Small Farmers Deserve Better Support Than The ADC Has Provided

Honolulu Civil Beat
By T.J. Cuaresma –

Twenty-five years after the agency was created, it’s past time for change.

I wonder how many people visit the website of the Agribusiness Development Corp. as often as I do?

I suspect I belong to a very small community of nerds who scour it in hopes of finding pathways to success for local farmers who are interested in growing food to feed the people of Hawaii. The need is urgent.

But if we are looking to the ADC to show the way, my frequent visits to its website and my reading of the minutes of its meetings tell me that we need to do a much better job of providing signposts for those often obscured and difficult-to-navigate pathways to regenerative farming.

Farmers dreaming of leasing a small plot of land from the ADC have their work cut out for them if they even try to penetrate the corporation’s website as I did. It was an exercise in frustration.

The ADC website recently carried a sign on its homepage announcing that the deadline for applications for available land had been extended to April 27. It sounded promising at first glance, though the extension itself tells us that the ADC likely hadn’t received a large enough pool of applications.

If true, this fact is not surprising. The ordinary farmer cannot — and will not — expend the kind of time and effort I have invested in trying to make sense of the ADC’s inventory of available lands.

For example, while several plots are listed on the ADC website as “available,” there is little to no guidance on the condition of the land and how much of it is actually usable and can be farmed.

How can a small farmer afford to put in an application under those circumstances? Even assuming some farmers are dogged enough to try, they will quickly discover hurdles like tax map key numbers not corresponding to City and County records! If only 392 acres in a 580-acre plot listed as available can be farmed, how does a farmer who is not doing the thorough research that I did know this and reflect that knowledge in his application?

More importantly we should be asking: Why does the ADC not make this information visible up front in the interest of transparency and fairness to our small farmers?

After monitoring the ADC website regularly for weeks now, I noticed the minutes of a Feb. 24 board meeting were posted in early April. The delay in posting is concerning but even more concerning is the fact that the submittals, which are supposed to reflect what transpired at the meeting, do not match up with what was actually on the agenda.

While there is nothing on the agenda about more lands available for lease, the submittals for the meeting actually refer to such lands, with none of the clarity a farmer looking for suitable land would need. Also, the minutes reflect a 45-minute discussion of the recent audit that described the corporation as failing to fulfill its mission despite the special powers and significant resources allocated to it.

Those same minutes reference a motion to have a separate meeting devoted just to addressing the concerns raised in the audit. So far, there is no indication if such a meeting has taken place or when it might take place.

At a time when the ADC is facing serious questions about its failure to live up to its mission of diversifying our agriculture to ensure food self-sufficiency, it is deeply disappointing to note that another member has been added to the ADC board — Glenn Hong, former president of Young Brothers — who brings no experience in agriculture that can be applied to right this ship. Testimony submitted in support of his nomination to the board cited his “decades of experience in the maritime and transportation industry (that) give him unique insight into agricultural issues.”

I don’t question Mr. Hong’s finance and accounting background, but how does this improve how our small farmers are served?

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture states quite clearly: “Agribusiness Development Corporation was formed in 1994 to facilitate and provide direction for the transition of Hawaii’s agriculture industry from a dominance of sugar and pineapple to one composed of a diversity of different crops.”

The farmers of Hawaii, many of whom are still waiting for access to the lands that will allow for this transition have yet to see evidence of real meaningful steps in this direction. They have seen neglect leading to the sprouting of criminal enterprises that have led to loss of life that could have been prevented with better security and management of ADC-controlled lands.

Twenty-five years is a long time to wait. It’s past time for change.

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