To finish! A farmer! Who is Californian Ceil Howe III and what does he do as overseer of Mahi Pono?
[MauiTime first broke the story of the sale of Alexander & Baldwin’s old sugarcane lands in November 2018. Our ongoing Changing Maui: Mahi Pono series investigates the new owners of these massive land holdings and the changes they will bring to Maui. It is part of Changing Maui, a larger series on the changes facing Maui County.]
Yet another corporate entity has manifested itself in the unfolding Mahi Pono saga, but this time there is a real farmer involved. Why is he here? What is he going to do ? The answer is currently as opaque as almost everything that surrounds the new mainland owners of the old Alexander & Baldwin sugarcane fields.
The farmer is Ceil Howe III, 45, and he is listed as the manager of Mahi Pono Holdings, a subsidiary stuck between Pomona Farming and Mahi Pono on the growing tree of businesses created by the marriage of Pomona, a group of California Investment (and a subsidiary of Trinitas Partners) and the Public Sector Pension Investment Board (PSP Investments), one of Canada’s largest investment managers. The fact that there is a Mahi Pono Holdings suggests that there may be future Hawaiian real estate to add alongside Mahi Pono LLC. Mahi Pono Holdings was registered on December 24, four days after Mahi Pono purchased the 41,000 acres of farmland and 15,000 acres of watershed from Alexander & Baldwin for $ 262 million, or about $ 4,700 per acre.
The Hawaii State Business Registration website lists Howe as a manager, along with Mark Drouin and Christian Bonneau. Drouin is Managing Director and Head of Natural Resources at PSP Investments. Bonneau is listed as the “Senior Director – Natural Resources” for the company, which invests Canadian federal workers’ pension funds, such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. It’s understandable that they are included as managers – after all, it was PSP money that funded the acquisition of the A&B land.
Howe’s implication, however, is less clear. He is a third generation member of a large farming family in Kings County, Calif., Who own Westlake Farms, once one of the county’s largest farms. The Howes are considered a founding family in this region and their farm is located near Kettleman City at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley on the edge of the Tulare Lake Basin.
(The story of Tulare Lake, fed by four rivers, is one of epic environmental fault. Once the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi River, it often reached an area of around 700 square miles. after spring runoff from the nearby Sierra Nevada. However, from the mid-1800s onwards, the boom in agricultural water use led to the creation of dams, dikes, canals and other methods irrigation systems that effectively drained the lake and devastated its ecosystem, which included immense wetlands. The lake only reappears in the dry basin when there is flooding caused by heavy snowmelt in winter. Today’s California, ravaged by drought, that almost never means.)
Howe’s LinkedIn page lists him as the COO of Westlake Farms, a “partner” of Pomona Farming and a business owner at C&J Farm Management. He is also described in the literature of Trinitas Partners as its “director of agriculture”. In Kings County, Howe served as administrator of the Central Union School District and a member of a local water board. Currently, he serves on the advisory board of Waterfind USA, an offshoot of an Australian company that creates commercial markets for water rights.
I tried unsuccessfully to contact Howe this week, personally and through Westlake Farms, where no one ever answered the phone. When I emailed my question about Howe’s duties at Mahi Pono Holdings to Mahi Pono’s new vice president of operations, Shan Tsutsui, he replied that Howe would “help bring the local farm team together.” . Tsutsui did not respond to a later request to interview Howe. I would have contacted Howe’s bosses in Trinitas / Pomona, Ryon Paton and Kirk Hoiberg, but they remained elusive, despite Paton’s statements in a corporate video promising “a commitment to transparency and accountability from top to bottom. “.
So it’s unclear what Howe will bring to Mahi Pono’s effort, although – judging from his resume – water issues are said to be strongly suggested.
As for Howe’s family farm, Westlake, it has had an eventful history, according to trade publications and newspaper articles.
Westlake Farms once encompassed some 60,000 acres, much of which was devoted to growing cotton.
In 2001, according to an article in Western agricultural press, the Howes abruptly decided to stop growing cotton and, within a year, went from one of California’s biggest cotton producers to none. Howe’s father believed there was too much uncertainty in the cotton market and had no desire to partner with financiers to alleviate the circumstances. His decision was seen as deeply wise when cotton prices subsequently plummeted.
But that didn’t mean the farm was thriving. In the post-cotton period, 65 of the farm’s 80 workers were made redundant. Much of the land remained fallow and / or non-cultivable and the family’s subsequent action in 2001 involved – literally – a really crappy idea. The Howes sold 14,500 acres of Westlake to Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts for $ 27.4 million, according to the Los Angeles Times. The idea was to build a plant that would mix LA’s treated sewage with green waste (such as wood chips) to create compost that Westlake would then use to fertilize crops on the 12,000 acres it leased. to new owners (for $ 300,000 per year).
As a result of the deal, several local environmental groups sued Kings County for failing to consider air quality impacts and argued the plans violated parts of the California Environmental Quality Act. . This matter has been settled.
The Howes initially struck the deal predicting that it would save Westlake Farms around $ 1 million a year on conventional fertilizers when the new ‘poo farmer’ began to sink. However, long delays plagued the project, and when it finally became operational in 2016, the result was only a fraction of the initial projections. The Howes have filed a lawsuit to unwind their sale to the LA County Sanitation District. The status of this trial is unknown.
Westlake has shrunk again, the Time reported, by selling more land to “solar and other” developers. A 2016 article in the Hanford Sentry said only 4,000 acres of pistachios, almonds, wheat and alfalfa were grown on the huge farm once.
Those who know the family suggest that, given Westlake’s shrinking, Howe is looking to expand his career options through Trinitas / Pomona, and now, apparently with Mahi Pono.
Image courtesy of LinkedIn