Usda Approves Drought Counties for Emergency Loans

Successful Farming
By Chuck Abbott –

In a two-day burst, the USDA designated 372 counties, roughly one of every seven counties in the country, from Texas and Kansas to California and Hawaii, as natural disaster areas due to persistent drought. At the same time, Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded California’s drought emergency to 41 counties, including parts of the agricultural Central Valley.

More than 46% of the country, mostly in the West, is in drought – an unusually large portion, according to USDA meteorologist Brad Rippey. “There have been only four times in the history of the Drought Monitor that we have seen more than 40% U.S. drought coverage as we come into early May,” Rippey told Iowa radio station KMA.

The natural disaster designations make farmers and ranchers eligible for USDA emergency loans, for needs such as replacement of equipment and livestock or financial reorganization. Almost every county in Arizona, Colorado, California, New Mexico, Nevada, and Wyoming was declared a primary disaster area by USDA. Counties in six other states also were declared primary disaster areas. Producers in adjoining counties also are eligible.

To qualify for an emergency loan, producers generally must suffer crop losses of at least 30% or a loss of livestock or other property, according to a USDA fact sheet. Borrowers usually are required to buy crop insurance. The maximum loan is $500,000.

About 30% of California’s population is covered by the drought emergency proclamation, reported the Los Angeles Times. Drought is expected to worsen the fire season, reduce irrigation supplies for farmers, and create risk for fish and wildlife habitat. Southern California was largely excluded from the proclamation.

“With the reality of climate change abundantly clear in California, we’re taking urgent action to address acute water supply shortfalls in Northern and Central California while also building our water resilience to safeguard communities in the decades ahead,” said Newsom, who asked Californians to cut down on water use.

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.

PSP and Trinitas Accused of Greenwashing Hawaiian ESG Investment

Institutional Investor
by Julie Segal –

A Canadian pension fund and its private equity partner come under fire. –

Canada’s PSP Investments, which invests for the Public Sector Pension Investment Board, is under fire for greenwashing a sustainable investment in Hawaii. –

Responsible Markets, a 20-year-old consulting firm in Hawaii focused on the environmental, social, and governance impact of investments, has published a detailed case study arguing that PSP’s $600 million investment through a joint venture called Mahi Pono in a former sugar plantation in Maui, Hawaii is not in accord with PSP’s own ESG standards.

The findings from the year-long research project comes as a critical mass of pensions, endowments, and other institutions publicly commit to investments that meet comprehensive ESG and sustainability goals as well as financial returns. Asset managers, especially those in the U.S, are scrambling to keep up.

The allegations of greenwashing illustrate the complexity of sustainable and ESG investing, particularly when external managers are used.

Mahi Pono, a farming venture between the Public Sector Pension Investment Board and Pomona Farming, a subsidiary of private equity firm Trinitas Partners, purchased the 41,000 acres of farmland in Hawaii in December 2018. At the time, PSP said that, among other things, the deal would ensure that the land would continue to be used for agriculture, that green space would be preserved in Central Maui, and that the acreage would be a long-term source of revenue for the local economy. The project was also intended to create food security for residents and local jobs.

But Responsible Markets argues that Mahi Pono depends on securing water at rates that are exploitative to indigenous Hawaiians and diverts water from local farmland.

“Rather than creating local food security as the company has promised, the Mahi Pono business plan is dependent on export crops,” wrote Shay Chan Hodges, a co-organizer of Responsible Markets’ initiative, the Maui ESG Project, and co-author of the report. “Additionally, the company operates secretively and with little transparency, and has failed to generate the number of jobs promised.”

According to the report, called “From the Mountains to the Sea: When Big Money Moved in on Maui’s Agriculture,” PSP Investments and its external manager use the language of ESG and impact investments, but the results haven’t yielded benefits in line with that narrative.

Ryon Paton, president of Pomona Farming and Executive Chairman of Mahi Pono, said the project is enormously complex and still in its infancy. For example, the project involves investing $30 million to upgrade an old gravity-fed water system that was in disrepair. “The overarching goal is to provide clean foods to the local Hawaiian market and for export,” he said. Paton added that rates paid for water are determined in a public forum and the manager has filed an environmental impact statement. The manager is now in the process of responding to 500 comments it has received from the public. “The long-term lease rationalization process is public and anybody can bid on the right to the water. We don’t negotiate that directly,” he said.

[II Deep Dive: ‘I Will Get Very Serious About ESG — But Not Yet,’ Allocators Claim]

Responsible Markets wants PSP to meet with the community in Maui to understand the problems that the project is causing, as well as what it calls missed opportunities. It also lays part of the blame on PSP’s engagement of an external manager. “True community intelligence is invaluable and cannot be outsourced to investment managers and advisors,” according to the report.

The case study alleges that Trinitas has a history of making questionable sustainable investments, particularly when it comes to water. According to the report, “Trinitas Partners and their affiliates have shown themselves to be masters of sustainable investment rhetoric, [but] the on the ground realities of their agricultural investments show a much more complex picture.” The case study outlines a deal that the partners executed in California, which converted land from vineyards and other crops into almond farms. Almond farming has become a hot button issue in California as these farms use significant amounts of water. Paton stressed that its orchards in California have received the highest level of sustainable certifications.

“Capital markets have become so intermediated that it’s difficult for investment professionals within a large institution to understand what’s happening on the ground,” Delilah Rothenberg, founder of Development Capital Strategies, an advisory firm specializing in sustainable and responsible investment, told II. “A lot of investors do hide behind the excuse of using external managers until there’s enough of a backlash where they have to address the issues,” she added. Rothenberg isn’t familiar with PSP’s Maui investments and couldn’t comment on the case study in particular.

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.

Hawaii Water Service Enters Into Agreement With KCSI to Acquire Keauhou Wastewater System on Big Island

by Yvonne Kingman –

Hawaii Water Service (Hawaii Water), a subsidiary of California Water Service Group (Group) (NYSE: CWT), has entered into an agreement with Keauhou Community Services, Inc. (KCSI) to acquire its wastewater system assets and provide wastewater utility service to its customers in Keauhou on the island of Hawaii. The purchase is subject to due diligence and approval by the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission.

KCSI serves more than 1,500 residential, hotel, and commercial customers, along with the Keauhou Bay Facility and Kahaluu Beach Park, and provides effluent to Kona Country Club, Inc. for golf course irrigation. Hawaii Water has already been operating the Keauhou system since 2018 through an operation and maintenance contract. The utility will continue to invest in local wastewater system infrastructure to keep service reliable for customers and protect the environment.

“We appreciate KCSI’s confidence and trust in us to continue providing reliable, high-quality service to its Keauhou customers,” said Martin A. Kropelnicki, Group President and CEO. “We look forward to providing Keauhou residents, businesses, and visitors the same quality, service, and value all of our customers on the islands have come to expect and deserve, both now and for generations to come.”

Hawaii Water provides water and wastewater service to many communities located on Maui, Oahu, and the Big Island of Hawaii. Hawaii Water is a wholly owned subsidiary of California Water Service Group, which also includes California Water Service, Washington Water Service, New Mexico Water Service, CWS Utility Services, and HWS Utility Services. Together, these companies provide regulated and non-regulated utility service to more than 2 million people in over 100 California, Washington, New Mexico, and Hawaii communities. Group’s common stock trades on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol “CWT.” Additional information is available online at

Repairs and upgrades begin for Molokai water system


A contractor has begun a two-year project to repair and upgrade the Hoolehua Water System on Molokai, which serves thousands and is in “desperate need of repair.”

The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which controls the water system along with three others, held a groundbreaking ceremony on Thursday to mark the beginning of the $37 million capital improvement project, $19 million of which was allocated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Among the four water systems the Department oversees, Hoolehua is the oldest and has been in desperate need of repair for some time,” said Hawaiian Homes Commission Chair Ailā in a statement. “The project highlights our state and congressional leadership’s understanding of important issues facing our rural communities as this project would not be possible without their initiative.”

Contractor Goodfellow Brothers, managed by SSFM International, will be in charge of the project, which will be built in two phases over seven construction sites. It will include the “installation of a 200,000-gallon storage tank, upgrades to automation systems, a new warehouse and a new emergency generator disel fuel tank,” DHHL said.

The project also includes the construction of new paved roads and fencing as well as the repair and replacement of tanks, pumps and other parts of the system.

The 80-year-old water system serves more than 2,400 customers, including 500 homesteads in Hoolehua-Palaau, Kalamaula and Moomomi. It also serves the post office, schools and the airport, according to the department.

DHHL said customers should expect intermittent water outages during construction.

USDA Designates Honolulu County, Hawaii, as a Primary Natural Disaster Area

United States Department of Agriculture
Farm Service Agency –

WASHINGTON, Nov. 16, 2020 — Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue designated Honolulu County, Hawaii, as a primary natural disaster area. Producers who suffered losses caused by recent drought may be eligible for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) emergency loans.

This natural disaster designation allows FSA to extend much-needed emergency credit to producers recovering from natural disasters. Emergency loans can be used to meet various recovery needs including the replacement of essential items such as equipment or livestock, reorganization of a farming operation or the refinance of certain debts.

The deadline to apply for these emergency loans is July 6, 2021.

FSA will review the loans based on the extent of losses, security available and repayment ability.

FSA has a variety of additional programs to help farmers recover from the impacts of this disaster. FSA programs that do not require a disaster declaration include: Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees and Farm-Raised Fish Program; Emergency Conservation Program; Livestock Forage Disaster Program; Livestock Indemnity Program; Operating and Farm Ownership Loans; and the Tree Assistance Program.

Farmers may contact their local USDA service center for further information on eligibility requirements and application procedures for these and other programs. Additional information is also available online at

Haiku association to discuss water plan Thursday

The Maui News
Council to take up proposal Oct. 9

A meeting to discuss the proposed Maui Water Use and Development Plan will be hosted by the Ha’iku Community Association in a virtual town hall from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday.

Haiku Community Association Vice Chairwoman Lezley Jacintho said that the association has received a lot of community feedback on the proposed plan. “Haiku-Paia residents feel in the dark about what solutions to local water issues” are contained in the water plan, she said.

“Hai’ku residents have no access to new water meters and our streams have been diverted for 100 years, yet we really haven’t had a community discussion with the water department about the idea of future Haiku wells that would send water to Central and South Maui,” Jacintho said.

Officials with the county Department of Water Supply will be on hand.

Questions may be submitted beforehand by email to, the chat option on Zoom or the association Facebook page during the town hall. The Zoom meeting is capped at the first 100 people who register at

In a related development, Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura is requesting a public hearing to be held along with first reading of the Maui Island Water Use and Development Plan on Oct. 9. A public hearing designation would allow for more extensive notification of the Oct. 9 council meeting than usual, including through newspaper advertising, Sugimura said.

“The updated Water Use and Development Plan for Maui will provide a 20-year, resource-focused blueprint for the management and use of the island’s precious water resources,” Sugimura said. “This update has undergone extensive review to reach this point, but it’s important to take all possible steps to ensure everyone has a chance to weigh in before the council votes.”

State and county law requires each county to prepare and periodically update water use and development plans as components of the State of Water Plan, Sugimura said. Hearing and consultations on the plan began in 2015.

The water board held public hearings in Hana, Kihei, Lahaina, Pukalani and Wailuku in November and December 2018, she said. The water department submitted the plan to the council on March 22, 2019.

Sugimura said the plan has evolved through review and input from community outreach and policy meetings to collect feedback and evaluate scrutiny. The committee she chairs, the council Water, Infrastructure and Transportation, voted unanimously on Aug. 4 to recommend adoption of the proposed plan by the full council.

After approval by the council by ordinance, the plan will be sent to the State Commission on Water Resource Management for final approval.

A copy of the bill to approve the plan is available on the committee’s website at

The council meeting and public hearing agendas will be published Oct. 2. Testimony will be accepted by email and live video conference or phone call.

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