Bill would eliminate agribusiness development group

HONOLULU — A bill in the state Legislature would disband the state’s Agribusiness Development Corporation and transfer its resources to the state Department of Agriculture.

The state’s House Finance Committee unanimously advanced the bill last week that would abolish the agency. On Thursday, it passed a third reading on the House floor, sending the bill to the Senate for consideration.

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The state created the agency in 1994 to help convert former pineapple and sugar plantation land into economically viable farms that would produce a broad range of products. The agency owns and manages 23,000 acres of land and irrigation systems, mostly on Kauai and Oahu. It also has a small property on Hawaii Island.

The state’s House Agriculture Committee had advanced the measure earlier with a 7-1 vote last month, Hawaii Public Radio reported.

A recent state audit concluded the agency was “ill-equipped and struggling” to effectively manage its lands and had done little to fill the economic void left by the decline of the state’s commercial pineapple and sugar producing sectors.

The audit said the agency allowed tenants to occupy properties without approved leases or other agreements and turned a blind eye to criminal activity on its lands. It also found the agency had inconsistent and incomplete record-keeping.

The audit recommended that the agency develop written policies for board oversight, property management and managing files and documents. It also said the agency should create an electronic database of the agency’s lands and create strategic plans to grow and export products from Hawaii.

Fletcher Parker, a farmer, said the agency’s water and land on Kauai have been mismanaged.

“The fact that we have between 85-90% of our food on the island imported from off island is baffling to me,” Parker said in written testimony. “The land needs to be managed properly and resources need to be used for feeding the people of Kauai and possibly the other islands as well.”

Jimmy Nakatani, the head of the corporation, said the agency has made some of the changes that were recommended in the state audit. He called the bill “drastic” and “unwarranted.”

Other opponents of the bill include the state Department of Agriculture, the Hawaii Farm Bureau and a farm co-op that manages land on Kauai land for the corporation.

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State Department of Agriculture Director Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser said the corporation, known as ADC, could convert fallow, plantation-era farmland faster and more efficiently than her department could, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported. She said long-term management of land and water assets would be better suited for her agency.

“The Department believes that the ADC continues to have an important role in the growth and development of diversified agriculture in Hawaii,” she said in written testimony.

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