To close out 2018, we are just taking this report from Maui Time verbatim to help inform our members and community, as we felt it contains information many of us had not heard before. The pix are from KCA files.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Who Are These Guys? Enthusiasm over the new owners of A&Bâ€™s agricultural lands runs high, though almost nothing is known about them
BY DEBORAH CAULFIELD RYBAK
To hear the hosannas from members of Mauiâ€™s progressive community, Christmas came early this year with Alexander & Baldwinâ€™s sale of some 41,000 acres of former sugarcane lands to a mainland company for $262 million, or about $6,400 an acre.
So long Big Bad A&B, the water-guzzling, crop-burning, pesticide-spraying, plantation-era relic. In its place, a company calling itself Mahi Pono (translation: to grow or cultivate morally or properly), the corporate love child of a union between Canadaâ€™s Public Sector Pension Investment Board and a California-based company, Pomona Farming.
Within days, the coconut wireless thrummed with good news about the new owners. No GMO crops, existing A&B leases with Monsanto would not be renewed, community activists were being recruited for jobs.
What wasnâ€™t discussed was the question: Who are these guys?
When I asked happy-dancing sale celebrants, their simple answer was â€œNot Alexander & Baldwin!â€ When I pressed, I was advised to stop being so negative (huh?), stow the â€œskepticism,â€ or â€œtry waitâ€ for the answer to reveal itself.
The go-to guy on this sale is Hawaiâ€˜iâ€™s former Lt. Governor Shan Tsutsui, now vice-president at Strategies 360, a public affairs, communications, and research firm. Tsutsui said Friday that he began working with Pomona Farming six months ago to help them with the purchase.
When I asked, â€œWho are these guys?â€ Tsutsui was apologetic: â€œI donâ€™t know exactly who the principals will be for the new Mahi Pono entity.â€
However, he was unwavering in his support of the company. â€œIâ€™m not going to go sell our community a bag of damaged goods! I feel very comfortable in their willingness to be a partner in our community.â€
But surely, he met someone during the past six months.
â€œWe have confidentiality agreements, so I canâ€™t disclose the principals,â€ Tsutsui explained. â€œI can say their whole goal is to have a local team at work, so itâ€™s going to be locally operated. They are coming to town [this] week to meet with different folks, so Iâ€™ll have them respond to that.â€
So, while I waited, I Googled. There is very little to say about our new neighbor, Pomona Farming/Mahi Pono, now the largest landowner on Maui. Pomona is only 21 months old; Mahi Pono, less than a month. The story actually starts with a company called Trinitas.
Back in 2008, three San Mateo County friends with commercial real estate and investment backgrounds, but no farming experience â€“ William Hooper, Ryon Paton, and Kirk Hoiberg â€“ took money from friends and family and bought raw land around the small town of Oakdale, 33 miles southeast of Stockton, to plant almond orchards. They named their company Trinitas.
Trinitas expertly rode the wave of the ensuing almond boom and offered more and more investment offerings with names like Trinityfirst Investments and Trinitas Almond Partners I, II, and III, entities that control dozens of subsidiary properties like Buckeye Orchard, and 445 Ranch. Some arenâ€™t so agricultural. In mid-December a new LLC called TI Aviation was registered in California to Trinitas Farming, LLC.
While the holdings are easily identified â€“ some 60 of them in all â€“ determining who is in charge is difficult. No names are associated with any entity, except for Hooper, Paton and Hoiberg â€“ and thatâ€™s only with some companies. Even that is mysterious: Currently, bio pages for the three on the Trinitas website have been removed. (By comparison, publicly-held Alexander and Baldwin has similar interlocking companies and subsidiaries, but finding the names of dozens of executives and members of the board of directors is a snap.)
The extremely low-profile company generated publicity as it grew, not all of it positive. In 2014, as the California drought worsened, big growers like Trinitas came under fire for their water use in several news stories. Paton and Hoiberg subsequently appeared in a story about Trinitasâ€™ vision. Hoiberg described he and his friends as â€œsponsors of investment opportunities.â€ Paton said Trinitas had been â€œunfairly characterized as the poster child for groundwater abuseâ€ and maintained â€œWe are good stewards of the land.â€ Hooper said nothing for the article at all.
In 2017, Trinitas partnered with the Canadian pension fund PSP and launched a new set of companies. Tp Pomona LLC (Pomona was a Roman goddess of fruitful abundance) was established as a subsidiary of Trinitas Partners. Tp Pomonaâ€™s 16 subsidiaries include Pomona Farming, LLC, which purchased the A&B land through subsidiary Mahi Pono.
In its brief existence, Pomona Farming â€“ based in Redwood City near San Francisco â€“ has established a basic website. It lists clients (various nut distributors, Sunkist, 7-11, among others) and philanthropies such as Future Farmers of America and the American Cancer Society. Its â€œAbout Usâ€ section contains no names at all, although Hoibergâ€™s LinkedIn page lists him as a Pomona Farming director.
Maui Pono registered with the State of Hawaiâ€˜i on December 6. It also registered â€œMahi Pono,â€ â€œMahi Pono Agricultural Products,â€ Mahi Pono Farms,â€ and â€œMahi Pono Maui Produce.â€ Its president is Ann Chin, who so far has only communicated through a Honolulu PR firm. Chin, per her LinkedIn account, is a chartered financial analyst. She worked at several San Francisco venture capital firms before joining Trinitas.
Perhaps more information will emerge after an ownersâ€™ delegation visits Maui this week to meet with various â€œlawmakers and other stakeholders,â€ according to Tsutsui.
â€œIâ€™m going to be meeting with them,â€ Maui Tomorrow Executive Director Albert Perez acknowledged during a phone interview. â€œIâ€™m cautiously optimistic from what Iâ€™ve heard so far.
Perez hasnâ€™t found much information about the new owners either, but he wasnâ€™t bothered. â€œLook,â€ he said, â€œWeâ€™ve been traumatized as a community by dealing with A&B. Theyâ€™d tell us one thing and then do another behind the scenes. So I think itâ€™s time to take a breath. These new people do own the land. Letâ€™s give them a chance to be good actors. Theyâ€™re reaching out to us. Thatâ€™s encouraging.â€
Tsutsui sees the sale as â€œa once-in-a-generation type of opportunity to really preserve the whole central plain, to bring agriculture back to Maui, and to do it in a pono way that is respectful to different cultural practices, that is respectful to the land and water, doing soil remediation, managing pesticide use, the commitment to using non-GMO. I am passionate about that stuff. I want to help them succeed, because I think the alternatives are pretty bad.
â€œMy hope is that the community doesnâ€™t pre-judge. Iâ€™m really hopeful that this is something the entire community can be proud about and that it can bring back agriculture. Iâ€™m excited. This is a totally new entity. I know that scares some people, but thatâ€™s why I want to continue to help them get the message out there to bring people together.â€