Maui farmers frustrated over delay in COVID-19 grant distribution

KITV4 Island News
by 'A'ali'i Dukelow

Maui County has promised $2.5 million in grant money for small farms facing financial hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic. Funding was approved in the budget back in June for the 2021 fiscal year starting July 1.

Since then, farmers have been left wondering why the funding has not been dispersed yet.

Niles James, co-owner of Ho'omakua Farm in Kula, said he is frustrated by what he sees as a lack of clarity from the county.

"No body was really giving me defined answers, or the answer was kind of contradictory to what was being said," James said.

To make up for the staffing he can no longer afford, James said he has been forced to work 12-days, seven days a week.

"It's been exhausting, but the support of the community has been absolutely wonderful, and has shed a new light to may be what agriculture can be here in Hawai'i," James added.

According to James, his restaurant clientele has been cut by about half, but his farm has been selling 6-times more produce boxes to local residents. To keep up the momentum, he says he needs the grant money the industry's been promised.

"It's kind of frustrating that it was promised, it would be beneficial, and I think, that in the sense of being 2,500 miles in the middle of no where on an island community and that food security would be one of our highest priorities especially with Young Brothers increasing their shipping rates," James said.

Maui County Councilmember Keani Rawlins-Fernandez introduced the microgrant program, and in a statement to KITV-4 today said, "During budget session, April through June, council received public testimony nearly everyday, requesting microgrants for small, local farmers." Rawlins added that the pandemic, "...underscored the urgency of growing more food locally."

Maui Mayor Michael Victorino said the county was forced to wait until tax collection was completed at the end of August, to make sure funding was still available. Today, he said the county is closing up loopholes to ensure they can track the money.

"This is county money. This is taxpayer money and I wanted to make sure it was done right," Victorino said.

Victorino noted he hopes the grants will be distributed by the middle of October.

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