By Marie O’Grady, Elemental Excelerator Communications Coordinator
Exhaust poured from the truck as it came to a grinding halt at the base of a conveyor belt, delivering Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company’s last cane harvest, symbolizing the end of an era in Hawaii. As happened in Puerto Rico and Trinidad & Tobago, growing sugar in Hawaii was no longer profitable.
In early 2016, Alexander & Baldwin (A&B), the fourth largest land owner in Hawaii, announced the close of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company (HC&S), the state’s last large-scale sugar plantation. Over the years, HC&S had faced controversies around water, pesticides, and field burning, and in 2015, the company incurred a $30 million operating loss.
Alexander & Baldwin announced in early 2016 that all 36,000 acres of former HC&S land would be transitioned to diversified agriculture, such as energy crops, agroforestry, livestock, diversified food crops, and orchard crops. Last month, A&B announced a new partnership with TerViva to cultivate pongamia on 250 acres of former plantation land.
“We believe pongamia can help diversify agriculture production on Maui while also potentially addressing our community’s need for renewable fuels. Our former sugar lands provide a great opportunity to grow more energy crops locally as they are ideally suited for large scale cultivation and mechanical harvesting.” – A&B President & CEO, Chris Benjamin
TerViva was the first ag company to join Elemental Excelerator’s portfolio in 2014. As part of their demonstration project, they are growing more than 200 acres of pongamia trees on Oahu and Maui. The oil extracted from pongamia seeds is well suited for industrial applications such as biopesticides, lubricants, chemicals, and fuels – and the residual seed cake shows promise as a feed supplement for beef cattle. Compared to soy, pongamia requires only 25 percent of the chemical and water inputs. One acre of pongamia produces 10 times more oil and 3 times more protein rich seed cake than one acre of soybeans.
This project is not only transformational for TerViva (it’s their first orchard in the region), but it’s also transformational for Hawaii.
- Local farmers and agribusinesses are a critical source of economic stability for rural economies, through jobs and direct and indirect spending. TerViva is steadily growing its Hawaii-based team, and the company supports two local nurseries and a handful of contractors.
- Pongamia is able to grow on marginal agricultural land that is not suitable for other crops. This is ideal for a place like Hawaii where the soil, which once provided resources for thousands of acres of sugarcane and pineapple, has been largely stripped of key nutrients.
- Biofuel and biomass play a role in Hawaii’s transformation to clean energy, providing firm, dispatchable power. Hawaiian Electric’s December 2016 Power Supply Improvement Plan outlines how the utility plans to utilize biofuels in power plants to replace oil as a fuel source.
There is a growing trend in the number of new agtech companies mature enough for a demonstration project, as evidenced in Elemental Excelerator’s pipeline of applicants:
- Since 2014, EEx had added four other agriculture startups to the portfolio of 53 startups. These companies are working to increase local beef production, increase crop yields, and help small farmers use data to reduce water usage.
- Over the last few years, EEx has also seen a dramatic increase in applications from ag startups. This year, 10 percent of the companies who took the first step to apply were agriculture-related. That’s twice as many as last year!
After Monsanto acquired the Climate Corporation in 2013, ag tech gained significant attention. In 2014 alone, investments in ag tech grew 170%. Most innovation was focused in the areas of biotechnology and seed genetics. Today, subsectors include bioenergy, sustainable protein, decision support tech, soil & crop tech, advanced imaging & data analytics, and many others. Investment and innovation are no longer limited to players in the agriculture sector. Moreover, as concern grows over droughts, weather fluctuations, the cost of farm labor, and competition with international markets, key players such as farmers, agro-businesses, and landowners are searching for ways to grow smarter.
Elemental Excelerator helps startups change the world, one community at a time. Each year, they find 12-15 companies that best fit their mission and fund each company up to $1 million to improve systems that impact peoples lives: energy, water, agriculture, and transportation. To date, Elemental Excelerator (EEx) has awarded over $20 million to more than 50 companies. What makes EEx unique? They co-fund, co-design, and co-develop projects and strategies that improve infrastructure and sustainably enhance communities. The program is funded by a diverse coalition of utility partners, corporate partners, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of Energy, state government, and philanthropic organizations, and is structured as a non-profit created in collaboration with Emerson Collective.
2015 State Ag Land Use Baseline Data, Hawaii Department of Agriculture
AgTech Is The New Queen Of Green, TechCrunch