Ruderman: State lacks commitment to agriculture industry

  • RUSSELL RUDERMAN

HILO — The vice chairman of the state Senate Committee on Agriculture and Environment said Monday the state “is lacking in a genuine commitment in supporting agriculture.”

“I think we’re lacking in leadership, and we’re lacking in financial commitment. We don’t do the things we say we’re going to do to support local agriculture, in my opinion,” said Sen. Russell Ruderman, a Puna Democrat, on Monday.

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The Department of Agriculture released its Fiscal Year 2019 Annual Report on the Agricultural Development and Food Security Special Fund to the Legislature last month, as required by law. According to the report — mandated by Act 73, the 2010 law that created the fund using 15 cents of a $1.05 tax per barrel of imported petroleum product — just over $4 million was raised for the fund through the tax and $25,000 by other means.

There were $2.73 million in expenditures from the fund, including $706,935 for irrigation program operations and personnel, $261,486 for irrigation/land projects, $543,455 for administration, planning and neighbor island support, $388,535 for market development, $382,818 for pest control and biosecurity, and $371,500 for research and studies.

The report projected a $5.6 million beginning fund balance for FY 2020.

Projected for this fiscal year is an increase in expenditures for irrigation — $962,000 for personnel and program operations and $500,000 for irrigation/land projects.

Calling water “the lifeblood of agriculture,” the report advocates funding for irrigation improvements for Waipio Valley farmers hard hit by Hurricane Lane in August 2018.

“The region was inundated by flooding, affecting many agricultural producers in the area,” the report states. “… Providing Waipio River Valley with emergency maintenance will directly benefit many farmers that are producing food crops near the river and will provide a valley safe from flooding. Without this emergency maintenance work, local Waipio farmers and residents will be subjected to flooding as the river needs clearing and maintenance.”

Big Island projects funded in FY 2019, which ended June 30 last year, include: a 3-acre demonstration diversified orchard by Hamakua Harvest Inc. “modeling the most economically and environmentally viable crops for the Hamakua region”; a contract with the Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council for a survey of ranchers and beef processors and retailers to “help provide a framework for future standards the cattle industry in Hawaii may adopt”; and a project with the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources “to develop papaya seed in the aftermath of natural disaster devastation,” namely the 2018 Kilauea eruption that “destroyed an estimated 80% of the papaya production from Hawaii County.”

No cost figures for those projects were cited.

Ruderman pointed to a $250,000 appropriation in 2017 for a feasibility study for a Puna ag park.

“Absolutely nothing happened with it. Nothing happened. And that shows the Department of Agriculture’s lack of commitment to agriculture,” he said.

Increases are slated for funding of agricultural inspectors and a Measurements Standards branch manager.

“Inspectors are not only charged with overseeing agricultural commodities, but they are tasked with ensuring that all scales of measurement statewide are calibrated correctly,” the report noted.

An increase to $225,000 for that purpose is projected for FY 2020, more than triple the $68,612 allocated in FY 2019. That earmark is projected to be hiked to $357,000 in each of the three subsequent fiscal years.

Calling coffee farming “one of our rare ag success stories,” Ruderman blames the department for a prolonged, continued lack of traction on legislation to require coffee labeled “Kona,” “Ka‘u” or any other Hawaii brand to be at least 51% island-grown coffee instead of the current 10%.

“The Department of Agriculture opposes us on that. They come in and support Lion Coffee and their 10% blend, and they argue against supporting our coffee farmers in the way our coffee farmers were asking for support,” Ruderman said. “It’s outrageous how they won’t support local farmers.”

Senate Bill 888, introduced by Sen. Dru Kanuha, who represents Kona and Ka‘u, and Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz of Central Oahu didn’t receive a hearing last year but was held over for this year’s session.

A companion measure, House Bill 1886, was introduced Friday by House Agriculture Chairman Richard Creagan, who represents Ka‘u and parts of Kona, and has numerous co-sponsors, including Big Island Reps. Nicole Lowen, David Tarnas and Mark Nakashima.

“We coffee growers are going to continue our efforts of 28 years this legislative session to reform the 10% coffee blend law and try to get a 51% minimum out of the Legislature,” coffee farmer Bruce Corker of Rancho Aloha in Holualoa told the Tribune-Herald. “We go back every year, and the Honolulu blenders, with lots of economic support from their mainland owners, are going to do battle with us again. We hope we will make some progress this year.”

According to a 2018 report by the Hawaii Budget &Policy Center, the Department of Agriculture received $79 million, or 0.045% of the state’s $17.5 billion FY 2019 budget. Ruderman pointed to that as evidence of the state’s “lack of commitment to agriculture.”

Noting the average age of Hawaii farmers is about 60 and the state imports 85-90% of its food, Ruderman, owner of Island Naturals grocery chain, said if it were up to him, “we would put a priority on food production, because it’s got to do with security and carbon footprint and our economy.”

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“We spend about $3 billion (out of state) on food, and if we could make 10% more progress, we’d be keeping $300 million in our state — and that’s a huge economic input,” he said.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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