While many agree on the goal of developing diversified agriculture to reduce Maui County’s dependence on the mainland, the Maui County Council and the farming community are debating whether creating another county government department would help or hinder the process.
More than 20 witnesses spoke Tuesday morning at a meeting of the Maui County Council’s Governance, Ethics and Transparency Committee, which is considering a proposal to amend the county’s charter to create a Department of Health. ‘Agriculture.
If approved by council, the article would be placed on the November general election ballot for voters to decide.
Proposed by council member Shane Sinenci, the charter amendment would create a framework for the department, but the cost to staff will depend on how much the administration and council appropriate during the budget process, according to Gina Flammer, Sinenci’s executive assistant.
Sinenci told The Maui News he plans to start a smaller department, which could “Managing as little as $700,000 to establish and then operate in accordance with our smaller county departments, such as the County Emergency Management, Personnel, and Clerk’s Departments, all of which operate on a budget of just under $2 million.”
He added that current county staff dedicated to promoting agriculture would be transferred to the department. Finally, the growth of the department can be accompanied by subsidies.
“This year we have allocated $8.5 million in agriculture-related grants, so there is a strong desire to see the agricultural sector thrive on Maui,” Sinenci said via email.
However, Teena Rasmussen, president of the Maui County Farm Bureau which includes 200 farm families on Maui, told the meeting that the nonprofit has “very serious concerns” on the creation of a new department.
She cited severe budget constraints ahead due to the COVID-19 pandemic, overlaps with other government agencies, job descriptions that appear regulatory in nature and do not address key issues that concern farmers, such as as water, land, navigation and regulations.
She said the well-intentioned but unverified proposal would be “add a layer of cost and bureaucracy” to an already heavily regulated industry.
“We need a lawyer, but we don’t need a regulator”, she said, urging the panel to spend more time engaging with stakeholders, agencies and farm groups on the proposal.
Bobbie Patnode, who represented the agriculture working group, offered qualified support for the proposal, saying “More formalized county support will help existing departments better understand how to ensure farmers and ranchers receive the benefits the county has legislated, thereby increasing the success of our farmers and ranchers and the well-being of our entire community.”
The group has been working since 2013 with the county administration to improve county processes related to agriculture, livestock and animal husbandry.
Patnode said the agriculture working group had yet to meet to discuss the proposal, which she said later. “needs work.” The group proposed changes, such as a requirement of five years in agriculture for the position of director.
Small-scale farmers, like Gabe Johnson, an organic farmer from Lanai, said the department was needed. He pointed to the department’s potential to help Lanai make better use of its farmland and find ways to streamline deer meat processing.
Evan Ryan, an inland farmer for 20 years, said he supports the ministry because it can provide information to the farming community on taxation, planning and water. It can also be a freezing force during a period of division.
“There are extreme politics going on right now within the Maui farming community: farm office vs. farmers union, farmers’ union vs. farm apprenticeship program, farmers’ market managers vs. other market managers “, said Ryan. “The (department) can work to be an advocate and support system for all farm groups.”
In a 3-minute Council column in The Maui News on June 13 that discussed the proposal, Sinenci pointed to a state report that more than 85% of Hawaii’s food is imported and a study of the University of Hawaii which found that the state’s agriculture industry has shrunk by more than two-thirds over the past 40 years.
Sinenci said the proposal aims to promote food security and biosecurity while diversifying and strengthening Maui County’s economy. During the pandemic, Maui County’s unemployment rate hit the highest in the state in May – 33.4%.
According to council documents, the Department of Agriculture would increase economic opportunities in the agricultural sector; improving the health and food security of residents through locally grown agricultural products; and promote healthy ecosystems through the regeneration and protection of natural resources.
The possible modification of the charter was not discussed by the members of the committee during its scheduled meeting due to time constraints. Speaker Mike Molina adjourned the meeting until 10 a.m. Tuesday.
* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at [email protected].