CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Mel Matsuda of Kahuku Brand-Matsuda Fukuyama Farms spoke to the media yesterday at Nalo Farms. In back are other Hawaii farmers.
Legislation would fund irrigation repairs
A year after passing landmark legislation aimed at identifying and setting aside land for agricultural use, lawmakers now want to make sure the parcels are fertile for growing the crops needed to boost Hawaii's agriculture industry.
"We know land is very important to farmers, but we know water is equally important," Senate Water, Land and Agriculture Vice Chairman Russell Kokubun said yesterday in announcing a package of bills being introduced this year by majority Democrats to support farmers and promote the agricultural industry.
The package focuses primarily on funding for repair and maintenance of Hawaii's aging public and private irrigation systems and providing incentives for private landowners to upkeep irrigation systems formerly used by pineapple and sugar growers.
Lawmakers also want to transfer some functions of the Department of Agriculture to the Agribusiness Development Corporation, or ADC.
Kokubun (D, Hilo-Naahelu) said the proposal would transfer oversight of agricultural lands and management of irrigation systems to the ADC, which would be administratively attached to the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
The Department of Agriculture still would be responsible for regulatory functions such as pesticide approval and invasive-species control.
"The concept is that we really want to treat agriculture as a business, as an industry, and we think that they would be better serviced by an agency that was strictly looking at it from a business perspective," Kokubun said.
He said details are still being worked out on how much money and how many jobs would be needed to accomplish the transfer, adding that he understands that there may be territorial issues to be worked out.
"I think we need to keep this on a high road," he said. "We're not talking about territorial issues here, we're talking about how we're going to maintain the agriculture industry."
Department of Agriculture officials were not immediately available for comment. Many of the agency's top officials, including state Agriculture Chairwoman Sandra Lee Kunimoto, are traveling with Gov. Linda Lingle on her goodwill tour of the Philippines this week.
Details of the department's financial plans for the upcoming session also were not immediately available. The agency is scheduled to present its budget request to the Legislature's money committees next week.
Democrats are proposing to establish a $50 million special fund for repair and maintenance of irrigation systems, with $12 million up front for improvements at five irrigation systems where the needs are greatest. Overall, 15 systems statewide would be targeted for improvements over the next five years.
Lawmakers also want to provide incentives for private landowners. Those would include tax credits and loans from the special fund providing a one-to-one match for private money put toward repair and maintenance of irrigation systems on land designated as "important agricultural land."
The Legislature last year passed the bill that sets up a process for identifying and setting aside parcels as "important agricultural lands."
"Water is just as important as land in this whole deal," said Dean Okimoto, owner of Nalo Farms in Waimanalo, where lawmakers held their news conference. "If we get the water to the land, we'll get the farmers to the land and hopefully produce a lot more agricultural products for the state to make agriculture more economically viable."
Okimoto, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, and about a dozen other farmers from across the state joined lawmakers and other agriculture industry officials at the news conference.
House Water and Land Use Chairman Ezra Kanoho noted that more farmers producing in Hawaii would mean more money for the state and less reliance on imported food products.
He said currently about 40 percent of the farm-grown products consumed in Hawaii are from in-state growers. Those products are produced on 6,400 acres and generate about $64 million a year in sales, he said.
"If we can increase the amount of acreage that we grow our own produce ... that money isn't going out of state and we can retain that," said Kanoho (D, Wailua-Koloa.)