Tina Bushnell has dedicated many nights and weekends over the past six years to her dream of quitting her day job and opening a tropical fruit orchard. But she’s struggled to clear the first hurdle: finding land.
Bushnell is a graduate of the University of Hawaii’s farmer training program and has real-world experience, so she would likely qualify for a plot of land at an agricultural park run by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture — if there were any available in Waimanalo.
“I’ve been on the DOA waitlist for about three years now and I call once a year and ask them what’s up and they say, ‘Oh not yet,’” she said.
For 45 years the state’s agriculture park program has offered farmers long-term leases on small plots of land. There are currently 10 agriculture parks with 227 total plots spread across the islands of Hawaii, Kauai, Molokai and Oahu. All the plots have access to irrigation and other infrastructure like fencing.
The program has allowed small, family farms to flourish, but some say the program is unfair to aspiring farmers because the application process is burdensome and the most effective way to get a plot is to take over an existing lease.
When plots are made available to the broader public, the lease goes to the highest bidder, boxing out small farmers with thinner profit margins.
The location of agriculture parks is also a challenge. Some parks are incredibly popular and demand far exceeds supply, while others have undesirable plots that sit empty for so many years that the DOA stops advertising their availability.
In recent years larger companies have been picking up multiple plots, including in Kauai’s only agriculture park where 18 of the 19 available plots are leased to one company.
Now, some small farmers are raising questions about whether the program is still serving its original purpose — and calling on the DOA to make changes.
In 1975 the state set aside 290 acres in Pahoa to help displaced sugar plantation workers. The state’s first agriculture park gave 19 farmers the opportunity to grow ginger, guava, asparagus and ornamental plants like orchids and anthuriums on their leased plots.
“We attempt to provide affordable land to bonafied farmers to promote the growth of Pacific agriculture,” said Brian Kau, administrator and chief engineer for the state Agricultural Resource Management Division.
Staying true to the original vision to help laid off plantation workers, applicants today have to prove that they’re a “bonafide farmer,” which the state defines as someone with multiple years of experience farming or a degree in aquaculture or agriculture.
Leases run from 15 to 55 years and the average plot size is about 12 acres, which is key for beginning farmers who can’t afford to lease hundreds of acres, let alone finance irrigation, fencing and roads on a large piece of land. Networking is also a big draw because farmers can pool resources, coordinate bulk seed orders, share harvesting equipment, build communal wash and pack facilities and transport products to distribution centers together.
But a big complaint is that you need connections to even secure a lease. Most leases change ownership when they’re transferred from one farmer to another, according to Kau, and plots in popular parks are rarely made available to the wider community.
Some farmers see the ability to transfer leases as an important way to ensure agricultural land stays in the hands of local food producers or small family farmers.
Shermaiah Iaea took over a lease at the Waianae Agriculture Park from an acquaintance in 2012. Iaea, a retired firefighter, had been raising fish in a small aquaponics set-up for over a decade but wanted to expand beyond his backyard.
“We don’t have too many farms raising fish like they used to,” he said.
He said being able to talk with the former leaseholder was helpful because he had a good sense of the pros and cons of the particular lot. While it did take a while for him to prove that he met the DOA’s “bonafide farmer” standards, at the end of the day he chose the agriculture park because it was the most affordable option in Waianae, where the average lease is about $4,800 per year.
He also likes the sense of community in the park, which is aided by the fact that retiring farmers can hand-pick the person to take on the remainder of their leases.
That community at the Kahuku Agriculture Park on the northeastern coast of Oahu has been central to supporting Laotian and Thai immigrants, said Amjad Ahmad, an extension agent with the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.
He’s worked in the area since 2012 and has seen how the ability to transfer leases has made it possible for the next generation of farmers to continue what their parents started.
“There’s strong family ties,” he said. “It’s something to be proud of.”
Leases are only open to people who have lived in Hawaii for at least three years and are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Ahmad said this gives recent immigrants a chance to gain the experience needed to qualify as a “bonafide” farmer before they take over a lease from a retiring neighbor and run their own business.
When a lease transfers directly between two farmers, it’s very rare for the state to renegotiate the price or terms of the lease, Kau said, which is probably one reason why the average lease at Kahuku is about $780 per year. Pahoa Agriculture Park is the next lowest averaging around $1,500 a year while the average leaseholder at the Waimanalo and Kalaeloa agriculture parks pays above $6,000 a year.
“I don’t see many opportunities for them to do this on their own without this kind of system,” Ahmad said. “Otherwise, it would maybe just be working as farmers for others — and there is nothing wrong with that — but for someone who wants to build their own business this is actually a very good system.”
But some, like aspiring orchardist Bushnell, are critical of the system because it means it’s unlikely she’ll secure a plot at the popular Waimanalo Agriculture Park without befriending an existing leaseholder, which was the advice she said a DOA employee gave her last time she called to inquire about openings.
William Steiner, former dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Resource Management at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, also has concerns. He says the DOA requirements box potential farmers and ranchers out of the program.
“You either have to come from a farming family or you have to have a college education,” he said. “I think there’s a better way to make sure the land is actually being used for farming than this.”
Although most land is transferred between farmers, when a lease ends or a tenant chooses to exit the lease, the plot becomes available to the wider public.
The DOA first commissions an independent appraisal of the land to determine a minimum price and posts a public notice soliciting applications. Anyone who meets the “bonafide” farmer requirement and is eligible to lease from the state is invited to submit an offer.
“It’s a sealed offer situation because it takes the emotion out of a public bidding situation,” said Kau. “And this way they have time to really assess what they’d be able to afford given their business plan and the cost of the land doesn’t end up jeopardizing their business in the long run.”
Whoever offers the most money gets the first chance to negotiate with DOA. The Department goes down the list until finding a tenant comfortable with the terms and conditions, Kau said.
Jay Bost, a farm coach with UH’s farmer training program in Waimanalo, said this inherently makes agriculture parks unattainable for farmers with small profit margins.
“It’s strange and ironic that there’s this demand for local food but the people doing ornamental plants and landscaping actually have more income so they can pay higher lease prices,” he said.
Many of Bost’s graduating students would like to continue farming in Waimanalo because they’re familiar with the climate, but at least six of the 14 plots at the Waimanalo Agriculture Park are leased by nurseries.
Bost said the closed bid system also favors large producers over the small farmers the program was designed for. This is increasingly relevant now because many of the original decades-long leases are reaching their end date. In the sought-after Waimanalo Agricultural Park, for instance, more than half of the leases expire this summer and will be put up for public bid.
In 2018 Hawaii Golden Farm LLC, a company growing sweet potatoes, ginger, basil and papayas for wholesale, was able to secure four plots totaling 34 acres at the Waianae Agriculture Park. On the Big Island, ranching operation Agee Inc. recently acquired four additional plots and now leases 48% of the acreage at the Hamakua Agricultural park. Two companies, a landscaping firm and company growing tropical plants for export, hold 20% of the plots at the Keahole Agriculture Park.
The most striking example, however, is the Kekaha Agriculture Park on Kauai where 18 of the 19 leases are held by Sunrise Capital LLC, a company raising Pacific white shrimp broodstock to sell to shrimp growers around the world.
Kau said the situation at the Kekaha Agriculture Park is a reflection of the fact that some agriculture parks aren’t well suited for traditional agriculture and natural conditions cater to specialized trades like aquaculture or ornamental plant production.
This is also likely what happened at the Waianae Agriculture Park. The four plots secured by Hawaii Golden Farm LLC in 2018 had all been vacant for at least two years, and one hadn’t seen a tenant since 2003. Larger companies have economies of scale on their side which makes it possible to convert acres of undesirable land into profitable acreage.
Hawaii Golden Farm LLC, Agee Inc. and Sunrise Capital LLC didn’t return Civil Beat’s request for comment.
If no one sees potential in the land, the lots will sit empty and cost the state money.
The Pahoa Agriculture Park, for instance, has 15 empty lots and many of those haven’t seen a tenant in over a decade.
“If there is an extended vacancy then there are high odds that that parcel is inherently undesirable for whatever reason,” Kau said.
But potential farmers wouldn’t know about these vacancies from the DOA website because “no available lots at this time” is included in the description of every park.
Kau said this is because the department stops listing plots if it hasn’t received any interest for a while. He said this is an economic decision because independent appraisals are costly and are only good for a year.
Shermaiah Iaea, the aquaculturist in Waianae, said he’s not surprised that plots sometimes sit empty for years.
“If you look at the location of this you wonder why they even have a park here because you’re on a hillside, it’s rocky,” he said. “One of the lots here is six acres but only two of them are farmable.”
Bushnell, the aspiring fruit grower looking for land, wants the state to secure more land in Waimanalo, where there’s a waiting roster of eligible farmers graduating from UH’s farmer training program every year.
But opening new parks is expensive and complicated, said Kau.
The DOA has been trying to open up a new agricultural park in central Oahu for over two decades. Even though the department has secured 150 acres of land, it has yet to allocate millions of dollars needed to build roads, irrigation and other infrastructure.
One solution proposed by Bushnell, Iaea and other farmers is to earmark existing plots specifically for small food producers.
Kau pointed out that the goal of the agriculture park program is to grow agriculture as an industry, not specifically to support local food production. Additionally, Kau said recession-era cuts to the USDA means his department doesn’t have information about what is being produced in each agriculture park. Even if it did, Kau said he wouldn’t want to impact farmers’ bottom lines by restricting what they can and can’t grow on the property.
But Iaea would still like to see the DOA invest more time and resources into supporting small food producers because he doesn’t think they’re dedicated to the state’s goal to double local food production by 2030.
“It’s difficult for farmers in Hawaii because we have to compete against large, mainland farms on prices and then the big guys for land,” he said. “What I’d really like to see is them boost agriculture to make it an even playing field.”
It’s especially relevant to Iaea because his entire aquaponics operation burned in a bushfire that severely damaged about 75% of the park in 2018.
Now Iaea is struggling to grow limes in the rocky soil of the agriculture park while he saves money to restart his aquaponics farm and hopes for help from the DOA.
“They’re there to support the big farmers that have hundreds of acres or thousand of acres,” he said. “The farmers who just have a little six acre or 10 acre plot — not so much.”
“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service. That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help keep our journalism free for all readers. And if you’re able, consider a sustaining monthly gift to support our work all year-round.