Cool it: State examines demolition, upgrades, additions to Kamuela facility

  • The Kamuela Vacuum Cooling Plant Co-op near Lalamilo Farm Lotsis the last stop for produce being shipped throughout the state. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Vacuum cooling chambers prepare produce for shipping at the Kamuela Vacuum Cooling Plant. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Tomato plants grow at Kawamata Farm in Waimea. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Ricardo picks tomatoes at Kawamata Farms in Waimea. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Kawamata Farm tomatoes are sorted and boxed, ready for the Kamuela Vacuum Cooling Plant where they will be shipped throughout the state. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Amanda Lima sorts tomatoes at Kawamata Farm in Waimea. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — The Kamuela Vacuum Cooling Plant is in line for a face-lift.

The Legislature commissioned a Hawaii Department of Agriculture feasibility study for work on the plant that recommended a three-step course of action — tear down old structures, upgrade the existing plant to comply with the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act and build out a certified commercial kitchen.

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Morris Atta, Agricultural Lands Branch manager with the Ag Resource Management Division, said he was “fairly confident” the department will act on at least two of those initiatives.

“Funding was for a feasibility study and then hopefully we still have some funds left that will be sufficient to possibly carry out the first two recommendations,” he said.

The study projects demolition costs at $450,000 while compliance upgrades to the current facility are estimated at $124,000. The commercial kitchen would almost certainly require new legislation and more state money, the feasibility study quoting an estimated figure of $1,824,000.

Failing to complete the upgrades would put the handful of farmers who are members of the Kamuela Vacuum Cooling Cooperative in a bind, all but “handicapping the processing of food products moving through this facility,” Atta said.

And even though only around half of the co-op’s 17 members still use the vacuum cooling and refrigeration services the state-owned and cooperative-leased plant provides, hamstringing the facility would prove a significant blow to Hawaii Island agriculture — not to mention a lack of action would leave consumers less secure.

“There are a lot of food safety requirements and it’s very difficult to be able to actually farm outside and still comply with all (of them),” said Raymond Kawamata, a North Hawaii farmer and one of the cooperative’s board members. “That is not something that will stop and it will get only more important.”

Trashing the old facilities, built in 1968, is also a safety precaution. Both lead paint and asbestos have been identified within, and while food is neither stored nor processed there, some packing materials are kept inside.

The commercial kitchen is more of a mixed bag, no pun intended. Atta described it as a “good to have” but not a “need to have” amenity.

Farmers in the area rely more on refrigeration for a wide range of produce and vacuum cooling for leafy vegetables, which need to be cooled quickly after harvest to extend shelf-life. A commercial kitchen would be used less by farmers but more by the community, who Atta said would be granted access for a fee.

“It would be nice to have a certified kitchen,” said Royce Hirayama, also a farmer in North Hawaii and cooperative board member. “People are interested but they’re not (all) members. They’re small farms around the community, but they were kind of interested because they wanted to make jams and all kinds of things.”

Questions about the value of an investment in a commercial kitchen have been raised by the community but both the study and Atta indicated there’s a legitimate case to be made in the kitchen’s favor.

Vacuum cooling and refrigeration expenses outpace revenues at the plant. In fiscal year 2018, it operated at a loss of roughly $21,000 when the two services are combined. Part of the reason for that, Hirayama explained, was a dip in vacuum cooling usage due to retirement of certain co-op members.

The trend is pervasive throughout the industry but particularly in the areas of leafy greens, he added.

“Older farmers are retiring and there’s not young farmer coming (to fill the void),” Hirayama said. “After the rat lungworm crisis … people are really thinking about growing those types of crops. If the state can help out and bring in younger farmers and have loans … it could help.”

Atta said the state is engaged in such recruitment efforts and provides loan programs. But he added even more happens outside the HDOA.

The University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources as well as farming organizations, on their own or in conjunction with the department, are looking at different initiatives to change economic models, implement other innovative farming techniques and incorporate smart technology to create a class of young, efficient farmers.

It’s proven a challenge across the state but agriculture is still an important industry on Hawaii Island. The feasibility study said the island was home to 61 percent of Hawaii farms as of 2012 with only an 8 percent decrease in total farms since 2007. It added that more than a third of vegetables consumed on the island are locally grown.

Considering the state’s push for food sustainability and what Atta believes the role of government to be, investment of the sort proposed for the Kamuela Vacuum Cooling Plant is necessary. Not to mention, it’s the only state-owned facility of its kind on Hawaii Island.

“As a general rule, ag struggles economically,” he said. “But there is significant public benefit and purpose to upgrading this.”

And the kitchen might end up paying for itself.

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According to the study’s projections, incorporating the monthly costs and revenues of a commercial kitchen based on estimated use with the hard data from cooling and refrigeration last fiscal year, the plant becomes profitable — significantly so.

Expenses would stretch upward of $26,000 monthly, while revenues are estimated to come in just shy of $132,000 every month.

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