Driving Agricultural Innovation

By Jesse Cooke and Keith Demello

Thrust into the forefront of Hawai‘i’s agricultural landscape, Wendy Gady, as the new executive director of the State of Hawai‘i Agribusiness Development Corporation (ADC), embodies a deep-rooted connection to farming.

Raised in a farming family and a tight-knit farming community, Gady’s journey into the world of agribusiness began with the humble task of detasseling corn. Those early experiences instilled in her a robust work ethic and a profound understanding of the inherent risks and challenges associated with agriculture, from unpredictable weather to fluctuating land prices and volatile interest rates. Those core experiences, together with multifaceted experience in ag gained since, bring a unique skill set to the table in her new role.


In the realm of Hawai‘i’s agribusiness, the ADC stands apart. Established by the Hawai‘i Legislature in 1994 as a public corporation, it is distinct from a typical state agency. It has unique powers to preserve and revitalize vast land holdings, irrigation systems, water infrastructure, and buildings.

“(Legislators) saw the writing on the wall that sugar and pineapple were going to pull out, and all these vast land holdings, irrigation systems, water systems, and infrastructure buildings were just going to sit,” Gady said. “It was an absolutely bold step by the Legislature in creating this entity to … preserve and grow all that land, water and infrastructure, and make that the platform and the foundation for local food production and creating diversified ag. That was so brilliant, honestly.”

The scale of ADC’s operations is impressive, encompassing a diverse range of activities, from managing nearly twenty-three thousand acres of land, to evaluating the Wahiawā irrigation system, exploring treated wastewater for irrigation and maintaining hydropower plants.

ADC recently transitioned from the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture (HDOA) to the Hawai‘i Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism (DBEDT), which highlights further the corporation’s role in business development. The HDOA chairperson remains on the ADC board to provide feedback and direction. Gady is excited by the opportunity to work with those like DBEDT Deputy Director Dane Wicker, who also sits on the board, in creating businesses. “That’s in our name … and economically, that is who we are. We are meant to be an ag business development corporation.”


Gady describes farmers as self-reliant and extraordinarily optimistic, even in the face of weather-related challenges and unexpected disasters. Farming demands a special kind of person — someone who thrives on independence and possesses an unshakable optimism. Despite the inherent unpredictability of agriculture, farmers are always planning for the future. And the dedication to farming goes beyond the typical nine-to-five job; it’s a seven-day-a-week commitment.

“Cows don’t take the weekends off; they still produce milk,” Gady explained. “You can’t be like, ‘Okay, I’ll see you in two weeks.’ You don’t have that flexibility. And I think it really takes the heart of an entrepreneur to get into farming. They are brave.”

Farmers are, by nature, fiercely independent individuals. They don’t typically ask for help publically, instead they prefer to work within their networks. While they may need new equipment or investments in their farms, they often don’t broadcast these needs to everyone, which becomes a problem when government support is needed.

“Some of this discretion is due to the confidential nature of their business, but it’s also rooted in their personality traits,” Gady said. “This, in turn, contributes to what I consider a PR and branding challenge for the farming community. We don’t share our stories enough, and this can lead to a lack of understanding and appreciation for the trials and triumphs farmers face.”


It’s an incredible challenge to feed one of the most remote places on earth. Most calculations show that Hawai‘i imports at least 85% of our food. For the food that is grown locally producer contend with added challenges. Hawaii farmers are forced to import their equipment, seeds, packaging, and more.

“We have rising costs,” Gady said. “We have water shortages, water conservation, risk management for rain and drought and fire and wind and pests and deer and pigs and insects and disease. We have all of that stuff, but then we have the added pressure of we have to bring things in.”


One thing Hawai‘i has in common with the mainland is a talent crisis. There is high demand and need for food entrepreneurs, along with specialists in tech, mechanics, food-related sciences, and conservationists. Where the food jobs of the future in Hawaii are created will be important. “We can create jobs in rural communities that desperately need those. And that retains our kids, and it grows our schools.

“I wonder how many people in the state, in the schools, are aware that we are the Silicon Valley of aquaculture.” Gady sees a lot of potential in the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai‘i (NELHA). “When you think about the NELHA, they’ve attracted talent from around the world. They birthed this thriving, energizing group of companies. It’s really amazing. We are the leaders in aquaculture.

“But once again, do we talk about it a lot? No, we really don’t because we’re just doing our thing. And that’s okay to a point, but sometimes we need to brand ourselves and have a PR campaign that tells about how amazing this is.”

“There is high demand and need for food entrepreneurs, along with specialists in tech, mechanics, food-related sciences, and conservationists.”


Gady’s initial steps in the role were marked by tackling a significant staffing challenge: an office with six critical vacancies. Gady’s determination led to impressive progress, with four of those vacancies successfully filled, and two more candidates identified and awaiting offers pending the release of funds.

In a candid reflection, Gady acknowledges the immense workload borne by the existing staff, who had been shouldering the responsibilities of multiple roles in the face of understaffing. While running a lean operation is often a strategic choice, Gady recognized that there’s a fine line between efficiency and exhaustion. Her commitment to addressing this issue underscores her dedication to the well-being of the team and the future of the ADC.


Equally essential for Gady was to connect with the farmers and producers working the lands licensed by the ADC. Recognizing the wisdom in her father’s saying, “If you listen to the land, it will tell you what to do,” Gady emphasizes the importance of walking the land with farmers. This hands-on approach allows her to grasp the essence of their farming methods, the challenges they face, and their aspirations for growing their businesses.

Another pivotal focus for the ADC involves growing the Food and Product Innovation Network (FPIN). This initiative is set to play a significant role in the organization’s future plans. The network aims to identify and support food entrepreneurs across Hawai‘i, facilitating innovation in the industry and helping local producers explore new markets and product offerings.

A notable milestone was the release of the entire ADC portfolio within Gady’s first 60 days. This significant move signals the ADC’s commitment to being open for business and transparent. Gady encourages stakeholders from all islands, even those without ADC land, to fill out an Expression of Interest (EOI). Actively engaging with the community to understand its diverse needs is a central tenet of Gady’s vision. Rather than prescribing solutions, Gady believes in listening to stakeholders, from food entrepreneurs to agricultural operators, and collaboratively shaping the future of agribusiness in Hawai‘i.


One critical challenge in the state is the lack of consistent dialogue across the food industry between local farmers and grocers or distributors. Farmers often find themselves at a disadvantage, lacking abrand presence and selling their products at commodity prices. Gady stressed the need for farmers to share their stories, establish a brand, and develop a deeper understanding of grocers’ needs. Additionally, she envisions the ADC potentially sharing the risk and reward with farmers to help ease the financial burden of entering new markets.

Ultimately, Gady sees grocers and stakeholders like Ulupono Initiative and others as valuable partners in building the future of agriculture in Hawai‘i. She believes that collaborating can add a new dimension and provide the necessary support to help Hawai‘i’s agricultural ecosystem thrive.