Q&A: Sandra Lee Kunimoto

Meet the new chairwoman of the Hawaii state Department of Agriculture

March, 2003

Early this year, Sandra Lee Kunimoto was tapped by Gov. Linda Lingle to be the new chairwoman of the Hawaii state Department of Agriculture. Prior to Kunimoto’s appointment, she was the administrator of the business development and marketing division for the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. She also has served as the general manager of the Maui Farmers Cooperative Exchange and as vice president of administration for Hawaiian Foliage and Landscape.

What is your vision for the Hawaii agriculture sector? 
What I would like to see is agriculture accepted and perceived as a significant and respected economic driver in this state.

What do you mean by significant and respected? 
Our average population doesn’t know what agriculture is about. They don’t realize what it takes to grow food and grow our crops. There is not a whole lot of thought in the average person’s mind, whether something they are buying is grown here. They don’t consciously say, “I want to buy the products made here.” Aside from being an economic driver, it does things like give us open, green, working spaces. We don’t want to see everything cemented over. It also recharges our aquifers.

What will you do to increase the vitality of Hawaii’s agricultural sector?
I want to do everything in partnership. We need to work together with the private sector and our research universities to open markets for our products and expand export markets, whether it be to the U.S. Mainland or to various countries in Asia.

I also want to improve the accessibility of our products here for our own people and our visitors. That could mean farmers’ markets or some other attraction like that, which bring people together and serve as an opportunity not just to sell them products but to educate the people and visitors. Finally, I want to help our agricultural companies be better players in the global marketplace. We can no longer think about it as a single geographic area. We have to compete with people everywhere because even if we are not going there, they may be coming here.

When you look around the state, you see a shift to higher-value and lower-acreage crops. How do we encourage that shift? 
We have definitely seen a shift away from plantation-type agriculture, and that has been steadily growing. We need to help people by telling them what is needed to export crops and what kind of research is out there, and getting them ready to compete in these markets. If you are in a value-added product, you may need to bring your manufacturing process up to different standards. We need to help people address things like food safety concerns. It all is part of increasing our capacity and bringing our business up to the world level.

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