The sudden departure of Mahi Pono’s chief agricultural officer is the latest bad news for the company

Larry Nixon observes newly acquired land from Mahi Pono, February 2019
[Editor’s note: This story was updated on May 22.]

[In November 2018, MauiTime first broke the story of the $267-million sale of 56,000 acres of Alexander & Baldwin sugarcane land and watershed to Mahi Pono, a joint venture between California-based Pomona Farming and a Canadian pension fund. Our Changing Maui: Mahi Pono series examines all facets of the sale and the chages it will bring to Maui. It is part of Changing Maui, a larger series about changes facing Maui County.]

MAhi Pono chief executive Larry Nixon abruptly resigned from the company on Tuesday, less than 16 weeks after he was hired. In an email to colleagues obtained by MauiTime, Nixon wrote: “This is a decision I didn’t take lightly, I really wanted to be a part of this team during this transition and be with you when it comes down to it. was triggered. Don’t confuse my early departure with anything other than a change of direction for me.

The resignation has come as a shock to Mahi Pono’s management, according to insiders, and does not bode well for the company. Nixon was the only real farmer on the management team and certainly the only person on the Maui operation with experience starting large-scale farms.

In a brief email to staff, Ann Chin, president of California-based Mahi Pono, said, “Larry Nixon has informed us that he will be stepping down as general manager of farm operations. Mahi Pono is extremely grateful to Larry for his commitment and dedication since joining our team. ”

She said Darren Strand would take over as Nixon in the interim. Strand, former chairman of Hali’imile Pineapple Co., joined Alexander & Baldwin as head of agricultural operations in 2018, after the company shut down its sugarcane operations. Most recently he worked for Nixon at Mahi Pono. We’re starting to get the impression that A & B has never left the building.

Nothing is known of the reasons for Nixon’s resignation, and his email indicated that he had no plans to leave Maui immediately. “I haven’t even decided what my next steps will be, so I’m going to be able to enjoy your progress on the other side of the fence,” he wrote. He did not return MauiTime calls for comment.

Nixon, 48, joined the company in January. His resume included jobs at two of California’s largest growers as well as local experience on the Big Island growing macadamia nuts for MacFarm. He immediately wowed Mahi Pono skeptics with his candid statements and solid attention to the ongoing project, preparing the ground in central Maui for cultivation. Until then, Mahi Pono’s leadership had consisted of senior vice president of operations Shan Tsutsui, a politician turned lobbyist who freely acknowledged his lack of agricultural expertise in community meetings held shortly after Mahi Pono purchased 41,000 acres. former A&B sugarcane land for $ 267 million in December.

In a long interview with MauiTime end of February, Nixon expressed his dismay at the condition of the A&B sugar lands saying, “I don’t think they were the best farmers in the world… [the land] is just messy. He said he wanted fewer pesticides and more bees, and vowed to change the culture of the plantation era when A&B employees officially became Mahi Pono employees on March 1.

What Nixon didn’t want to get involved, he stressed, was anything to do with politics or water issues. “A&B had the message, ‘Well, if it crosses our land, we’ll hijack it and use it,’” he said in the interview. ” I do not need it. We can do better than that, than those open ditches that worked 150 years ago. We need to be better neighbors and have a method of transmission that works… From an agriculture point of view, there is enough for all of us.

Nixon prepared a first crop plan this includes planting avocados, peppers, white pineapple, oranges, lemons, limes, coffee, and macadamia nuts.

“The project will be successful, will always be delivered on time and be something you should all be proud of,” Nixon wrote to his colleagues.

So what is it ?

That pretty much sums up the feelings of the people who commented on an early version of this story on Facebook. “Gee, tell us why,” wrote a poster.

It’s an answer only Nixon can provide, and right now he’s not speaking. However, it might be a good time for an update on Mahi Pono, born out of a union between Canadian pension fund PSP – which is funding the deal – and California-based Trinitas Partners, which is in charge of operations. and has been responsible for most of the lousy optics the company has generated since its inception.

Since January, Trinitas has focused on three main areas of Mahi Pono: public relations, water bill lobbying and agriculture.

The initial community-wide charm offensive was spearheaded by Shan Tsutsui, who was hired by Trinitas to lead Mahi Pono’s operations, although he retained his job with the lobbying firm based in Honolulu, Strategies 360, which seemed odd at the time. Tsutsui brought on board community activists Sean Lester and Tiare Lawrence to help spread the good news about Mahi Pono (Agriculture! Local food!). The trio avoided public meetings, choosing instead to attend smaller gatherings of niche groups in an effort to tone down non-positive comments from residents who were no strangers to off-island owners making big. promises.

These meetings were always full of references to the “Principals” of Trinitas, which made them look like aliens from an old episode of “Twilight Zone”. In fact, some of the directors came to an Alliance of Community Associations meeting in January where they couldn’t even agree on the number of acres purchased (56,000). In attendance was director Ryan Paton, who enjoys discussing his evangelical Christianity as well as his status as “steward of the earth.” After enduring questions during this meeting that obviously angered him, Paton vanished from the Happy Hand, leaving the local team to manage.

This happy trio dissolved soon after. By the time the state legislature met in mid-January, Tsutsui was gone, to lobby with colleagues at Strategies 360 for the adoption of HB1326, which was quickly dubbed the “Corporate Water Theft.” Bill ”by conservation, progressive and native Hawaiian groups who opposed her, among others. The bill was intended to extend temporary water leases to companies like Mahi Pono, rather than forcing them to take the appropriate steps to apply for a permanent lease. It became clear that Trinitas had hired Tsutsui not for his ties to Maui, but for the perceived juice he held in the Legislature (Tsutsui was a Senator and Speaker of the Senate) and as a former Lieutenant Governor. . Tsutsui’s pro-HB1326 stance evaporated any goodwill Mahi Pono had briefly enjoyed in East Maui as farmers weary of the water diversion prepared to be bamboozled by yet another legislative water kick.

Sean Lester sent a late-night email criticizing groups like the Sierra Club for opposing the bill and disappeared from Mahi Pono shortly thereafter. Conversely, Tiare Lawrence publicly declared his opposition to the bill early in the process. So instead of keeping opponents of HB1326 silent – as Trinitas should have hoped if they hired him – Lawrence sat on the sidelines as opponents of the bill lobbied so effectively that they managed to defeat him. What about Tsutsui juice? Well, Bill died in his old Senate playground…

Now, amid the still timid fallout from this legislative failure, comes the exit of the only person who seemed to really improve Mahi Pono’s local image. Larry Nixon’s crews made headlines by enriching the depleted soil with minerals, cutting down the sugarcane, and starting to fence the land in anticipation of some 2,000 acres of crops that, as promised, were destined for markets. local. It was in Nixon’s mysterious resignation that Trinitas failed again. Either this badly messed up the interview process and hired the wrong man, or it created such an inhospitable atmosphere that the right man made a quick exit. Either way, it looks like Trinitas has some explanation to give, especially to the PSP banker.

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