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



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.

Melon Fruit Fly Management Webinar – Wednesday, December 16th, 2020

Aloha Dear Growers,

You are invited to participate in this free webinar event.

This webinar is open to all growers on Maui County and it will cover:
– Melon fly monitoring
– Roosting host areas
– Control strategies and
– New pesticides

Wednesday, December 16th, 2020, 4:00 PM-5:00 PM

Robin Shimabuku
Kylie Tavares
Rosemary Gutierrez-Coarite

RSVP to Rosemary by emailing to

Please CLICK to download the flyer.

Best Regards

Rosemary Gutierrez-Coarite Ph.D.
Assistant Extension Agent, Edible Crops
Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Science
UH CTAHR Maui Cooperative Extension Service
310 Kaahumanu Ave., Bldg. 214 Kahului, HI 96732
808-244-3242 ext. 232
” No task is too big when done together by all”

Hawaii Can Learn A Lot From Japan About Farming And Food Production

Civil Beat
By Ken Love –

As the longtime executive director of the Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers association — and a longtime Hawaii farmer myself — I have spent decades traveling through the islands of Hawaii and many countries in Asia, meeting farmers, agricultural extension agents, researchers and policymakers.

What I have learned is this: We in Hawaii are at a point in our history where we could use some help, and there are all kinds of good ideas out there waiting for us, like nourishing fruits that are ripe and ready and waiting to be harvested.

Japan has much to offer us when it comes to agriculture. Its focus on farming and local production is not just a matter of pride — it’s ingrained, dating back to their Jomon period, which coincidently started at the same time as agriculture itself, about 12,000 years ago.

Just because we started later does not mean we have to lag behind.

When the first canoes were bringing settlers to Hawaii, the Japanese monk Kobo Dashi was bringing the first medical textbook home from China. That book explained how to use loquat as a medicinal. Today any of the shops in Honolulu’s Chinatown will have loquat extract and loquat leaf tea to help the lungs. I can testify that it works great to combat the effects of vog.

The Hawaiians who arrived in those canoes also came with an exceptional history of farming. The canoe plants they transported thrived in the islands under their care: niu, kalo, ulu, olena, ko, many others. For centuries, hundreds of thousands of people in Hawaii feasted on the bounty that the land gave them. Vast agricultural field systems flourished.

In the 19th century, monocropping of sugar became the agricultural norm in Hawaii. Monocropping of pineapple followed.

Now it’s all changing again. The vast Hawaiian field systems are a memory. So too are the sugar and pineapple plantations. Freighters bring us our meals from thousands of miles away.

When I say we need help and Japan can help us, I’m thinking of very specific things: learning how to better market our products, improving certain horticultural practices, putting the culture back in agriculture (something our Ulu Cooperative here in Kona is already excellent at).

And this: At the core of Japan’s agricultural success is respect for farmers and support of their work.

Given a history that is many thousands of years old — and that has seen plenty of war and famine — Japan is a country well aware of the value and importance of having a strong food production system.

For example, let’s say you’re a farmer in Japan and you need a greenhouse. Much of Japan’s produce is grown in greenhouses, which eliminates most problems with pests and bacteria and allows the farmer to better control the environment. (Japanese greenhouse farmers always get two crops of mangoes per year, something few farmers in Hawaii even attempt.)

Back to that greenhouse you need: The national government supports agricultural development by offering growers 50% of the cost of a new greenhouse. Another 20% of the cost comes from the prefectural government. The farmer just needs 30% to move forward, and greenhouse loans are loans that local banks are eager to make.

Japan Agriculture is a national cooperative that farmers rely on for many aspects of their operations. JA provides services including reduced cost fertilizer and supplies, which farmers can purchase from one of the thousands of JA co-op markets that exist in rural areas.

These co-op markets often offer classes in making value-added products from local farm crops, and they sell those products as well as produce fresh off the farm. Some JA shops will have farmers markets too.

In addition to the stores, the local JA office will usually have an affiliated gas station and often a branch of the national JA bank.

Bottom line: Japan Agriculture buys in quantity for a low price and sells to farmers at or just above cost.

Marketing one’s crop in Japan is often a family affair. Most JA stores and grocery stores will post flyers next to produce, showing a photo of the farming family, all smiling for the camera.

Japan’s post office system sells gifts by mail, and at any post office counter, you can order a case of persimmons with a picture of the family that harvested them.

In railway stations and other high traffic areas like street corners in Tokyo, JA and farmers will set up displays for a few days. Entire prefectures will often do this in different areas, just to feature their local crops. I can imagine Hawaii County setting up a display in Ala Moana Shopping Center, selling Big Island avocados.

All of these markets and the displays help to educate consumers about local farming. You can tell it’s working by visiting the stores: When local items are placed next to less expensive imported items, the local always sell first. People expect to pay more for locally grown at markets in Japan, unlike in Hawaii where we still have a flea-market mentality around locally grown crops.

Speaking of cost: We often hear how expensive everything is in Japan with tales of just one mango or one melon selling for $100. If fact, such high-end mangoes and melons are used solely for gifts and represent fewer than 1% of the country’s crop. Many costs in Japan are actually lower than they are in Hawaii.

I ask people in Hawaii what they imagine a grafted fruit tree would sell for in Japan. I love to hear the guesses: $150? $200? And up.

In fact, farmers in Japan can purchase a wide variety of citrus, persimmon and other fruit trees for, on average, $7.50 a tree. Yesterday I checked citrus trees at a big box store in Kona and the prices started at $50 and went to $199.

We at the Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers association sell trees for $20. I know what it costs to produce and care for those trees and we have to charge $20 to make a tiny profit. Japan’s price of $7.50 is a concrete illustration of the country’s commitment to its farmers.

Japan is famous for its exquisite gardens and its tree pruning practices are excellent. Most of the country’s food-producing trees are kept low, about six feet, which helps them to weather typhoons, improves production and reduces the need for external labor and machines.

Fortunately, these pruning practices are now being employed by growers on Maui, Kauai and in Kona. Yoshimi Yonemoto, who ran the Japanese government’s tropical fruit tree research station, has spoken numerous times at the annual conference of the Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers association. He has demonstrated better ways for us to manage our trees and facilitate harvesting.

In Hawaii, ignorance about proper harvesting is a major problem and the reason we have a reputation for poor-quality watery avocados. I would guess 70-plus% of those avocados would have been delicious if they had stayed on the trees until they reached maturity.

Japan has a small army of extension agents to help its farmers. These agents educate farmers in all kinds of areas like, for example, harvesting. Thanks to the extension agents, in Japan there is no question about when to harvest.

The country’s extension agents come from many institutions and companies: universities, the national government’s ministry of agriculture, prefectural governments, companies that produce large quantities of value-added products from local crops, JA, fruit parks and machino eki.

A machino eki is what was once referred to as a roadside oasis or stand — a place to stop for a rest or coffee and to shop for local produce and products.

A good example is the Tomiura Biwa Club. “Biwa” is Japanese for loquat. Today in Japan you can buy 3,000 items made from or featuring loquat. Yes, that includes a Hello Kitty doll holding a bunch of loquat! But there are literally thousands of cakes, jams, jellies, teas, everything you can think of, made from loquat.

Perhaps more importantly, the Biwa Club, which is four hours from Tokyo, buses in visitors on picking tours when the season is right, the ripening of loquat being considered one of the first signs of spring.

On weekends in the spring and summer, the area is bombarded. The club has a library for growers, meeting rooms and an extension agent to answer questions about growing. There are sales of local produce as well as displays of local art and handicrafts. The restaurant offers loquat-based curries, salads and, of course, ice cream.

In other machino ekis, there are kitchens that offer classes on making jams and jellies. These lessons are sponsored by the government and companies through public-private partnerships. We could set up machino eki across the islands.

For me, the most important undertaking that we should emulate in Hawaii is the Japanese Fruit Park. There are four or five now across Japan. The fruit parks are a one-stop shop for growers, visitors, consumers, school and senior tours. I usually reference Nagoya’s Togokuzan Fruit Park.

Here, in addition to fruit trees both in and out of greenhouses, there is a library, restaurant, museum, kids’ park, kitchen rental area, farmers market, seasonal fairs and numerous special events throughout the year.

Any park visitor can use the reference materials in the library. A wide range of items can be found, from childrens books to technical publications of national agriculture organizations.

The staff, either in the library reference room or out in the field, is more than happy to answer questions on pruning, irrigation, soil care, post-harvest care and to teach visitors how to use the crops they’ve purchased.

In 2007 The Kohala Center arranged for the Rocky Mountain Institute to do a study on Hawaii island. The fruit park concept rated in the top five for ideas to consider.

Though I have visited Japan hundreds of times in the last 40 years, spent many months studying and learning about its agricultural practices, and thought a great deal about how those practices could help farmers in Hawaii, I do recognize that there are, of course, differences between Hawaii and Japan. One of these is land.

Land acquisition has always been an issue in Japan as in Hawaii, but Japan, with its dwindling population, now faces a different set of issues than our islands.

As Japan’s economy expanded in the 1950s and the 1960s, children left rural areas for jobs in Tokyo and other large cities. Eventually the parents died, and children were left having to pay an exorbitant inheritance tax. It was sometimes easier just to give the land back to the prefecture than it was to pay the tax.

Some rural prefectures were left with many hundreds of small abandoned farms. Some of the prefectures decided to offer ownership of the land for free to anyone who would come and work it for five years. In a few cases, prefectures even paid a small salary to the new generation of farmers until they got established.

Now, with COVID-19 changing everyone’s lives, people in Japan’s cities are looking more seriously at returning to the countryside.

There is one last idea from Japan I’d like to share here, something we could do for our kupuna. It is modeled after a delightful tradition carried on by the Aichi-ken Experiment Station for seniors who live around Nagoya.

The Aichi-ken station grows a large number of fig trees, each one in its own milk crate. The trees are typically pruned so that each tree has five or six vertical branches, with each branch holding about 20 figs.

In the spring, these trees are delivered, for free, to any senior who would like to have one. The seniors can eat, give away or sell the figs, at which point the trees are picked up and moved back to the experiment station to weather in a greenhouse over the winter.

Next spring, after the trees are cared for and pruned so the figs will sprout again, the trees are delivered once more. It is so very wonderful to see the faces of elders enjoying the trees.