‘Ulu for all: Co-op closer to expanding operations
The Hawaii ‘Ulu Cooperative is one step closer to expanding operations that will increase production 10-fold at the Honalo facility.
The co-op, established five years ago, is looking to improve the Honalo Marshalling Yard that it subleases from the Kona Producers Cooperative via the state Department of Agriculture. A host of new, expanded or refurbished agricultural processing infrastructure improvements are planned.
Among them are an expanded commercial kitchen area and industrial blast freezer; a temperature-controlled packing room; large storage freezer for finished products; a detached, dedicated receiving station with commercial scale, access to an electric reach-in forklift, and chill storage located outside the building; and improvements to washing and sanitizing processes. Also planned are wastewater, water, electrical and fire protection improvements, as well as a new ADA-compliant parking stall and pathway.
A draft environmental assessment for the project, released Oct. 8, concluded plans would have no significant impact. Comments from the public are due by Nov. 8.
According to the draft EA, the co-op currently processes about 1,600 pounds of ‘ulu per day, and after the proposed improvements are completed, the co-op would be able to process about 8,000 pounds per day. The ability to produce sweet potato would also increase five-fold.
Dana Shapiro, Hawaii ‘Ulu Cooperative general manager, is excited about the expansion of the processing facility that will also bolster the frozen product line.
“We’ve been working on expanding the production capacity of our west-side facility for a couple of years. We finally got to the EA process after having a preliminary engineering report and learning that the increased volumes triggered an EA,” she said.
In the last fiscal year, which ended in June, the cooperative processed about 260,000 pounds of agricultural produce. This year they are aiming for 330,000 pounds of ‘‘ulu (breadfruit), kalo (taro), uala (sweet potato) and pala‘ai (winter squash).
The expansion would increase production capacity to 2 million pounds, according to Shapiro.
“We may add more crops as part of our continuous evolution has entailed diversifying into additional crops that our farmers grow, but primarily it’s about increasing overall volumes,” she said. “We currently cannot keep up with demand for ‘ulu. We’ve been working really hard to build the market for ‘ulu over the past five years. There is now a whole movement for consuming indigenous crops like ‘ulu. We will have to push the market demand up as our production supply increases.”
That is the role of the co-op: to provide a guaranteed market and a stable price for local farmers, and foster farming as a living. The goal is to keep the products in state to help with food security.
“If we get to the point where local demand is saturated, we are certainly not opposed to go out of state to market all of our farmers’ produce,” she said.
The total price tag of construction for the expansion and improvements is estimated at $2.48 million.
A bulk of the financing to date has come via a state Capital Improvement Project allocation of $1.1 million awarded in 2019. The environmental studies and preliminary engineering report were funded through that, which cost approximately $300,000.
“There will be about $800,000 left over after the planning is done to start investing in the base infrastructure,” said Shapiro. “We are going to be working with our legislators to request more money from the state in this upcoming legislative cycle to finish the infrastructural components. Since this is a state facility and state property, it makes sense for the state to make that investment. But all of the equipment that is going inside will be financed through grants and private investment the co-op will leverage.”
The co-op is aiming to get another $600,000 from the state to finish the infrastructure with the remaining balance to be raised by the co-op.
The goal is to begin construction by next spring.
“Depending on how long the EA takes to get the green light to proceed, we will submit the permits to the planning department and then, have to decide what is the top priority in spending the $800,000 and go out for the construction bid,” Shapiro said.
Comments on the draft EA are due by Nov. 8. The document, which includes information for submitting comments, is available at http://oeqc2.doh.hawaii.gov/Doc_Library/2021-10-08-HA-DEA-Honalo-Marshalling-Yard-Improvements.pdf.