Saturday, February 27, 2016

Taro isn't Maui's future either

When most of HC&S’s water is returned to the streams of East and West Maui, how much of HC&S’s agricultural output will be replaced by other crops?

Taro sounds attractive.

Poi sells at the grocery for $17-18 a pound. (I eat poi every week, usually with ahi shoyu poke. Poi is the only starch I know of that costs more than the protein it is commonly eaten with.)

Yields per acre are high, 8,000-10,000 pounds. At 70 cents a pound, that’s as much as $7,000 an acre.

Demand is high. Hawaii imports over half its poi taro, mostly from Fiji. Taro/kalo has cultural as well as nutritional values going for it.

So how much additional lo’i acreage can we anticipate from the release of sugar water? None.

That’s zero, zip, nil, nada, nothing.

Since 2010, taro acreage (not all in lo’i) has dropped 25%. That’s not because HC&S was hogging the water.

It’s lack of interest in working 10-12-hour days bent over in mud. Also, the average taro farm is only a couple acres. Even at $7,000 an acre, that’s poverty wages.

A little story about the nonsense emitted by the taro farmers. Once upon a time, I attended a meeting of the State Commission on Water Resource Management. It was considering restoration of stream flow to Na Wai Eha. The submissions included surveys of several lo’i seeking more water, with their acreages reported to the fourth decimal place.

As was my practice as a reporter, I started reducing the various numbers to some easily understandable common base. Since I knew how many square feet are in an acre (about 41,000), I knew the size of the lo’i to within 4 square feet.

And since I was bored silly, I stated counting the tiles in he room where we were meeting. They were 12 inches square.

So it was obvious that the lo’i over which we were arguing – there were more than 12 lawyers in the room, running up billable hours at a furious rate – were smaller than the meeting room.

So I don’t take taro farming seriously as an economic activity.

Here are some more figures:

Total annual turnover at HC&S in sugar: $100 million-$140 million.

Total statewide receipts for taro: $2.4 million. Double that after adding value from processing: say, $5 million. Over half of that on Kauai. Maui’s share: around $1 million.

So, whatever the environmental and cultural benefits from restoring stream flows – and those will be considerable – the economic effect will be dire. Closing HC&S will suck billions out of Maui’s economy.

I was surprised to see, in The Maui News, that A&B chairman Chris Benjamin thinks the net cash-flow effect will be neutral. I have always ballparked the cost of closing the plantation at at least $100 million.

Presumably the mill will be sold overseas, like Paia mill was, but unless Puunene is just allowed to decay there will be big cleanup costs.

The big economic question – which so far as I have heard is not even understood by Arakawa and Ige – is supporting water.

RtO will have more to say about that presently.

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