News Column

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser Mark Coleman column

May 9, 2014

By Mark Coleman, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

May 09--Scott Enright earned his bachelor's degree in psychology and philosophy from the University of Hawaii at Hilo, but somehow ended up having a long career in agriculture.

"You know, it certainly wasn't planned," said Enright, who is chairman of the Hawaii Board of Agriculture and thus de facto director of the state Department of Agriculture.

Enright, 61, said it wasn't long after he graduated from UH-Hilo that he went to work on Molokai for Lokahi Pacific doing research into "nitrogen-fixing trees for tropical forestry."

"We were looking for biomass, as we still are today, for alternative energy purposes," he said.

Since then, he also has been an orchard superintendent for Kilauea Agronomics, a cultivation and irrigation superintendent for Hamakua Sugar Co., project manager for ITC Water Management Inc. and a consultant for the Hawaii Sustainable Agriculture and Renewable Energy Project.

His first state job was as deputy director of the Agribusiness Development Board.

"I was working with the now-Gov. Abercrombie when he was a candidate, writing talking points for agriculture, and I'd had a long career in agriculture around the state, and though I didn't apply for the position in the transition team, I was asked to serve (as volunteer chairman) on the Agribusiness Development Board. When Jimmy Nakatani, who was the deputy, became the executive director of that, the governor asked if I would consider becoming deputy, and I agreed."

In February 2012, Enright became deputy director of the Board of Agriculture, and in March was confirmed by the state Senate as its chairman, replacing Russell Kokubun, who retired at the end of last year.

Issues on his plate include agricultural development, food sustainability, invasive species, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), pesticides and many more, as he works to support the department's mission of enhancing and promoting agriculture and aquaculture in Hawaii.

Enright is a graduate of St. Agnes High School in New York City. He moved to Hawaii in 1975, following his older brother, Ken, who retired recently as a Family Court judge. His younger brother, Gregg, also moved here; he is a general manager for Outrigger Hotels and Resorts.

Enright lives in Ookala on Hawaii island's Hamakua Coast with his wife Susan, who is special assistant for communications in the chancellor's office at UH-Hilo.

QUESTION: How much of what the Department of Agriculture does is driven by initiatives by the board and how much by state law?

ANSWER: For the most part, the department is driven by the rules and regs and laws of the state of Hawaii. But what I've asked the Board of Agriculture to do at this point is to help the department formulate policy positions as we go forward.

Q: What is the department's mission?

A: It's diverse. It's in animal industry, which is one of our divisions, to keep the livestock industry vital and healthy. ... Then you segue over to the quality-assurance division, and they're inspecting to make sure that coffee is regulated and labeled correctly, and that's also true for eggs and milk and most of the commodities. ... Then, when you move to plant industry, we have plant quarantine -- that's our invasive-species work and trying to keep plant diseases and pests out of the state. ... Also, we do pesticide regulation and we do education and we do enforcement. So it's diverse.

Our ag loan division is the lender of last resort for farmers because there's not a lot of financial institutions that are lending for agriculture. ...

We also have the Agriculture Resource Management Division, which does all of the leasing for state lands that we have here in the department, and they also run the different irrigation systems that we have throughout the state, and do the engineering work that needs to be done to support agriculture around the state.

Q: It sounds like you must be the third- or fourth-largest department.

A: We're one of the smaller ones, and we get only 0.4 percent of the state budget. So to the extent that there's all the talk about growing food self-sufficiency and moving agriculture forward, we don't have the resources to do that. In the last economic downturn, the department was cut by 40 percent of its workforce.

Q: What are you down to now?

A: We have 264 people employed around the state in the different divisions. ... But we have a third of our workforce that's open, and those are the positions that ... we're attempting to put back into place now that the Legislature has given us the money back for the positions.

Q: How do the activities of the state intersect with those of the federal DOA?

A: It depends on which division we're speaking about. With animal industry, we work closely with USDA on staying current on animal diseases. With plant industry, we work quite closely with USDA in their APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) division. They have their own quarantine system for coming into the state and they help us with invasive species. Currently they're helping us with the infestation of the coconut rhinoceros beetle that we detected in December of last year ... so that we don't lose the majority of our iconic coconut trees.

Q: Speaking of that, wouldn't you guess that the military might be a major source of invasive species?

A: Yes. We know this coconut rhinoceros beetle was found on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. ...

Q: In general, how is the battle against invasive species going?

A: I guess the way I would start it out is, in 2002 the Legislative Reference Bureau told our state legislators that the state should be investing somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million a year in invasive species, if they really wanted to impact the problem. The department identifies as many as 20 new invasive species a year that have the potential of getting established here. ... So if that number is anywhere close to being correct, we don't fund at the level necessary. At some point invasive species probably do get away from us, although we do the best we can with the resources that we're given.

Q: What's wrong with just letting various species spread across the face of Earth organically?

A: There are certain pests that we wouldn't want to bring in because we couldn't control them, and the effect that it would have for agriculture is what we're specifically looking at.

Q: So this is about trying to protect Hawaii crops?

A: That's where it started out initially, but invasive species have become a much bigger issue, and it will be with climate change. ... I was amazed how big a topic invasive species is nationwide. When I go to the National Association of State Directors of Agriculture meetings, invasive species is front and center in our agenda. Every one of the states has their own invasive species issues.

Q: How much of the food that we eat in Hawaii is actually grown here?

A: We don't know that. There's a number that's often been in the press -- 85 percent of the food that we eat is imported -- but it really can't be substantiated. ... The department is currently about eight months into a food-metrics study funded jointly by the Ulupono Initiative and the department. So at the end of the project we'll know exactly what we're growing and what we're importing in each of the commodities. Then we'll have a benchmark to know if we're making progress toward food sustainability.

Q: Isn't the idea of food sustainability really just a pipe dream?

A: Right. It's one of those terms that gets used without getting defined. But it's probably in the neighborhood of 40 percent, say, of our food that we could produce locally. That could be fruit and veg crops certainly, but it also speaks to people's food preferences that are formed early in life. So to the extent that people continue to eat a lot of apples as opposed to mangoes, we won't be able to impact the apple source.

Q: I'm surprised we don't have huge mango orchards in Hawaii.

A: Yes. You know, it's the exporting costs, the transportation costs, in being competitive. But what we do have here in Hawaii, and certainly on the neighbor islands, is water. In a water-scarce world, our ability to have water to do agriculture will allow us to start to grow some of those segments of agriculture like mangoes, where we could start to be competitive. Because, essentially, when you export food, you're exporting the water that you had to have to grow that.

Q: How much of the food that is grown here is shipped to other locations?

A: In terms of veg crops, not a lot. Most of it is consumed here locally. That's true of most of the fruit crops, too. Certainly all of the bananas.

Q: Then you have the big crops, like sugar, right?

A: Yeah, sugar is exported, mac nuts for the most part are exported, coffee is exported. ... The basil that's grown here, a lot of that is exported.

Q: Has the department ever analyzed the Jones Act, what impact that might be having on food prices in Hawaii?

A: We haven't, and, you know, it's a politically hot issue, but I'll be having a meeting this Saturday with the Cattlemen's Council, and I know that is something that they want to talk to me about.

Q: What crop would you say has the most promise here?

A: One of the places that we'll see real growth in agriculture commodities is with milk. ... Right now we import 80 percent of our milk. ... But with Big Island Dairy Group doubling its herd size -- they're putting $17 million into new infrastructure for a state-of-the-art milking parlor -- they'll bump it up to 40 percent of milk produced locally. And Ulupono is about to start Hawaii Dairy Farms on Kauai. ... When they come on line, that will bump us probably up to 60 percent of our milk. ... Inside of seven years we could start to be approaching self-sufficiency in milk that we once had, lost, and are in the process of bringing back. That's a real success story for agriculture.

Q: In terms of nonfood products, did you endorse the proposal to legalize hemp production in Hawaii?

A: Well, I was about as supportive as you could be. If you were to talk to (bill sponsor) Rep. Cynthia Thielen, she would tell you I was integral in getting that passed. ... And when the federal government tells us that a crop or an agricultural technology is safe, be it biotech or pesticides or a crop like hemp, then we support all agriculture and we support the use of that. ... So we're funding the research that's going to be done with this hemp bill. We'll be certifying the seeds and we'll be moving the project forward.

Q: About pesticides, what is your position regarding the state versus the counties in terms of regulation?

A: It's clear to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture that the jurisdiction for pesticide usage is with the federal government ... and they mandate that the states do regulation in partnership with them. It's clear on that ... although, the attorneys will need to figure that out, and they're hard at it now with the Kauai County Council's (Bill) 2491, which was specific about pesticide usage.

Q: What about GMOs? Do you think Hawaii should go the way of Vermont, which last month moved to require the labeling of GMO foods?

A: It's the cost, as was often spoken to in testimony. A small state like Hawaii, if we were to try to enforce that, it would be cost-prohibitive. It's why the first movement toward labeling happened in California, because if you get a market like California, you can move the market nationally. But Hawaii is such a pocket market that we would be hard pressed. ...

Then you need to define terms, too, because once a product is processed, you can't find the (DNA) marker that would tell you whether it was genetically modified anyway. ... I'm not a geneticist, but this is what I've been told, so it becomes exceedingly difficult for a small state like Hawaii to weigh in on labeling.

Q: What is your view about the best bio-energy fuel option right now?

A: On the Big Island, Kamehameha Schools has ... lands that are planted in eucalyptus, and I know there's a look at that because eucalyptus performs the best of any place in the world on that Hamakua Coast.

Q: Do the trees grow that fast?

A: You can tree up and harvest it in seven years, and do it in rotation.

Q: And it would be consumed in what way, for power plants?

A: Depending on the technology, you could turn it into fuel for transportation or you could turn it into diesel and bunker fuel that could be used by HELCO on the Big Island.

Q: Labor is really expensive here, so do you work with Immigration or anyone to help import lower-cost ag workers from foreign countries?

A: No, we have not played a role to date in securing ag labor from foreign nationals. ... The department is working with the UH system to develop agriculturalists, and to a certain extent that could include ag labor, but to the extent of meeting the needs in real time of somebody like Aloun Farms, that's not something we weigh in on.

Q: If you have a goal of agricultural sustainability, and local workers aren't available ... how do you achieve that without an adequate labor supply?

A: Most of the rest of the country uses ag labor that comes up from south of the border. And that's every state from Florida and Alabama to Iowa in the packing plants to Washington and Oregon and California, so, yeah, we don't have that. Micronesia might be a source of ag labor. I believe we'll see more Micronesians moving to Hawaii with, you know, climate change and its effect on the island nations. But it's a timely issue and one that hasn't ... really hit the press, but that we will need to work on.

___

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Source: Honolulu Star-Advertiser (HI)


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