking at how a specially designed solar farm can be combined with Dutch strip farming practices.

The trial was announced by Vattenfall last week, off the back of the news that the company had received permission to test a combination of solar panels and organic crop cultivation at a site in Almere, east of Amsterdam, at a scale of around 700kW of PV capacity.

Vattenfall said it was working on the project with “other parties,” and with the backing of the Dutch government, to show how a combination of smart solar and farming practices could maintain land for food production – even improve it, ecologically – and deliver another income source for farmers.

The company said that findings of the so-called Symbizon project were particularly important to the Netherlands, where society “had reservations” about losing valuable agricultural land to solar generation – a concern that is starting to arise more often even in land-rich Australia.

“In the solar farm we alternate rows of panels with strips where various crops are grown for organic farming. This means that far fewer solar panels are being installed per hectare than is usual,” said Annemarie Schouten, Vattenfall’s head of solar development in the Netherlands.

“To ensure sufficient light yield, we use double-sided solar panels. They catch the reflected light from the soil, the crops and the adjacent rows and use it to produce solar energy. The panels also rotate with the sun to maximise yield.”

As part of the project, Vattenfall said a bespoke solar tracking algorithm was being developed by Dutch innovation outfit TNO, to track crop and energy yields and the effects of herb strips, weather forecasts, energy prices and soil conditions.

This algorithm would then be optimised, where possible, in cooperation with Vattenfall and Aeres University of Applied Sciences, a leading university of applied sciences for agribusiness and entrepreneurship in the Netherlands.

The impact of the solar tracking system on crop yield, diseases, and its ease of use for the farmer would be monitored by Aeres Hogeschool, ERF, a private organic farm in the Netherlands, and Hemus, an agricultural innovation outfit – both of which had extensive experience in strip farming.

Vattenfall’s Schouten said gaining approval for the pilot scheme by the Dutch government was a big step forward for the project, and that Vattenfall would now make a decision by the end of the year on its plans, with a possible start date in early 2022.

The trial coincides with the announcement of a much bigger “agrisolar” (or “agroenergy”) project in Europe – a plan to install 660MW of solar panels over 700 hectares of land in Serbia’s Vojvodina province, divided into seven zones for various organic crops.

The joint venture behind that project, Fintel Energija and agribusiness MK Group, say the project would install solar panels on around one-third of the total land area to generate about 832GWh a year, enough to supply 20,000 households, according to Balkan Green Energy News.

According to Fintel Energija and MK Group, combining solar panels with agricultural production creates a microclimate that increases the productivity of the crops and the efficiency of the energy production, while also further reducing emissions and water consumption for irrigation.

In Australia, the Clean Energy Council has called on the solar industry to work with Australian farmers to help solve the growing problem of grid access for new large-scale solar farms, as part of a recent paper published in promotion of agrisolar.

The push from the industry body comes as an increasing number of large-scale solar projects proposed for construction around the country meet opposition from locals over the loss of land previously used for farming or grazing.

The issue has become so prominent in Australia’s regional communities that the Country Women’s Association of Australia recently voted to call on governments to prevent solar farms from being developed in prime agricultural areas.

Like Vattenfall, the CEC paper argues that solar farms can improve both grazing and crop land, while allowing solar farms to be built in areas where the electricity network is strong, providing a win-win for both solar developers and farmers.

As RenewEconomy reported in March, the combination of solar farms with agriculture currently accounts for a small portion of Australia’s large-scale solar capacity: The CEC has identified 15 existing agrisolar projects totalling 1.1GW of capacity across Queensland, NSW and Victoria; the largest a 250MW project at Finley in southern NSW.

All of those projects, however, are “solar grazing”, the simplest form of agrisolar, which involves mixing mostly ground-mounted solar array with livestock – mostly sheep – grazing.

Millennium Investment & Acquisition Co. Inc. Provides Corporate Update

Currently, MILC has invested in operating companies with two areas of focus:
1) Sustainable cultivation of Cannabis in Greenhouses through Millennium Cannabis
2) Sustainable production of Activated Carbon through Millennium Carbon

Millennium Cannabis

MillCann has identified greenhouse cultivation as the sustainable method for growing cannabis in a cost-effective manner with a lower carbon footprint than indoor cultivation. Historically, cannabis in the United States has been grown indoors and this trend has continued even as various States have implemented legalization. MillCann believes that its strategy of focusing on greenhouse cultivation represents a competitive advantage. Greenhouses cost less to construct and less to operate than indoor cultivation facilities and as such, we believe MillCann can compete favorably with this approach.

The cannabis industry is experiencing rapidly growing demand amid the tailwind of increasing legalization at the State level. The inefficient availability of capital in the cannabis industry given the illegal status at the federal level presents an opportunity for MillCann as it has efficient access to capital through its strategic affiliation with Power REIT (NYSE-American ticker: PW and PW.A) which is focused on financing the real estate component of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) facilities in the form of greenhouses. As a result, MillCann is able to establish operations efficiently as it has done with its first two transactions.

To date, MillCann has commenced operations in Walsenburg, Colorado and Vinita, Oklahoma and is actively pursuing further expansion of its activities related to the sustainable cultivation of cannabis. As part of establishing these two operations, MillCann has rapidly put together an experienced team of greenhouse cannabis cultivation experts. The team is led by Jared Schrader who has significant experience consulting for financial institutions including private and public banks, hedge funds, and REITs. In this role he developed operational strategies and software, performed due diligence of asset purchases, monitored performance of portfolios and handled sales through securitizations. Within the Cannabis industry, Mr. Schrader has a solid track record growing revenue at a southern Colorado cultivation facility from $150,000 annually to over $150,000 weekly (i.e. > $8 million annually) across the span of two years.

Walsenburg, Colorado

On May 24, 2021, MILC announced that it entered into a transaction that represents a new area of focus MILC related to sustainable Cannabis cultivation in greenhouses by investing in a newly formed cannabis operator, Walsenburg Cannabis LLC (“WC”). MILC’s total capital commitment to the project is $750,000. As part of the transaction, MILC agreed to lend capital to WC for its business operations and MILC is in the process of obtaining regulatory approvals for holding cannabis licenses in Colorado. Upon receiving regulatory approval, it is contemplated that MILC will become the majority owner of WC in the form of a 77.5% preferred equity ownership stake.

Simultaneous with MILC’s investment, WC entered into a long-term lease (the “Lease”) of a 22.2 acre property (the “WC Property”) in Walsenburg, Colorado with Power REIT. The Property has substantial existing improvements including existing greenhouse and processing space. As part of the Lease, Power REIT, has agreed to fund the rehabilitation of the existing improvements and the construction of additional greenhouse space. Upon completion, which is targeted for this fall, the WC Property will have a total of approximately 102,800 square feet of greenhouse and related space.

The Walsenburg cannabis campus was a distressed acquisition of a facility that had ceased operations. MILC believes that it was acquired at an attractive basis relative to the in-place improvements which provide an attractive opportunity to immediately commercialize the facility for cannabis cultivation. MILC believes that this property has significant potential to become a large-scale, low-cost producer of high-quality cannabis to compete effectively in the Colorado market.

The campus is subdivided into five parcels which allows for a significant availability of plant count based on how the Colorado Marijuana licensing works. We currently anticipate an 11,500 plant count per cultivation and we are targeting four crop cycles in Walsenburg. We intends to seek to increase the allowable plant count as Colorado licensing permits. It is possible that we will be able to increase the plant count during 2022.

Vinita, OK

On June 11, 2021, MILC announced that it has agreed to invest in a newly formed cannabis operator – VinCann LLC (“VC”). As part of the transaction, MILC agreed to invest $750,000 in the form of a controlling preferred equity interest whereby MILC receives a full return of its invested capital plus a preferred return of 12.5% after which MILC has a 77.5% ownership stake. The remaining subordinated ownership is held by the management team of VC.

Simultaneous with MILC’s investment, VC entered into a 20-year lease for a 9.35 acre property in Vinita, Oklahoma with approximately 40,000 square feet of greenhouse, 3,000 square feet of office space, and 100,000 square feet of fully fenced outdoor growing area with 20,000+ square feet of hoop structures that have been purchased by Power REIT.

The Vinita facility was a distressed acquisition purchased from an undercapitalized operator. Strong in-place infrastructure and the operational status upon acquisition allows for rapid speed to revenue. MILC believes that it was acquired at an attractive basis relative to the in-place improvements which provide an attractive opportunity to immediately commercialize the facility for cannabis cultivation. MILC believes that this property has significant potential to become a large-scale, low-cost producer of high-quality cannabis to compete effectively in the Oklahoma market. The targeted total plant count cultivation in 2022 for the greenhouse and outdoor, respectively, are 26,000 and 50,000 per year.

David Lesser, MILC’s Chairman and CEO, commented, “We are excited to provide an update regarding our new area of focus – sustainable cannabis cultivation in greenhouses. We are also proud of the rapid progress we are making at each site as well as the teams we are building. We are very focused on building teams that draw from the broader business community and people with a focus on greenhouse cultivation rather than just drawing from the cannabis industry. We are on track to report initial revenue from these activities in the fourth quarter of 2021. We expect to ramp up significantly in 2020 as we seek to generate significant operating income from these operations.”

Jared Schrader, Millennium Cannabis’ President, commented, “The cannabis industry is growing at an incredible rate and our approach which is focused on low-cost and sustainable cultivation in greenhouses is paramount to a long-term and viable business model. Both of our current projects in Colorado and Oklahoma benefit from the potential for rapid speed to revenue. We are focused on bringing best in class, large-scale mainstream agricultural cultivation techniques to the cannabis industry. We are thankful to have best in class industry experts at Millennium Cannabis and are looking forward to growing the team as we take on more projects in more states.”

Millennium Carbon


In May, 2015, MILC acquired an activated carbon plant (the “MHC Plant”) out of bankruptcy at a steep discount to the original investment.

The MHC plant is intended to process a waste stream of macadamia nut shells into a special form of premium-grade activated carbon, which, due to its large surface area and complex network of pores, provides benefits in a variety of chemical processes including filtration, purification and energy storage. In particular, the activated carbon expected to be produced by the Plant was targeted for manufacturing electrical double-layer capacitors, which are commonly referred to as Ultracapacitors or Supercapacitors, an advanced energy storage alternative to traditional batteries. Ultracapacitors are found in a diverse array of electronic equipment from daily usage engine starting, hybrid and electric vehicles to windmills.

MHC successfully restored all production equipment and necessary support systems to operation and completed 31 trial run campaigns that produced over 60 tons of activated carbon. The process was iterative where MHC operated the plant for a couple of days to produce Activated Carbon and then performs laboratory testing. MHC produced some very high-grade material that would be attractive to ultracapacitor manufacturers. Unfortunately, MHC has also experienced significant variations in the quality of the material produced.

During the first half of 2019, MHC concluded that the existing carbonization reactor intended to remove volatile material and produce char was the culprit causing the inconsistent results. In evaluating alternatives, MHC concluded that it had identified a novel and potentially better approach to producing Activated Carbon. Based on this, MILC has made efforts to minimize overhead and cash drain at MHC while it evaluates alternatives for the project which may include repurposing the plant for other uses or a potential sale.


As described above, in evaluating operational issues at MHC, MILC identified a novel approach to producing Activated Carbon and determined to construct a pilot-plant as a proof of concept. This project is located in Kentucky and the initial feedstock is a waste stream that is available in large quantities from bourbon distilleries which is a large industry in Kentucky and which represents a significant waste problem that is impacting the industry. To build the pilot plant, MILC, through its wholly owned subsidiary, Millennium Carbon LLC (“MC”) purchased several used pieces of equipment at a fraction of the cost of new equipment in order to construct a plant capable of establishing the viability of the process beyond a “lab-scale” demonstration. To date, MC has operated this pilot plant and believes that the concept is valid and can be scaled to a commercial operation. MC is currently formulating a plan for a commercial scale Activated Carbon plant based on the experience with the pilot plant.

David Lesser, MILC’s Chairman and CEO, commented, “While we are disappointed with the status of the Hawaii endeavor, we believe that the experience has led to what could be an extremely exciting opportunity to develop a sustainable approach to the production of activated carbon from waste materials. Typical production of activated carbon has a very high carbon footprint whereas we believe our model should have a negative carbon footprint. We look forward to continuing to develop this novel concept which should have applications beyond our initial waste stream feedstock.”

SMC Global

As previously announced, MILC has now completed the liquidation of its investment in SMC Global which represented its sole investment in securities.

Updated Investor Deck

MILC has posted an updated investor deck which is available on our website:

Deregistration as a 1940 Act Company

On October 14, 2020, shareholders approved a proposal to change the nature of the Company’s business from a registered investment company under the Investment Company Act of 1940 (the “1940 Act”) and to a holding company that focuses primarily on owning and operating businesses that produce activated carbon and acquiring other private businesses (collectively, the “Deregistration Proposal”). The Company is in the process of implementing the Deregistration Proposal so that it is no longer an “investment company” under the 1940 Act and has applied to the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) for an order under the 1940 Act declaring that the Company has ceased to be an investment company (the “Deregistration Order”).

While the Company is committed to fully implementing the Deregistration Proposal, it is still contingent upon regulatory approval and the ability to reconfigure the Company’s portfolio to deregister as an investment company. The time required to reconfigure the Company’s portfolio could be impacted by, among other things, the COVID-19 pandemic and related market volatility, determinations to preserve capital, the Company’s ability to identify and execute on desirable acquisition opportunities, and applicable regulatory, lender and governance requirements. The conversion process could take up to 24 months; and there can be no assurance that the Deregistration Proposal, even if fully implemented, will improve the Company’s performance. Further, the SEC may determine not to grant the Company’s request for the Deregistration Order, which would materially change the Company’s plans for its business.

As previously announced, MILC has now completed the liquidation of its sole investment in securities – its investment in SMC and plans to invest the proceeds in operating businesses.


Millennium Investment and Acquisition Co. Inc. (ticker: MILC) is an internally managed, non-diversified, closed-end investment company. During 2020, MILC announced that it was seeking to de-register as an Investment Company that is regulated under Investment Company Act of 1940. MILC is currently seeking an Order from the SEC declaring that it has ceased to be an Investment Company as it no longer meets the definition of holding itself out as investing in securities but rather has pivoted to focus on direct investments in operating businesses.

MILC is currently focusing on opportunities in sustainable cannabis cultivation and sustainable production of activated carbon.

Additional information about MILC can be found on its website:


Power REIT is a specialized real estate investment trust (REIT) that owns sustainable real estate related to infrastructure assets including properties for Controlled Environment Agriculture, Renewable Energy and Transportation. Power REIT is actively seeking to expand its real estate portfolio related to Controlled Environment Agriculture for the cultivation of food and cannabis.

Power REIT is focuses on the “Triple Bottom Line” with a commitment to Profit, Planet and People.

Additional information about Power REIT can be found on its website:


This document includes forward-looking statements within the meaning of the U.S. securities laws. Forward-looking statements are those that predict or describe future events or trends and that do not relate solely to historical matters. You can generally identify forward-looking statements as statements containing the words “believe,” “expect,” “will,” “anticipate,” “intend,” “estimate,” “project,” “plan,” “assume”, “seek” or other similar expressions, or negatives of those expressions, although not all forward-looking statements contain these identifying words. All statements contained in this document regarding our future strategy, future operations, future prospects, the future of our industries and results that might be obtained by pursuing management’s current or future plans and objectives are forward-looking statements. You should not place undue reliance on any forward-looking statements because the matters they describe are subject to known and unknown risks, uncertainties and other unpredictable factors, many of which are beyond our control. Our forward-looking statements are based on the information currently available to us and speak only as of the date of the filing of this document. Over time, our actual results, performance, financial condition or achievements may differ from the anticipated results, performance, financial condition or achievements that are expressed or implied by our forward-looking statements, and such differences may be significant and materially adverse to our security holders.

Why Capturing Renewable Natural Gas Has Legs in the Climate Conversation

RealClear Energy
By Mike Butler

When many people think of renewable energy, they think of modern wind, solar and hydropower resources. When they think of natural gas, they think of it as a traditional, finite source of energy – something that’s used and then gone.

But there’s another form of renewable energy that many have overlooked as an option to help meet some states’ emission reduction goals in regulatory actions like New Jersey’s Energy Master Plan and the Garden State’s larger climate conversation. It’s called Renewable Natural Gas or RNG inside the energy world.

RNG combines the strength and benefits of two forms of energy – renewable energy and natural gas – and it turns out it’s been around for as long as humans have been farming. Some might even refer to it as biogas, a byproduct of organic materials mixing with oxygen. RNG in this case comes from multiple sources of organic leftovers and waste.

Methane is the key molecule that makes up natural gas and found in the prolific energy basins across the country that we use to produce, transport and sell energy. Natural gas has many benefits, too. It’s clean, affordable and plentiful here in the U.S. Gas is able to be safely transported in pipelines and is used every day in our homes, businesses, transportation systems and power grid.

But traditional exploration for natural gas isn’t the only way to capture and harness methane – a chemical compound that occurs abundantly in nature does as well.

Besides being found underwater, in wetlands, and from naturally occurring seeps, methane is also released in landfills, water treatment plants, and in agriculture. The same methane that comes from oil and gas production also comes from four-legged creatures that dot the plains and fields of America’s farms and ranches – cows. There are an estimated 95 million cows in America and the small amounts of methane they release can really add up, and if uncaptured, that methane escapes into the atmosphere anyway where it has a significant impact on emissions.

If we effectively collect that waste, and process it, it can become a usable fuel that fits our existing infrastructure for power and home heating needs. And because this resource can be produced over and over, it makes for a great renewable source of energy from our livestock that also reduces harmful air emissions.

While the renewable gas utility market in Canada appears to have a more mature market, the U.S. is catching up quickly with California, New York, Colorado, Oregon and Hawaii all making strides to help utilities incorporate RNG into their energy mix.

For example, promising projects from agribusiness companies like Smithfield Foods will result in enough renewable natural gas to power more than 2,700 homes and business and brings the company closer to its goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 25 percent by 2025.

The traditional natural gas industry is also committed to capturing more methane – after all, that’s the primary fuel source they are trying to sell, and every molecule going into the atmosphere is a dollar lost. Since 2000, the industry has invested more than $108 billion in technologies to help capture these “fugitive emissions” which can escape during production and operations.

That money is in addition to the $151 billion the federal government has invested in research and development programs primarily run though the Department of Energy and Argonne National Labs. On top of that, satellites, airplanes and helicopter sensor technology are all helping to detect and reduce methane from entering our atmosphere.

While RNG only makes a small percentage of our energy make-up today, the opportunities are tremendous and should be a part of the clean energy future New Jersey is pursuing. The more solutions we have to meet both our energy needs and environmental goals the better. Plus, consider the significant benefits that will be achieved by removing waste from our agriculture operations and the benefits for rural America. Over time our best minds will continue to advance and refine technology to help costs come down for RNG – just look at the cost of solar panels 10 years ago to today.

So while it may be early, the idea of capturing renewable natural gas definitely has legs for New Jersey’s energy future energy solutions.

Federal judge orders Maui County to get Clean Water Act permit for wastewater injection wells

Star Advertiser

A federal judge has ruled Maui County must get permits to operate injection wells that environmental groups said are polluting the ocean. –

Several environmental groups filed a lawsuit in 2012 over the injection wells, saying effluent from the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility was entering the the ocean and damaging coral reefs and sea life.

The groups pointed to studies that traced the discharge from two wells to the ocean.

In a ruling Thursday, U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway sided with the environmental groups and ordered Maui County to “obtain a permit under the Clean Water Act consistent with the analysis established by the Supreme Court,” The Maui News reported.

Maui County officials had refused to settle the case and brought it to the Supreme Court in 2019.

The Supreme Court in April 2020 ruled that injection wells fall under the Clean Water Act.

The county argued that treated wastewater from injection wells did not require permits under the Clean Water Act because the discharge did not go directly into the ocean.

In a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court said that the discharge of polluted water in the ground, rather than directly into nearby waterways, does not relieve an industry of complying with the Clean Water Act.

University of Hawaii breaks ground on food entrepreneurship facility

Pacific Business News
By Janis L. Magin

The University of Hawaii Community Colleges broke ground this week and plans to start construction in July on the Wahiawa Product Development Center in Central Oahu.

The $12 million project will turn a metal warehouse at 100 California Ave. into a value-added product development center where students from Leeward Community College can learn entrepreneurship skills while developing value-added food products.

Students will be able to develop products such as baked goods, pickled products, ice creams and juices, which will help local farmers utilize off-grade produce as ingredients, minimizing food waste.

“The Wahiawa Product Development Center will be instrumental in supporting the diversification of our local economy by adding value to Hawaii’s agricultural and food sector industries,” UH Community Colleges Vice President Erika Lacro said in a statement. “It will take the knowledge, creativity, innovation and uniqueness Hawaii offers to the next level, creating a robust workforce pipeline and providing the tools and skills for local farmers and entrepreneurs to take their value-added food products to market and beyond. Bringing this to the heart of Oahu achieves a critical milestone for our state in food security and sustainability.”

The state Department of Agriculture’s Agribusiness Development Corp. bought the property from Tamura’s in November 2013 for $4.29 million, and UH launched plans for the center in late 2019 with the publication of a draft environmental assessment. Ushijima Architects is designing the project.

“Products that are made-in-Hawaii are highly desired worldwide and we have a huge opportunity with the WPDC to capitalize on that global demand. Value-added entrepreneurship is critical for economic recovery as we look to strengthen the agricultural industry and diversify our economy to be less reliant on tourism,” state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz said in a statement. “Wahiawa welcomes this community investment and looks forward to working with the University of Hawaii in the years to come.”

The Biggest Ideas in Farming Today Are Also the Oldest

Bloomberg Opinion
By Amanda Little –

Georgia cattle raiser Will Harris left behind the destructive techniques of modern agriculture, charting a new path forward for the livestock industry.

Earth’s soil can sequester vast amounts of carbon — I’ve known this for years. But it wasn’t until I stood at the boundary between two farms in southern Georgia recently that I appreciated the enormous potential of that fact.

Will Harris, a fourth-generation cattleman, reached down and scooped up a handful of pale reddish-brown soil from his neighbor’s peanut fields: “Dead,” he pronounced it, “a lifeless mineral medium.” Then he walked a few paces and dug up another handful — inky black and unctuous — from his own land. “A thriving organic medium, teeming with life,” he said. “It’s 5% organic matter compared to 0.5%, side by side.”

In one palm Harris held the legacy of our industrial farming past, and in the other, evidence of how to do farming right in a climate-stressed world. For every 1% increase in organic matter, an acre of soil locks away about 10 more tons of carbon. The dark pigment in soil is, in fact, carbon — and generally speaking, the darker the soil, the more carbon it contains.

All told, the world’s farmland may be able to sequester as much CO2 as the total amount emitted from the transportation sector, or nearly as much as the global electricity industry. To achieve that level in the U.S. would require significant reforms of industrial farming practices in crop and meat production — changes that would be costly to farmers at first, even as they bring long-term riches such as healthier land and animals. To encourage the transition, the Biden administration, Congress and the agriculture industry must support reforms with tax credits and other financial incentives.

Harris and his Georgia farm, White Oak Pastures, illustrate the path forward, along with all the challenges of redefining modern agriculture. At 66 he tends the land his great grandfather bought in 1866, and that was worked industrially for decades before Harris became a convert to more ecologically sound practices, known today as regenerative farming. The story of his conversion reveals the painful reckoning that comes with facing up to the destructive techniques now ingrained in modern farming, and the need to consider gains in broader prosperity that surpass the simple terms of immediate profit and loss.

Harris’s livestock pastures are teeming with native perennial grasses and cover crops — rye, radish, crimson clover and white clover — that excel at pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, down through their roots and into the soil where the carbon feeds microbial life. As cattle graze and chew off the tops of the vegetation, they aerate the soil with their hooves and fertilize it with their manure, causing more plants and grasses to grow and pumping more carbon into the soil.

White Oak Pastures

Spanning 3,000 acres, White Oak Pastures is a fascinating blend of the wisdom of the past and technology of the future. Harris’ 2,000 sheep graze among a 1,425-acre field of solar panels. He uses drones, cameras, software and 150 miles of state-of-the-art modular fencing to rotate about 3,000 cows daily through 30-acre paddocks. Harris also practices a conservation technique called silvopasture, integrating animals, forage and forestland; he plants thousands of live oaks, pecan and fruit trees in his pastures to provide shade for his animals and lock down more carbon.

According to a soil survey conducted by the sustainability consulting firm Quantis in 2019, White Oak Pastures sequesters roughly the equivalent of 3.5 pounds of carbon dioxide for every pound of grass-fed beef it produces. I spoke with other scientists who think that number would be lower after accounting for all the sheep, pigs, and chickens Harris raises and the feed those animals consume. But many, including a team of scientists from Michigan State University that’s done extensive research on White Oak Pastures, agree that Harris’s cattle operation is net carbon-negative and represents a consummate example of regenerative livestock production.

Harris grew up in Bluffton, Georgia, a town of 100 people in the poorest county in one of the poorest states in the union. For most of his life he helped his father run the farm, then devoted exclusively to cattle. Together they adopted all the latest industrial practices with a singular focus on extracting every cent of profit possible from their herd. “We went to bed thinking about how many animals we could kill the next day,” Harris recalls. “The more the better.”

In those days, like most other industrialized livestock operations, Harris aggressively applied fertilizer and pesticides to his fields, and used antibiotics and hormone implants in his animals to maximize weight gain and fertility. If the recommendation was 2ccs of hormone, he injected 4ccs. “I was a heavy-handed, linear, more-is-better guy,” says Harris — a sensibility that pretty well defines industrial agriculture.

Harris’s conversion began soon after his father died in 2004, when he became the sole decision-maker for the farm. One pivotal moment came when he rode along in a double-decker truck hauling some of his 500-pound calves to be fattened and slaughtered in Nebraska. “The animals upstairs urinated and defecated on the ones on the bottom during a 30-hour drive,” he said. “That didn’t sit right with me.” It also bothered him that after grazing his pastures for months, the calves grew to adulthood in a concrete feedlot while being fattened entirely on corn feed — all calories and no nutrition.

Freed from his father’s strictly profit-driven approach, Harris tapped into his college education in animal husbandry and agriculture science to find alternatives that honored the deep connection he felt to the farmland and his animals. His first big change: he abandoned feedlots and took out a $7 million loan to build his own slaughterhouse so that he could ensure his animals were raised and processed humanely.

A Traumatic Transformation

He soon found that after pulling on one thread, the whole system he’d built with his father started unraveling. After Harris stopped feeding corn and grain to his cattle, he had to expand his pasture lands so that they could be exclusively grass-fed. He eliminated the antibiotics and hormones, and then found himself becoming irked by the financial and environmental costs of the gross overapplication of herbicides and fertilizers on his fields.

Economically, the transformation was traumatic. Harris had taken an enormous risk by making so many changes in succession. For the first time, the family farm was not only in debt, but operating in the red. White Oak Pastures wasn’t able to produce nearly as much beef as it had previously. Without hormones to accelerate growth, it took two years to raise a cow to a weight of 1,100 pounds, while an industrial animal reaches 1,400 pounds at 16 months. His pig litters shrunk: industrially raised sows typically have 14 piglets in a litter; he was lucky to get seven. And his slaughter costs surged: an industrial plant would charge $100 per cow, while it cost Harris five times that.

There was an agonizing period — more than a year — when he thought he would lose everything. But slowly, all the pieces in his new system began to work together. To compensate for his higher costs he raised his prices, charging 30% more for his grass-fed beef than conventional product, and 40% more for his pork.

White Oak Pastures currently hovers at the edge of profitability after years of painful losses. Separate from the financial calculation, the benefits of regenerative farming have been profound. Vastly improved soil fertility, which continues to increase over time, has made for healthier and more abundant pastures and crops. By integrating crop and animal production — long decoupled by industrial agriculture — he’s restored the natural nitrogen cycle in which animal waste, rather than synthetic fertilizers, nourish fields.

Harris has tripled his landholdings, buying up depleted industrial farms that border his own and converting the land from pale, almost un-arable dirt to carbon-rich soils. His methods have significantly increased soil moisture, in turn counteracting topsoil erosion and building resilience to heat and drought in his grasses and crops. In the last 16 years, Harris has eliminated the use of thousands of tons of agrochemicals, ceasing fertilizer runoff, reducing algea blooms in local waterways and stopping the evaporation of fertilizer into the air, which forms nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than CO2.

Regenerative farming is much more labor intensive than conventional agriculture, which Harris counts as a good thing after watching his farming community suffer huge job losses over the decades from industrialization. At the height of its own profitability in the 1990s, White Oak Pastures needed four employees to raise 1,000 head of cattle each year. Now Harris raises 3,000 cows with 190 employees — nearly double the total population of his town. And he’s created a model of local, vertically integrated production that isn’t vulnerable to the kind of supply-chain disruption that plagued the centralized meat industry during the pandemic.

A More Dignified Life

Harris has also restored the presence of native plants on his land and introduced more than a dozen cover crops that invite and sustain a diversity of bird and insect life. As much as any environmental goal, he’s committed to “freeing animals from the stresses and indignities of industrial operations.” He creates conditions in which his animals can express instinctive behaviors: cows can roam and graze, hogs can root and wallow, chickens can scratch and peck — which for them, fundamentally, is a state of contentment.

In my visits to dozens of cattle farms and slaughterhouses all over the world, I’ve found none more attuned to animal wellness or humane slaughter than White Oak Pastures.

Still, Harris struggles to remain profitable, and his story underscores the need for federal incentives to help farms like White Oak Pastures thrive. His cattle operation can’t yet receive compensation for sequestering carbon — even though private sector players such as Indigo Agriculture Inc. and Nori are paying farmers to do just that. Measuring carbon on livestock farms is far more complex than on farms that grow commodity crops, and carbon-market firms say they won’t be registering livestock operations until measurement technologies and protocols become more precise and widely accepted.

That needs to happen swiftly; the U.S. Department of Agriculture must fund non-profit research organizations like Comet Farm that are working to improve and expand measurement protocols. The Biden administration can also put money toward a farmer tax credit based on one designed for oil producers and power plants in 2017 to encourage the use of direct-air carbon-capture technologies. Soil, after all, is the mother of all direct-air capture.

But the biggest immediate threat to small farmers like White Oak Pastures is the lack of regulation over labeling agricultural products as organic or grass-fed. Loose definitions of those terms allow major industrial producers to claim the label and charge far lower prices than regenerative farmers, even while raising their cattle overseas on corn feed. That forces farmers like Will Harris to lower their prices to compete, squeezing their razor-thin margins even further. Biden’s USDA has the power to rein in this damaging trend with stricter definitions and enforcement.

In the meantime, it’s essential to educate consumers, who are increasingly opting for plant-based proteins from brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, about the climate benefits of regenerative livestock farming. Harris looks at it this way: if a person avoids meat because they don’t want to eat a once-living animal, he respects that. Or if they just don’t like the taste, “I get it,” he said. “But if they tell me that they’re opposed to eating meat because it’s inhumane or destroys the earth, they can kiss my ass.”

Perhaps the most valuable lesson the public and private sector can learn from White Oak Pastures is that the answer to food security and climate-smart agriculture isn’t technology alone, but technology combined with the wisdom of ecology. Technology in cooperation — not competition — with the natural world. “Nature is so much smarter than we are,” Harris said. “We think we can figure out anything, except we can’t. Nature bats last.”

How Hawaii Squandered Its Food Security — And What It Will Take To Get It Back

Honolulu Civil Beat

Hawaii’s reliance on food imports began in the 1960s. To achieve self-sufficiency again, experts say it will take old values and new tools. –

By Brittany Lyte –

Nearly 2,500 miles from the nearest continent, Hawaii spends up to $3 billion a year importing more than 80% of its food — a dilemma that government leaders, economists, farmers, food shoppers and community activists have long tried to solve.

Things weren’t always so grim.

For centuries Native Hawaiians managed a self-sufficient agricultural system distinguished by thriving fishponds and taro, banana, pig, chicken and sweet potato production.

But with the arrival of Westerners, vast stretches of farmland were transformed into sprawling pineapple and sugar cane plantations that exploited cheap land and cheap labor to produce goods that were mostly shipped out of state.

By the 1960s, only about half of the state’s fruit and vegetable supply was produced locally — an important roadmark in the long decline of Hawaii’s food sovereignty. Researchers have found that an island needs to be growing at least 50% of its staple crops — foods like rice, ulu, potatoes, wheat — in order to be self-sufficient if disaster strikes.

The coronavirus pandemic, which raised the risk of shipping disruptions and stoked fears of food shortages, has only exacerbated the archipelago’s vulnerability.

To gain momentum toward the goal of reclaiming self-sufficiency, it’s helpful to examine what’s changed in the half-century since Hawaii last produced roughly half its food.

But as society looks to strengthen the state’s agricultural future, experts emphasize that Hawaii can’t simply revert back to the sustainable food system of the past.

“We’re not in the same environment,” said Noa Lincoln, assistant professor of indigenous crops and cropping systems at the University of Hawaii Manoa. “We have to deal with challenges that our ancestors didn’t have to — new species of weeds and pests and rodents and diseases that just didn’t exist.”

“Our ancestors developed their agricultural practices and methods in an environment that was really different,” he said. “And there’s literally no going back to that.”

But self-sufficiency in the 21st century will require a new system rooted in the sustainable values that guided Hawaii’s pre-Western food system, Lincoln said.

Overreliance On Imports Started In The 1960s

Although Hawaii’s sugar plantations reached peak production in the ‘60s, the decade also marked the start of their long decline.

Statehood in 1959 gave rise to workers’ rights, which raised plantation labor costs. Sugar and pineapple companies responded by moving their operations abroad. Thousands of acres of some of the most viable farmland was gradually lost to development to support a new tourism-based economy.

As plantations declined, diversified agriculture grew. But so did Hawaii’s reliance on food imports — a response to increasing demand by an emerging tourism sector that quickly usurped agriculture as the state’s economic engine.

Local agriculture could not keep up with the soaring needs for large and consistent quantities of food to supply hotels and other facilities.

To this day, the small-scale farms that make up the bulk of all farms across Hawaii struggle to achieve economies of scale. Roughly 87% of the 7,328 farms statewide generate less than $50,000 annually.

“One of the biggest issues is how hard it is to be a farmer in Hawaii — specifically to make money as a farmer,” said Angela Fa’anunu, a tourism professor at the University of Hawaii Hilo who farms breadfruit on 10 acres near Hilo.

What’s more, the inconsistency between county and state rules for agricultural activities can be difficult for farmers to navigate.

For example, although the Legislature adopted a state law to let farmers sell their farm products on agricultural land in 2012, some farmers have been unable to do so until recently due to conflicting county zoning rules.

“The systems in place, the policies themselves, limit the ability of a farmer to produce,” Fa’anunu said. “The policies themselves are meant to protect agricultural land, but they can be so restrictive that they make it really difficult for a farmer to just get something done.”

Farmers Need More Support, Incentives

More than food sovereignty, advocates claim Hawaii would reap many benefits from growing more food for local consumption: healthier diets, a deeper connection between nature and society, beautification of the landscape.

Replacing food imports with Hawaii-grown alternatives would also strengthen the island chain’s economy.

But the slow pace of progress has frustrated many farmers, citing challenges ranging from the high cost of land to zoning and infrastructure issues.

Many experts agree that more government support is needed to rejuvenate local food production.

The state created the Agribusiness Development Corp. in the early ‘90s to help map out a new plan for Hawaii’s agricultural future. Over the last three decades, the state has given the ADC nearly a quarter of a billion dollars.

But as a scathing report from the state auditor’s office pointed out earlier this year, the ADC has accomplished little. The state has never really figured out what its post-plantation agricultural system should be.

“To me, it’s depressing when I go into the grocery store and the ginger root is coming in from Brazil,” said Bruce Mathews, a professor of soil science at UH Hilo.

“And it isn’t better quality, but it (costs) so much less (money) than what people could sell it for if it was grown here locally. That’s why, without changing some of the policies here, I don’t see how we’re going to move the needle on local food production.”

Today less than 1% of the state budget is committed to agriculture, whereas the plantations that were so profitable in their heyday had the support of generous government incentives.

Reinstating agricultural tax breaks could be key to ratcheting up food security, Mathews said.

“If the state is serious about improving local food production, then we have to realize that most food around the world is to some extent subsidized,” Mathews said. “We have to make it more attractive for people to go into food production so that a person would think, ‘I’d rather go into farming than work at McDonalds.’”

To make that happen, Hawaii needs to invest in agricultural parks, irrigation systems and distribution facilities with the same gusto that it developed infrastructure and amenities to support tourism, said Glenn Teves, a University of Hawaii extension agent on Molokai who grows taro and tropical fruit on his 10-acre Hawaiian homestead farm.

“It’s not enough to make land available for agriculture,” Teves said. “If you’re serious about developing agriculture, you need to look at the big picture and create infrastructure similar to what was done for tourism: airport, convention center, hotels, scenic vistas.”

Community Opposition Slows Big Ag Production

Fierce community opposition to some proposed agricultural projects, such as dairy farms, is another significant hurdle, Mathews said.

On the Big Island, for example, residents were upset when they learned that a dairy had used GMO corn to feed the cows.

The dairy ultimately had to pay environmental fines after it was sued by a community group alleging that the owners violated the Clean Water Act after residents claimed to have found bacteria in brown water downstream from the facility.

The dispute ultimately put the Big Island dairy out of business.

On Kauai, a five-year effort to establish a dairy to reduce the state’s reliance on imported milk crashed and burned in part due to residents’ concerns over the possibility that the dairy could send foul odors and flies downwind to south shore beaches and hotel pools.

Environmental compliance and community pushback isn’t just a problem for dairy farmers, but for many kinds of large-scale agriculture projects in Hawaii, Mathews said.

“I feel that as we become a more suburban and urban society, we’ve become more eco-hypocritical or eco-imperialistic,” Mathews said. “In other words, we don’t want noise, pesticides, pollution in our own backyard — but we don’t mind so much paying for food imported from other places.”

Case study casts doubt over ESG claims of Canadian pension fund PSP’s major agriculture investment on Maui

Case study casts doubt over ESG claims of Canadian pension fund PSP’s major agriculture investment on Maui, calls for greater scrutiny into the community impact of investments

Responsible Markets today published a case study of an approximately $600 million investment that the $135.59 billion Public Sector Pension Investment Board (PSP) is making in a former sugar plantation in Maui, Hawai’i. The report found evidence that the Montreal, Canada based pension plan, which invests its capital through PSP Investments, is not living up to its own environmental, social responsibility, and corporate governance (ESG) principles, resulting in adverse impacts on Maui’s environment and residents.

The study entitled “From the Mountains to the Sea: When Big Money Moved in on Maui’s Agriculture” takes a comprehensive look at Mahi Pono LLC, capitalized by PSP. Mahi Pono was created in December of 2018 under management of Pomona Farming, a subsidiary of the California based private equity firm Trinitas Partners. It now owns and operates over 41,000 acres of farmland in Maui’s central plains, which it acquired from long-time plantation owner Alexander & Baldwin.

Among Responsible Markets’ findings is that the success of the Mahi Pono investment is dependent on securing water rights at exceptionally low rates, at a direct economic and cultural cost to the indigenous Hawaiian people, and on the continued diversion of water away from East Maui, a practice that undermines Hawaiian farming communities. Rather than creating local food security as the company has promised, the Mahi Pono business plan is dependent on export crops. Additionally, the company operates secretively and with little transparency, and has failed to generate the number of jobs promised.

“Through Mahi Pono, PSP is seeking to profit by exploiting the resources of the Hawaiian people,” said Shay Chan Hodges, a co-organizer of Responsible Markets’ initiative, the Maui ESG Project, and co-author of the report. “This is not an ESG investment; it is merely a new version of the extractive practices of plantation capitalism that have been so damaging to Maui’s culture, environment, and economy for over 100 years.”

“The Mahi Pono case study illustrates the importance of early community engagement and ongoing partnership in land-based investing,” says Delilah Rothenberg Founder and Executive Director of the Predistribution Initiative, a multi-stakeholder effort to improve investment structures to share more wealth and influence with workers and communities, and ultimately address systemic risks including income inequality and climate change.

“With capital flows that are so intermediated, meaningful relationship development is often overlooked by distant investors – even asset owners and allocators who are taking measures to integrate ESG. Yet this lapse jeopardizes investors’ returns and perpetuates legacies of colonialism, with foreign powers undervaluing the risk that locals take and the value they offer with their land, resources, and labor,” concluded Rothenberg.

“Large private market agricultural land acquisitions in Hawai’i are all too familiar – wealthy investors parachuting in, missing a golden opportunity to ‘build back better’ for all impacted community stakeholders,” says Lisa Kleissner, impact investment pioneer and co-founder of Hawaii Investment Ready. “While access to water is the hook in this report, the water issue serves to underscore the lack of alignment between Mahi Pono’s objectives and the community’s needs. This report comes to the rescue by laying out in clear, pragmatic terms how Mahi Pono LLC and, for that matter, any private investor in agriculture can move investor/community discourse to a new, mutually beneficial level. First, ancestral rights must be acknowledged and addressed. And secondly, the business and financial model must demonstrate evidence-based community-aligned economics.”

The report shows how investors use the language of ESG and impact investment to promote, and invest in, economic opportunities that do not necessarily have a net positive ESG benefit. Responsible Markets calls on PSP and its staff to meet directly with community members and other stakeholders on Maui to understand the problems Mahi Pono is causing as well as the missed opportunities for positive transformative investment. True community intelligence is invaluable and cannot be outsourced to investment managers and advisors.