KEKAHA — The agriculture division of DowDuPont has announced major changes in its Kauai operations under which it will expand its Hawaii research activities here, increasing staffing on island by as much as 50 percent.
The firm, created earlier this year by the merger of the Dow Chemical Co. and E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co., is in the process of dividing its corporate operations into three new companies, one of which will focus exclusively on agriculture. Both Dow and DuPont previously had separate operations on Kauai, both of which focused on development of improved genetically modified seed corn and soy strains.
Meanwhile, Hartung Brothers Inc., a leading seed developer that produces GMO, organic and conventional seeds for farmers, said it was changing the nature of its Kauai operations and will become a production scale grower of food products for commercial markets statewide, and possibly beyond.
Hartung acquired the previous Kauai operations of Syngenta A.G., a Swiss conglomerate closely identified with GMO agriculture and widely criticized over pesticide use. It will continue its GMO and other research activities on Kauai as it diversifies into production farming.
The DowDuPont announcement was the third in a series of developments that are rapidly changing Kauai’s Westside seed companies — starting with reduction in the total number of firms from four to three. Rumors of an impending shake-up at DowDuPont had been rife for weeks.
In 2016, Beck’s Hybrids acquired the Kauai operations of BASF Corp., an international chemical and technology company. Beck’s, according to its Kauai Hawaii research operations manager, intends to continue research on GMO corn strains, making few changes in its operations on island, which employ 10 full-time staff members and as many as 70 part-timers.
Both Hartung Brothers and Beck’s are family-owned, mainland-based companies with decades of experience in seed production. Hartung Brothers was founded 42 years ago and is still run by the two men who started it. It has seed operations in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Texas and other locations. Beck’s, founded in 1901, is based in Atlanta, Iowa.
“There is very positive change on the Westside,” said Steve Lupkes, Beck’s Hawaii research operations manager. “I think it’s a net positive for the island.”
In the controversy over GMO agriculture and pesticide use that preceded enactment of Kauai County Bill 2491 in 2013, Dow, DuPont, BASF and Syngenta were often cast in the role of villains by GMO opponents. The arrival of two old-line, family-owned seed businesses that are not exclusively focused on GMO crops and consolidation of Dow and DuPont in a new company that will be devoted to agriculture continues a dramatic transformation of Kauai farming.
The fight over Bill 2491 continued for four years, bitterly dividing Kauai politically. Eventually, a federal court judge and, later, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, invalidated the ordinance on grounds the state Legislature had never granted authority to regulate pesticides to counties. Subsequent attempts to change state law to permit greater county pesticide regulation failed.
Laurie Yoshida, DowDuPont’s top Kauai executive, said the new operation will merge previous seed research activities on Molokai with existing facilities on Kauai. Staffing at DowDuPont, now between 120 and 130 on Kauai, is projected to grow by as much as 50 percent, Yoshida said, though the company will give up some of its leased Westside acreage.
The new Kauai operation will focus exclusively on corn and soy bean seed research, shifting from open air farming to use of greenhouses, as well as conventional fields. Existing facilities will be renovated. Yoshida said specific plans for the amount of land DowDuPont will farm on Kauai are pending and won’t be concluded until sometime in 2018. Four greenhouses will be constructed initially, she said, with more added later.
But the most dramatic change on island may be what is happening at Hartung Brothers, which will continue its GMO seed research — with Syngenta as one of its customers — but change its emphasis to production scale farming intended to address food sustainability objectives. Throughout the protracted fight over GMOs and pesticide use, advocates and opponents have agreed that change needs to come to Hawaii’s food economy to counter the reality that about 90 percent of the state’s food is imported.
Joshua Uyehara, Hartung Brothers’ general manager for Hawaii operations, said the company will begin its production agriculture activities growing alfalfa for use by ranchers and cattle farmers throughout Hawaii. The alfalfa operations will diversify to include commercial tropical fruit production and, eventually, vegetables. He said Hartung Brothers is already a major mainland producer of cucumbers for Vlasic, owned by the agriculture conglomerate Pinnacle Foods, and Birds Eye green beans.
“We are going to be looking for ways we can grow food at scale,” said Uyehara. “To grow something that’s competitive for Kauai, you have to grow more than what just Kauai needs.”
In Hawaii agriculture, he said, “you have to do something you can do better than anyone else because our logistic and cost structures are very high.”
Tropical fruits, he said, can be a mainstay for Hawaii growers, who have decades of experience in papaya, banana and pineapple farming. Alfalfa, he said, can help support and permit expansion of Kauai’s rapidly evolving beef industry. The GMO papaya is largely credited with saving the papaya industry on Hawaii Island.
But, he said, “we don’t want to flood Kauai. We will want to open an export business and work with the state on facilities and logistics that can benefit both us and other farmers.”
Hartung Brothers leases about 1,500 acres on Kauai, but only actively farms 400 to 500 at a time. The company has 60 employees here, he said, a number that will likely grow. But because Syngenta’s operations were seasonal, the company will, for the first time, be able to use its existing resources to significantly expand what it can do in its fields year-round.
“As the company and the (farming) industry evolves on a global scale, the market requires that you find out what you can do excellently. We have to do it that way. We can’t afford to only plant a small fraction of our acres if we are going to be in production agriculture.”
The three companies on the Westside, Uyehara said, are — in different ways — altering their objectives, diverging — except for Beck’s — from their traditional focus on developing GMO derivatives of corn and soy strains.
“Each company is clarifying and focusing on what they do on the Westside of Kauai,” he said, “and it’s exciting when you look at it like that.”
Yoshida said DowDuPont’s operations on Kauai are still in flux. The merger that produced the new company was only completed in September and associated restructuring won’t conclude until sometime later in 2018. Switching to greenhouse cultivation, she said, will permit greater flexibility by reducing the need for water, fertilizer and pesticide.
Eventually, though, Yoshida said, a new plant strain has to be able to perform for farmers in the field.
“Right now,” she said, “even the future name of the agriculture division has not been determined. So the (newly formed) agriculture company will be taking a look at its worldwide footprint and figuring out what we need.”
Although the new company is still in the throes of determining staffing levels, Yoshida said there is no doubt that Kauai employment will increase dramatically. That is partly due to closure of the Molokai operations, which will be merged into Kauai’s.