Sharon Hurd is generally well liked in farming circles.
But her first foray into the Legislature, as Gov. Josh Green’s pick to head the Department of Agriculture, was less than cordial. Senate Ways and Means President Donovan Dela Cruz ended up postponing her January 11 budget report, saying she was unprepared and disorganized.
He returned home and surveyed the myriad problems facing the department, from its lack of organization, chronic underfunding, and the absence of a systemic plan to achieve the state’s decade-long goal of doubling food production by 2030. Hurd he returned two days later, and the hearing went smoothly.
“I received my marching orders,” Hurd said, adding that Dela Cruz did him a favor. “You have to be bold. You have to go big.”
Hurd still needs Senate confirmation to make his appointment permanent, but in the meantime he is getting to work, as are lawmakers who want to improve food security and agriculture in Hawaii in general.
for years pPolitical rhetoric has hung over food and agriculture with several piecemeal bills to increase public spending on local food. But the goalposts have been pushed back like any meaningful plans to address the litany of cheating in Hawaii’s food system have been virtually non-existent.
Two bills have been introduced in this session, which opened last week, which aim to bring together representatives from 20 different organizations to take a holistic approach to creating a sustainable food system.
Senate Bill 420 and Senate Bill 84, introduced by Senators Mike Gabbard and Lorraine Inouye, respectively, would create such a task force under the Department of Agriculture or the Office of Planning and Sustainable Development.
Gabbard introduced a similar bill last year, but it died in the Senate. As he enters his seventh year as chairman of the Senate agriculture committee, he says it’s about time a proper plan was put in place and it’s his top priority for this year’s session.
“It’s a must,” Gabbard said.
tight bag strings
The agriculture department has struggled with funding for years, receiving less than 1% of the state budget. The subject is constantly raised in agricultural circles, often used as an example of the dissonance between speech and action.
It’s a message Hurd received during his budget report. She said she learned between hearings this month on Capitol Hill that the Agriculture Department doesn’t have much of a budget because it hasn’t asked for it. That’s something he hopes to change if confirmed.
The department’s funding problems worsened last year because it could no longer access the Environmental Response, Energy and Food Safety Tax, commonly known as the barrel tax, since lawmakers removed it as a source in 2021.
Aimed at food security and agricultural development, the tax diverted 15 cents of every $1.05 of taxes added to petroleum products, but it was diverted to the general fund after lawmakers disagreed on how the DOA was using the money.
Lieutenant Governor Sylvia Luke oversaw the House Finance Committee when the barrel tax was removed from the statute when food safety was removed. She described it as a “slush fund.”
In fiscal year 2020, DOA used just under $3.2 million of the barrel tax, with $900,000 for irrigation and maintenance staff and $450,000 for Covid-19 relief grants for farmers. Funds were also allocated to organizations as grants to help attend conventions and used for general administrative costs.
“Any department would want those kinds of funds that they can tap into, but that’s like subverting the executive branch and the legislative branch,” Luke told Civil Beat in a recent interview. “Can you imagine the abuse and lack of accountability?”
Hurd said the barrel tax revenue was a “safety net” and reflected the department’s historical underfunding.
but lucas said the underlying problem is that DOA has not been aggressive or ambitious enough in asking for money.
House Agriculture and Food Systems Chairman Cedric Gates took aim at operating funding for the department, trying to fill the void left by the barrel tax. His goal is to at least double the operating budget by taking money from general funds or special funds, which could come from new taxes.
more than a goal
For now, Hurd is working with a budget drawn up by his predecessor, Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser. Since her appointment earlier this month, Hurd has asked for an additional $800,000 this fiscal year, which ends June 30, and $900,000 for capital improvements in the next fiscal year.
But she’s thinking big.
Hurd has worked at DOA for 15 years, serving as the interface between Hawaii’s food system and the state and federal governments, leveraging millions of dollars in grants, included microgrants, for farmers and ranchers.
His experience in the department is cutting on both counts. some legislators afraid that it means that she would only maintain the state thator, acting more as a state regulator than as a promoter of agriculture.
But representatives of the agricultural industry remain cautiously optimistic, based on Hurd’s long history of helping put money in the hands of farmers.
“Any grower who is out of politics will support her because everyone knows who she is,” said Ken Love, president of Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers. “She’s the right person, at the right time.”
Whether or when the Senate will confirm it is up in the air.
“In terms of their predecessors, I think they all tried,” Love said. “But I think they were accountable to others and didn’t want to change course.”
It’s been just over three weeks since Hurd took over, and it continues to be a learning curve as he becomes more familiar with ranching, procurement, biosecurity and other specifics of his department.
His simple vision of “growing what we eat and eating what we grow” belies his understanding of the food system.
When Hurd talks about aquaculture, he considers the need for laboratories; talking about cattle and ranching, he talks about invasive species, irrigation, slaughterhouses and supply chains; when he talks about making farms sustainable, he talks about homelessness, the need for land, the need for interagency cooperation, especially with permitting issues.
The director alludes to bigger requests in the future, such as filling the gap left by the barrel tax with a “contingency fund”, along with other more ambitious requests. as an omnibus farm bill, similar to the federal Farm Bill.
But to do that, he said he has to continue to listen to lawmakers, along with players across the food system. And that’s what she plans to do.
“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Stupski Foundation, the Ulupono Fund in Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.