Finding suitable land is the first hurdle for many aspiring farmers, and state and privately owned agriculture parks are an attractive choice.

These parks provide long-term leases on small amounts of land, which is key for small operations that can’t afford to lease dozens of acres. The parks also provide basic infrastructure like irrigation and a supportive community of fellow farmers.

The state Department of Agriculture’s 10 parks are the most well known, but not the only option for small or beginning farmers.

Hawaii Grown. Ahiki Acres farmers Haley Miyaoka and Matthew McKinnon on their farm located in Waimanalo.
Beginner farmers Haley Miyaoka and Matthew McKinnon spoke to the “Hawaii Grown” podcast about the struggle to find suitable land. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The county of Maui operates a park with 31 plots between 10 and 30 acres in size. The Agribusiness Development Corporation leases some plots under 10 acres, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands offers agricultural land to beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries, Kamehameha Schools — which leases land to about 800 farmers — invests in irrigation, fencing and other infrastructure on their leased plots and a handful of private landowners are also using the agriculture park model to provide more support to small farmers.

All this helps farmers grow food, but one nonprofit thinks the model could also help drive demand for local food.

The latest episode of Civil Beat’s “Hawaii Grown” podcast features an interview with Yoshito L’Hote, the CEO of ʻAina Hoʻokupu O Kilauea, on his nonprofit’s plans to transform local food culture on the north shore of Kauai and beyond.

Rethinking The Model

In 2006 the county of Kauai approached the Kīlauea Neighborhood Association with a plan to open an agriculture park on 75-acres it acquired from the Kilauea Sugar Plantation. L’Hote, a member of the community group, was excited because he thought the park could bring food security and agriculture jobs to the region. But the county backed away from the plan in 2014 after estimating it would cost between $5 million and $7 million to transform the lot filled with abandoned cars into a working agricultural park.

“Naively, I thought we could do it for a lot less,” L’Hote said with a laugh.

Yoshito L’Hote, CEO of ʻAina HoʻOkupu O Kilauea, thinks agriculture centers can transform tourism on Kauai and is working to create opportunity for locals to grow food without living on a farm. Listen to the “Hawaii Grown” podcast for more from the Kilauea Community Agriculture Center. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat/2020

L’Hote helped ʻAina Hoʻokupu O Kilauea register as a nonprofit so it could begin raising money and in 2014 the group entered into a stewardship agreement with the county to oversee the plot and open the Kilauea Community Agriculture Center.

L’Hote said it was much more work than he originally anticipated, but the community rallied around the idea. The nonprofit raised over $27,000 in the first year and local businesses have donated their time and resources.

Right now there are three farmers leasing land and growing food. It’s a small start, mainly because the group is still setting up their irrigation system.

In the meantime, he wants to grow demand for local food while they work on creating more supply. ʻAina Hoʻokupu O Kilauea’s biggest project so far is the creation of a produce subscription box. L’Hote partnered with local farmers from around the area to deliver fresh fruits and vegetables to Kauai residents.

“Each box is 10 pounds, so we’re moving about 25,000 pounds of produce a week,” he said. “We injected one and a half million dollars into our economy.”

When the produce delivery boxes really took off, L’Hote hired all of his current interns, and the nonprofit grew from a three person operation to one with 23 employees.

But he has even bigger plans for the space.

“We need to innovate if we’re ever going to make farming profitable,” L’Hote said.

The nonprofit recently built two large pavilions and bathrooms so people can hold events after the pandemic. His goal for 2021 is to open a permanent food stand to draw people to the agriculture center and increase interest in local food.

“Then once they participate in that they’ll start meeting the farmers who grow here, they’ll start buying their produce here and they’ll even want to throw their parties here,” he said.

Creating more demand for local food, as well as making local food more accessible and affordable, are solutions that a lot of Civil Beat readers have told us they want to see in 2021.

Civil Beat’s “Hawaii Grown” project is planning to cover those topics in upcoming months. But next month we’re going to build on our February theme of land use and continue examining barriers to food production.

Vote below on what you think Civil Beat reporters should focus on in March and let us know who you’d like to see featured in the next episode of the “Hawaii Grown” podcast on our project page.

“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.

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