Like any journalist in these days of escalating water prices amid growing scarcity, Deborah Rybak maintains a keen interest in agriculture. So late last December, when she learned 56,000 acres of farmland had changed hands on the island of Maui, her reporter’s radar went on full alert. Rybak writes for Maui Time, the island’s leading news journal.
The selling price alone—$262 million—was enough to pique her interest. Anyone with that kind of money would automatically have plenty of clout and would know, as Rybak knows, that Big Ag and water always intersect at nodes of political power.
She got even more intrigued when she tried learning about the buyers, who called themselves “Mahi Pono.” The loose translation is “to grow responsibly or ethically.” Early on, even the man who facilitated the sale couldn’t tell her much about the buyers. That bothered her, because the middleman was former Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii, Shan Tsutsui.
Even though he’d worked on the sale for six months, Tsutsui said all he knew was the buyer was named Pomona Farming. He couldn’t tell Rybak who the principals were.
By now Rybak was on full alert and it didn’t take her long to learn that Mahi Pono was only about a month old when it bought Alexander and Baldwin’s 56,000 acres. At 21 months, Pomona Farming was older, but its principal owners, Ryan Paton, Kirk Hoiberg and William Hooper, had been buying farmland for a least a decade. They were known to people who follow agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley as Trinitas Partners.
Trinitas came to the small town of Oakdale in 2008 with much of the same fanfare as they’ve generated with their arrival in Maui. Though the three Bay Area partners sold themselves as inspired by scripture and dedicated to enlightened farming practices, it didn’t help their case when most of the acreage Trinitas bought turned out to be former pasture land that was dependent on groundwater, especially after Trinitas planted water-guzzling almonds.
Trinitas had surreptitiously bought up the pasture land at bargain prices, then immediately increased its value by converting it to almond orchards, which were annexed into the Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) in 2013. Even after the annexation, Trinitas had only second tier water rights, and was thus primarily dependent on groundwater. Nonetheless, the land appreciated in value tremendously.
Trinitas took more hits to its reputation when it settled a couple of lawsuits brought by landowners who felt the Bay Area investors had misrepresented their intentions while buying out local farmers and cattle ranchers.
Other local growers who had waited years to be annexed into the district were incensed that Trinitas had skipped to the head of the line. They accused the investment group of favoring speculation over farming and predicted Trinitas would abandon the region when the price was right.
That prediction may or may not have come true recently, when Trinitas sold shares of its Oakdale properties to a Canadian investment firm. Some observers noted that the new buyer hasn’t paid off the annexation fees Trinitas financed at three percent, as required by the original contract with OID.
On the other hand, it’s possible that the new buyer is actually just another arm of the Trinitas empire, which, as Deborah Rybak has learned, features a bewildering array of LLCs and branches. In that case, Trinitas would have sold to itself, or to “Pomona Farming,” as it says in a letter of explanation to OID.
Whatever the case, the real concern for people in Maui, and anywhere else Big Ag gets involved in big sales, is water. More and more exchanges of farmland these days are about acquiring water rights and more and more people are wakening to the reality that whoever controls water rights controls the political process, and vice-versa. It’s a double feedback loop where water rights lead to power and power confers water rights.
And as of June 26, it appeared Trinitas, aka Pomona Farming, aka “Mahi Pono,” had reached an impasse with Maui County’s Board of Water Supply over water rights to its new land holdings. Problems between the board and Mahi Pono date back to ongoing controversies with Alexander and Baldwin (A&B), the original landowners.
The key question for members of the water board, and affected residents in general, is whether Mahi Pono will allow enough water to pass through its farming operation to serve “Upcountry” Maui. Norman Franco, a member on the Board of Water Supply said,
“I think people are tired of getting held hostage by A&B and now Mahi Pono,” when commenting on the impasse.
Franco was incensed because Mahi Pono has gone incommunicado despite requests from the Board of Water Supply and local media to explain its plans for utilizing the A&B water rights which came with the property. The water rights have been subject to controversy, mostly because they’ve been on a permanent “temporary” status which many interested parties believe gives the landowner too much control over the water without enough responsibility to maintain infrastructure for delivery. The water system is managed by East Maui Irrigation, which was part of the A&B buyout.
Mahi Pono went silent after a bill to maintain the status quo on its water rights failed.
Given what seems like inordinate power over water deliveries, Mahi Pono of late seems to be justifying Deborah Rybak’s early concerns about the buyout. Just a few days ago, there were reports that OID water attorney Tim O’Laughlin had become involved in the Mahi Pono controversy. Many Oakdale farmers believe O’Laughlin was a major player in giving Trinitas/Pomona Farming/Mahi Pono what they believe was sweetheart deal when Trinitas was annexed into the district.
At bottom, the Maui land purchase may in fact be a water purchase. As Mark Arax has documented so clearly in The Dreamt Land, Big Ag is also Big Water, and isn’t averse to buying and selling water for profit. The lesson is that if you are in or near a farming community, water is a commodity, it’s for sale, and a buyer is coming soon to a farm near you.