Maui News: Drought disaster relief eyed for county

PUUNENE — Officials may again seek a disaster declaration for Maui County amid extreme drought conditions, according to Molokai Sen. Lynn DeCoite.

DeCoite and other senators with the Senate Committee on Ways and Means traveled to Maui early this week as part of a multiday meeting to assess regional agriculture strategic plans. During a presentation by the state Department of Agriculture at Mahi Pono on Wednesday, DeCoite asked what it would take for the governor to issue another request for emergency relief.

“I think governor because of your communication with him, and we did the initial emergency, he is up to speed on the challenges,” responded Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser, Hawaii Board of Agriculture chairwoman. “He is aware. I think you need to make the request again. I think it will be quicker.”

She added that the department did hear from Maui ranchers dealing with axis deer problems due to the drought and said Hawaii island is also dealing with similar issues.

This year’s drought on Maui island is worse than last year, Kevin Kodama, senior service hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Honolulu, told The Maui News last week.

DeCoite on Wednesday evening said that she has heard from many concerned constituents and because of that: “I will put the request in and see how we can do it.”

However, she added that she needs the county to provide certain metrics to qualify the request.

The federal government in March 2020 approved Gov. David Ige’s requested federal disaster declaration for Maui County after Molokai ranchers suffered significant economic losses, including damage caused by large numbers of axis deer migrating into agricultural and developed areas seeking food and water.

The designation makes agricultural operations in the county eligible for consideration for certain assistance, including emergency loans, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency.

DOA also used the Chairperson’s Agriculture Development and Food Security Special Fund to support farms in need where eligible expenses included costs that went toward protective/mitigating measures to restore the producers’ agricultural operations to functioning status.

There were 60 requests for $573,900 of emergency relief — 2.87 times more than the available special funds, according to Shimabukuro-Geiser. Seven producers on Molokai and 14 on Maui received 21 awards comprising $200,000 in all.

DeCoite said she would like to see what was done with the funding that was already distributed.

Agriculture challenges such as drought, shipping rates and pandemic shutdowns were underscored during talks Wednesday.

State and local leaders also mulled plans to grow agriculture education and product exports on Maui and in Hawaii.

Shimabukuro-Geiser said that the department is collaborating with the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources to develop a GIS-based land sustainability tool to show ideal locations to grow certain crops. Final mapping and the report will be completed in December.

Preliminary information shows enough map detail to help ag users find properties or lands of interest.

Using an area from lower Kula Road westward to Honoapiilani Highway, mapping captures the majority of the area best suited for a group of crops requested by the department, including coffee, macadamia nuts, papaya, tomato and sweet potato.

Six environmental factors are considered as part of the map: soil pH, soil depth to any restricting layer, soil drainage, the steepness of terrain, temperatures and rainfall.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, chairman of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, said Wednesday’s meeting at Mahi Pono is just one component of agricultural planning.

“We are really talking to DOE, community colleges, Department of Ag, about building a skilled workforce in ranching, in dairy, in ornamentals, in food production” and other agricultural sectors, he said.

Then, the Department of Education can be supported with academies throughout the state, which will have a pipeline to community college. The college component will have a certificate, signaling potential employees that the graduate has specific qualifications.

“Then we can keep local kids here with higher paying jobs,” Dela Cruz said.

Mayor Michael Victorino said his goal is that agriculture will be the “second leg” of Maui’s economic stool.

“The cornerstone is the hospitality industry — no question,” he said. “But I want agriculture to be as solid as possible. If I can get to where 40, 50, 60 percent of everything we grow is consumed here, I would be a happy camper.”

“That’s exactly what my goal is: A minimum of 60 percent.”

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