Land

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Stewardship of the land is so central to the Hawaiian identity that the State of Hawaii has established as its motto “Ua Mau Ke Ea O Ka Aina I Ka Pono,” translated literally to “The Life of the Land is Perpetuated in Righteousness. One of the most isolated archipelagos on earth, Hawaii is more than 2,000 miles from the nearest landmass, the continental United States. In the millions of years since the islands were formed, they have been gradually eroded and converted from inhospitable hardened lava to beaches, meadows and forests by a combination of wind, rain and tides.

Issues

These topics are the focus of our coverage:

Land Use in Hawaii

While private land ownership has proliferated in the centuries since Capt. James Cook reached Hawaii, private rights are not absolute. Hawaii’s government has decided we need a process to ensure that we make best use of this most precious of resources. In Hawaii, every potential land use, no matter who the landowner is, starts in the same place: a system of land classification called land use districts. Learn more on the land use page.

Impacts of Land Use in Hawaii

Hawaii has changed dramatically in the last half century. After the advent of trans-Pacific air travel, both the number of residents and visitors has skyrocketed. The population has more than doubled since it became a state in 1959, with some 1.3 million people now calling Hawaii home. In recent years approximately 7 million visitors annually have enjoyed Hawaii’s beauty. While Hawaii’s landmass has remained essentially static over that time, the human demands on it have grown and changed, impacting the land and its flora and fauna in numerous ways. See the Impacts of Land Use in Hawaii page to learn more.

Geography

The archipelago of Hawaii contains 137 named islands that together comprise approximately 6,400 square miles or 4.1 million acres of landmass.

Of those islands, eight are considered to be the “main” or “windward” Hawaiian Islands. Ranked by geographical size, they are:

  1. Hawaii, nicknamed the “Big Island,” 4,028 square miles
  2. Maui, nicknamed the “Valley Isle,” 727.2 square miles
  3. Oahu, nicknamed the “Gathering Isle,” 596.7 square miles
  4. Kauai, nicknamed the “Garden Isle,” 552.3 square miles
  5. Molokai, nicknamed the “Friendly Isle,” 260 square miles
  6. Lanai, nicknamed the “Pineapple Isle,” 140.5 square miles
  7. Niihau, nicknamed the “Forbidden Isle,” 69.5 square miles
  8. Kahoolawe, without a nickname, 44.6 square miles

The others, including many small islets and atolls, are considered the “Northwestern Hawaiian Islands,” and stretch some 1,500 miles toward Japan. The Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument, established by former U.S. President George W. Bush, contains approximately 140,000 square miles of ocean and some 5,178 square miles of coral reef habitat, increasing Hawaii’s total landmass to the 11,500 square miles cited by some sources.

Over millions of years, lava flows emanated from the Hawaii hotspot caused by a crack in the floor of the Pacific Ocean, creating all of the Hawaiian Islands and a large number of sub-surface seamounts that make up the ridge of the Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain.

Over time, plant seeds made their way to Hawaii via three methods: wind, water and wings. Once they reached Hawaii’s shores, plants thrived due to hospitable surroundings that include an abundance of sunlight, consistent warm temperatures, rich soil and varying amounts of rain. Today, Hawaii is home to hundreds of endemic and endangered species of flora and fauna.

Land Ownership

Hawaii’s history has been marked by two different views of land: one based on Native Hawaiian culture and the other based on Western tradition.

Hawaii’s isolation made it one of the last locations on earth to be discovered by man. The exact date Hawaii was settled by humans is unknown. Archeological evidence suggests that the first Polynesian settlers were from the Marquesas Islands, arriving between between 800 and 1000 A.D., although possibly as early as 400 A.D., with Tahitians, Samoans and Tongans arriving in subsequent centuries. The concept of land ownership was not part of Polynesian culture.

Instead, Native Hawaiians for centuries employed a tenure system of land management that incorporated self-sufficient and self-contained ahupuaa, units of land that ran from the mountains to the sea. These large areas were granted by monarchs and controlled by alii (chiefs), with the kapu system — a number of taboos that were incorporated in the Hawaiian religion to identify certain leaders and locations as sacred — playing an important role, but the land was shared by all Hawaiians for sustenance.

English explorer Captain James Cook’s arrival in 1778 marked the dawn of a new era. Soon, traders and missionaries reached Hawaii’s shores, bringing with them economic ventures like whaling and sandalwood trade, plus another approach to land management — this one decidedly more Western.

The Great Mahele

In 1840, the Kingdom of Hawaii’s first Constitution stated that while Kamehameha I had founded the kingdom and controlled the land, “it was not his own private property” but instead “belonged to the chiefs and people in common.” Over the next decade, individual land rights were further clarified.

Beginning in 1846, a “Board of Commissioners to quiet Land Titles” was tasked with splitting up many of the parcels, granting awards that were in turn redeemed for royal patents — official land documents from the monarchy — in fee simple, a common form of land ownership. Later, the board was authorized to award “kuleana” land parcels — those for commoners rather than just alii — for the first time.

The shifting tide came to a head during the Great Mahele of 1848, a years-long event that re-distributed land in Hawaii from the semi-feudal land tenure system to private ownership. The new land system would prove to be critical in the proliferation of a new industry: sugar.

Some descendants of the missionaries began to accrue power and land as they provided supplies for the sugar plantations, eventually gaining a foothold in the shipping and banking industries. Landowners that went into debt saw their acreage get swallowed up by these Westerners, who before long had taken ownership of a large portion of the land not controlled by the monarchy.

Many parcels were consolidated by holding companies like the “Big Five” of Castle and CookC. Brewer and Co.Alexander and BaldwinTheo Davies and Co. and American Factors (Amfac).

Large private landowners

Today, large landowners still play a major role. The eight largest private landowners together possessed more than 800,000 acres, 20 percent of some 4 million acres in Hawaii, as of 2003. Those eight are:

  1. Kamehameha Schools/Bernice P. Bishop Estate (366,000 acres)
  2. Parker Ranch (134,000 acres)
  3. Castle and Cooke, Inc. (95,000 acres)
  4. Alexander and Baldwin (90,000 acres)
  5. James Campbell Estate (60,000 acres)
  6. C. Brewer and Co. (44,000 acres)
  7. Dole Food Company (28,000 acres)
  8. Samuel M. Damon Estate (5,000 acres after conveying nearly all of its 121,000 acres of land to various entities in 2003)

As of 2006, 110 large private landowners — those who own more than 1,000 acres on one or more islands — together owned 1.4 million acres, according to data from the Hawaii Office of Planning’s GIS Program. With the addition of smaller landowners, nearly half of Hawaii’s landmass is under private control.

Government landowners

Aside from the largest landowners and thousands of other privately owned parcels, the remainder of Hawaii’s land is controlled by various government agencies. The federal government’s National Park Service controls approximately 370,000 acres, including around 323,000 acres in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island and 33,000 in Haleakala National Park on Maui.

Ninety military installations also take up considerable space — around 234,000 acres — in Hawaii. Of those 90 installations, 28 U.S. Armed Forces bases comprise 193,000 acres, 33 U.S. Navy bases use another 32,000 acres, eight U.S. Marine Corps locations together make up about 5,000 acres, and 21 U.S. Air Force installations take some 4,000 acres.

The State of Hawaii owns approximately 1.3 million acres of land, much of which was formerly controlled by the monarchy prior to the 1893 overthrow, areas that are occasionally referred to as “ceded lands“. The 1.3 million figure does not include nearly 200,000 acres controlled by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, a state agency created by the U.S. Congress in 1921 to provide “for the rehabilitation of the native Hawaiian people through a government-sponsored homesteading program.”

The various county governments also own land. According to the Office of Planning’s GIS Program, the City and County of Honolulu owns some 19,000 acres, followed by Maui County’s 8,000 acres, Hawaii County’s 5,000 acres and Kauai County’s 600 acres.

Land Regulation

Stewardship of the land is so central to the Hawaiian identity that the State of Hawaii has established as its motto “Ua Mau Ke Ea O Ka Aina I Ka Pono,” translated literally to “The Life of the Land is Perpetuated in Righteousness.”

Shortly after Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959, the Hawaii Legislature determined that more rigorous controls on the use and development of the state’s limited, valuable land were needed to prevent the exploitation of Hawaii’s resources for short-term gain. The lawmakers took the rare step of creating a statewide zoning system rather than letting individual counties or municipalities make those decisions.

The law, known as the Hawaii Land Use Law, can be found in Chapter 205 of the Hawaii Revised Statutes. Among its many impacts and regulations, the law created the Hawaii Land Use Commission, the state body tasked with defining land use district boundaries and deciding on proposed changes to those boundaries larger than 15 acres, making it the gatekeeper to all development in the State of Hawaii.

Land Use Commission

The Hawaii Land Use Commission is a nine-member volunteer board appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Hawaii Senate, with each county represented by one board member and five members appointed at-large. The board implements statewide zoning laws and manages land use districts and boundaries. Like the members of other state boards and commissions, land use commissioners serve four-year terms.

Land Use Districts

The four land use districts defined and by the Land Use Commission are urban, rural, agricultural and conservation. Conservation district lands include forests and water reserves and are used to protect resources, wildlife and open spaces. No uses activities are generally permitted on conservation lands. HRS Section 183Cand the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Board of Land and Natural Resources govern zoning and non-conforming use permits on conservation land.

Agricultural lands, intended for the growing of crops and other similar activities, are further categorized into the most productive (Class A or B) or less productive classes. Acceptable activities in the agricultural district are governed by HRS Sections 205-2 and 204-5. Together, the conservation and agricultural districts comprise approximately 95 percent of Hawaii’s lands.

County Zoning Regulations

While conservation and agricultural districts are largely governed either by state statute or the state government, jurisdiction over the city-like urban and small-farm rural land use districts lies primarily with the individual counties.

Each county in the State of Hawaii has its own rules and laws governing the use of land on its particular island or islands. On Oahu, Chapter 21 of the Revised Ordinances of Honolulu regulates land use in the City and County of Honolulu. In addition to setting permit requirements, the land use ordinance outlines zoning districts, including preservation, agricultural, country, residential, apartment, resort, business and industrial, each with their own sub-zones and restrictions.

Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources

On the state level, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and Hawaii Bureau of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) are tasked with the administration of state lands. The department includes divisions to manage state parks, public water resources, coastal lands, forests and other public spaces and public interests, including Hawaiian burials. The board is comprised of seven volunteers, who hail from all four counties. They are appointed by the governor, confirmed by the Senate and have four-year terms. The chairperson of the board is the head of the DLNR. The board manages applications for various land-use permits to the department.

Hawaii Department of Agriculture

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture promotes Hawaii’s agriculture and aquaculture industries, and has overseen the transition from pineapple and sugar plantations to diversified crops like vegetables and fruits, a critical period in the transformation of the state’s economy and environment.

The department inspects for invasive species in imported plants and animals, provides financial support to farmers in the form of loans, assures the quality of produce, and administers agricultural resources like irrigation systems.

Environmental Protection Agency

On the federal level the Environmental Protection Agency has the responsibility to ensure that human health and the natural environment are protected. It accomplishes that task by implementing federal law through the enforcement of regulations.

Environmental Impact Statements and Environmental Assessments

One of the mechanisms the State of Hawaii uses to control development is the Environmental Assessment-Environmental Impact Statement process laid out in HRS Section 343. Environmental Assessments are required for any projects on public lands or using public funds, or in sensitive areas like conservation districts or adjacent to the shoreline. Documents are presided over by the Environmental Council, a governor-appointed board that serves as a liaison between the state Department of Health‘s Office of Environmental Control Quality, which maintains records of all EAs and EISs filed in recent decades. Contracting an engineering firm to produce an EIS is often a lengthy, costly operation. In recent years, the expense became debilitating for the controversial Hawaii Superferry before the project shut down.

Key Players

To learn more about the key players in Hawaii land issues, go here.

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Land

March 2014

Tuesday, March 18

Hawaii Senate to Decide on Aaron Mahi for the Land Use Commission

February 2014

Friday, February 7

What Should Lawmakers Do With Hawaii’s Development Authority?

Wednesday, February 5

Hawaii Monitor: Bill Would Expand Secrecy of DHHL Leases

January 2014

Tuesday, January 7

Living Hawaii: Priced Out of Paradise — Where $600K Is a Bargain Home

December 2013

Thursday, December 19

Kamehameha Highway Chaos: State’s Parking Barriers May Bring Lawsuit

Friday, December 13

Debate Rises Over Development Plan for Kailua Marsh

Thursday, December 5

Hawaii Development Agency Approves Kakaako Tower Over Protests

November 2013

Wednesday, November 27

Kakaako Rising: Is This Community Development?

December 2012

Friday, December 7

Report: More Traffic Will Clog North Shore If Turtle Bay Expands

November 2012

Tuesday, November 20

VIDEO: Kahuku Residents Fight To Save Homes From Developer

October 2012

Thursday, October 18

Lingle: I Never Sold an Acre of Ceded Land

August 2012

Wednesday, August 22

North Shore Loses Top Environmental Advocate in House Race

Wednesday, August 1

State Fights for Power Over Land Developers

July 2012

Wednesday, July 25

Hawaii Land Corp. Pushes Forward on Projects, Despite Lack of Rules

Tuesday, July 10

Aloha, Oprah! Big Wind Developer May Be Celeb’s New Maui Neighbor

Ewa Planning Decision Will Have Brutal Consequences for All

Tuesday, July 3

Reducing, Reusing and Recycling in Hawaii, One Hotel at a Time

June 2012

Friday, June 22

Why People Can’t Afford to Live in Hawaii

Does the Sale of a Hawaiian Island Matter?

Thursday, June 21

Goodbye Lanai: From One Billionaire to Another

Saturday, June 16

Punahou Project Citizen — Develop No More On Our North Shore

Punahou Project Citizen: Saving Coral is Our Moral

Friday, June 8

State Approves Hoopili, Court Challenge Expected

May 2012

Tuesday, May 22

Final Decision on Hoopili Delayed Despite Opponents’ Protests

Monday, May 21

D.R. Horton Tries to Put the Brakes on Hoopili Decision

Wednesday, May 16

DHHL Funding on Shaky Ground Despite Supreme Court Ruling

Thursday, May 10

Hawaii Supreme Court: State Must Fund Dept. of Hawaiian Home Lands

Friday, May 4

The Photovoltaic Buffet: Choices, Choices and More Choices

April 2012

Thursday, April 26

Why Environmental Exemptions Are A Terrible Policy For Hawaii

Wednesday, April 4

Governor’s Water Commission Choices Are Once Again Under Fire

March 2012

Saturday, March 17

Hoopili Hearings Pau But Debate Over State Ag Policy Goes On

Friday, March 16

Oahu Takes Steps to Identify and Protect ‘Important’ Ag Lands

Thursday, March 15

Waihee and Cayetano: Hoopili Flaunts Mandate to Protect Ag Land

Saturday, March 3

Hoopili Symbolizes Direction of Oahu’s Future

Thursday, March 1

State Supports Hoopili, But Top Official Will Testify For Opponents

February 2012

Tuesday, February 28

Hawaii’s Past Governors Say No to Hoopili

Raising Honolulu’s Building Height: Sustainable Density or Vertical Sprawl?

Friday, February 24

UH Law Professor Tapped for Land Trust Expertise in ‘The Descendants’

January 2012

Monday, January 23

VIDEO – The Protest of the Return to Molokai of the Safari Explorer

Friday, January 20

Aloun Farms Throws Its Support Behind Hoopili

Wednesday, January 18

Water, Fish, Trash Top Environmental Issues in 2012 Legislature

Farm Land Flip Flop? Hawaii Ag Officials Change Position on Hoopili

Saturday, January 14

Hawaii Land Blog — Environment, Energy and Sustainability — Jan. 16-22

Thursday, January 12

Did Abercrombie Flip-Flop on Hoopili?

Fight Over Waimanalo Gulch Landfill Brewing

Saturday, January 7

Hawaii Land Blog — Environment, Energy and Sustainability — Jan. 9-15

Friday, January 6

State Ag Department Supports Hoopili

December 2011

Saturday, December 31

Hawaii Land Blog — Environment, Energy and Sustainability — Jan. 2-8

Monday, December 26

2011 Year in Review — Civil Beat Tells Hawaii’s Story

Friday, December 23

Hawaii Land Blog — Environment, Energy and Sustainability — Dec. 26-Jan. 1

Thursday, December 22

State Wrestles With How To Make Developers Keep Their Promises

Tuesday, December 20

Rule of Law — Does it Really Exist on Molokai?

Friday, December 16

Hawaii Land Blog — Environment, Energy and Sustainability — Dec. 19-Dec. 25

Ernie Els Golf Course Has Yet to Deliver on Ewa Community Benefits

Wednesday, December 14

Ewa Developer’s Switch from Marina to Lagoon Raises Legal Issues

Thursday, December 8

Hawaii Land Blog — Environment, Energy and Sustainability — Dec. 12-Dec. 18

Hawaii Ag Corporation Ousts Longtime Director in Controversial Vote

November 2011

Saturday, November 19

Kauai Pushes for Ban on Aquarium Trade

October 2011

Friday, October 14

Friend or Foam: For Hawaii’s Marine Life, Plastic Foam is a Foe

September 2011

Wednesday, September 28

Struggles May Be Ending For Kauai Biomass Plant

August 2011

Wednesday, August 31

Eat Local Redux – Follow Civil Beat’s Week-long Experiment in Eating Local

Monday, August 29

Fact Check — Honolulu Star-Advertiser: New Study Gives National Park ‘Poor’ Rating

Thursday, August 25

It’s a New Day at Turtle Bay

Wednesday, August 17

EPA Worries Maui Wastewater Threatens Drinking Water

Saturday, August 6

Large Rail Landowners Give to Pro-Rail Campaigns

Friday, August 5

DISCUSSION: Hawaii Fishing

July 2011

Friday, July 29

Ho‘opili — A Connected, Sustainable, Healthy-Lifestyle Community

Wednesday, July 27

Hoopili and Koa Ridge Just Aren’t Pono

Friday, July 22

More States Turn to Private Companies to Develop Public Lands

New Law Jumpstarts Hawaii Land Development

Monday, July 18

My Life, My Island, and the World

Saturday, July 16

Is HART Board Member’s Link to Biggest Rail Landowner a Conflict?

Thursday, July 7

In the Shadow of the Train, Landowners Stand to Gain

June 2011

Thursday, June 30

Slideshow: Saving Hawaii’s Rarest Orchid

Thursday, June 23

Hoopili Wins Over Neighborhood Skeptics

Friday, June 3

Malama Da Aina, Except at Kaena Point?

May 2011

Monday, May 23

Rescuing Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals — By Moving Them To The City

Friday, May 6

Session Wrap: Agriculture, Aina Not Top Priorities

Wednesday, May 4

Seawall = Highway? Fight Over Gold Coast Repairs

February 2011

Monday, February 21

Hawaii Developers Facing Tougher Requirements

Thursday, February 10

Senate to OHA: Live to Fight Another Day

Wednesday, February 9

Big Wave Waterskiing? Chuck Patterson at Jaws

Tuesday, February 8

Writing a $200 Million Check to Native Hawaiians

January 2011

Wednesday, January 26

Environmental Groups Roll Out Legislative Agenda

Tuesday, January 25

Carlisle: Landfill Always Compliant With Permits

Saturday, January 22

Looking for Cracks in East Maui’s Ditch System

Friday, January 21

State Changes Urban Land Back to Ag

Friday, January 14

Once Adversaries, Aila and Army Now Teaming Up

Old Proposal Alive Under New Land Chief

Thursday, January 13

Kokubun Back in Senate, Pitching for Opposing Team

Tuesday, January 11

North Shore Plan Earns National Recognition

December 2010

Thursday, December 30

Stories From the Land Beat – 2010 Recycled

Friday, December 24

Testing the Waters Off Magic Island — After the Storm

Wednesday, December 15

Big Step for Southwest Hawaii Plans

Hawaii’s Volcanoes Could be World’s Shallowest

Aching for Development, Laie Has Hawaii’s Highest Household Size

Wednesday, December 1

What Are the ‘Returned Lands’ of Hawaii?

November 2010

Wednesday, November 24

Fight Over Future of Koolau Loa

Thursday, November 18

Next DLNR Chief Has Work To Do

I Say ‘Quarantine,’ You Say ‘Protective Measures’

Friday, November 12

Coffee Beetle Leaves State Seeking Quick Fix

October 2010

Monday, October 25

What Are the ‘Ceded Lands’ of Hawaii?

July 2010

Wednesday, July 21

Land Links for Wednesday, July 21

Monday, July 19

Land Links for Tuesday, July 20

Saturday, July 17

Land Links for Monday, July 19

Friday, July 16

Land Links for Friday, July 16

Thursday, July 15

Land Links for Thursday, July 15

Wednesday, July 14

Land Links for Wednesday, July 14

Monday, July 12

Land Links for Tuesday, July 13

Friday, July 9

Land Links for Monday, July 12

Land Links for Friday, July 9

Wednesday, July 7

Land Links for Thursday, July 8

Land Links for Wednesday, July 7

Friday, July 2

Land Links for Tuesday, July 6

Land Links for Friday, July 2

Thursday, July 1

Land Links for Thursday, July 1

June 2010

Wednesday, June 30

Land Links for Wednesday, June 30

Tuesday, June 29

Land Links for Tuesday, June 29

Monday, June 28

Land Links for Monday, June 28

Thursday, June 24

Land Links for Friday, June 25

Land Links for Thursday, June 24

Wednesday, June 23

Florida Beach Ruling Could Shape Hawaii Sand Fight

Discussion: Hawaii Beaches

Land Links for Wednesday, June 23

Tuesday, June 22

Land Links for Tuesday, June 22

Sunday, June 20

Land Links for Monday, June 21

Friday, June 18

Land Links for Friday, June 18

Thursday, June 17

Land Links for Thursday, June 17

Wednesday, June 16

Land Links for Wednesday, June 16

Tuesday, June 15

Land Links for Tuesday, June 15

Saturday, June 12

Land Links for Monday, June 14

Friday, June 11

Land Links for Friday, June 11

Thursday, June 10

UPDATE: Hawaii Supreme Court Rejects Beach Ownership Case

Land Links for Thursday, June 10

Wednesday, June 9

Land Links for Wednesday, June 9

Monday, June 7

Land Links For Tuesday, June 8

Sunday, June 6

Land Links for Monday, June 7

Friday, June 4

Land Links for Friday, June 4

Thursday, June 3

Land Links for Thursday, June 3

Wednesday, June 2

Land Links for Wednesday, June 2

May 2010

Saturday, May 29

Land Links For Tuesday, June 1

Friday, May 28

Land Links For Friday, May 28

Thursday, May 27

UPDATE: Money Questions Remain For Mililani Solar Plan

Land Links for Thursday, May 27

Wednesday, May 26

Land Links for Wednesday, May 26

Tuesday, May 25

UPDATE: Land Links for Tuesday, May 25

Monday, May 24

Land Links for Monday, May 24

Friday, May 21

UPDATE: Land Links for Friday, May 21

Thursday, May 20

Land Limits Hawaii’s Quest For Food, Energy Independence

Wednesday, May 19

UPDATE: Land Links for Thursday, May 20

Clean Energy Splits Environmentalists

UPDATE: Land Links for Wednesday, May 19

Tuesday, May 18

UPDATE: Hawaii Supreme Court Rejects Wal-Mart Burial Case

UPDATE: Land Links for Tuesday, May 18

Monday, May 17

UPDATE: A Long History Of Requests To Develop Farmland

UPDATE: Land Links for Monday, May 17

Friday, May 14

UPDATE: Land Links for Friday, May 14

Thursday, May 13

UPDATE: Land Links for Thursday, May 13

Wednesday, May 12

UPDATE: Land Links for Wednesday, May 12

UPDATE: We’ve Had the Driest Winter In 30 Years, But What Does It Mean?

Tuesday, May 11

UPDATE: Land Links for Tuesday, May 11

As Beaches Grow, Do Property Rights Grow With Them?

UPDATE: Maui Water Dispute Heating Up

Monday, May 10

Is Hawaii Ready For ‘Worst Case Scenario’ Oil Spill?

UPDATE: Land Links for Monday, May 10

Friday, May 7

UPDATE: Land Links for Friday, May 7

Sunday, May 2

Hawaii Takes Ad Hoc Approach to Preserving Farmland