Farmer Eric Batha said there’s one challenge that tops them all when it comes to expanding his Big Island cucumber business.
“Agricultural workers are at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to pay,” said Stevie Whalen of the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center, which owns the land at Kunia Village and manages part of the housing project.
A high turnover rate among Batha’s employees is largely the result of the incompatibility between low wages earned by unskilled farm laborers who pick and pack produce and Hawaii’s exorbitant cost of housing.
“I would say the difficulty to retain a reliable workforce is probably one of the single biggest issues — not just for me, for all farms,” he said.
Many of Batha’s workers live in multigenerational households or otherwise overcrowded conditions, he said. Some commute to the farm as much as two hours each way because they can’t find housing they can afford any closer.
When the opportunity to work a less labor-intensive job arises, or a job closer to home, Batha said many of his lower wage workers are tempted to quit.
Batha, who has grown his 10-year-old Hawaii Farming into the state’s largest cucumber supplier, said he would be pursuing a faster expansion of his business if he didn’t have such a hard time keeping workers.
“Expansion is expensive and it’s really scary, too, when you don’t know who’s going to staff it,” he said.
Hawaii has a well-documented affordability problem, and it doesn’t only affect agricultural workers. But the consequences are particularly troubling when it comes to the people who keep Hawaii’s farms running. That’s because the stability of the state’s agricultural workforce is directly linked to Hawaii’s precarious food security, which affects virtually everyone.
To overcome the problem, some farmers are becoming landlords, sometimes tapping into federally funded programs aimed at helping farms to develop affordable housing options for their workers.
“We try to be the highest paid entry level job in town,” said Batha, who grows three kinds of cucumbers in greenhouses covering nearly 13 acres in Waimea, an agricultural hub.
“I know I’m competing against McDonald’s, Starbucks and the hardware store — and our work’s hard,” he said. “But if I paid somebody to pick cucumbers $30 an hour, which is way, way above the going rate, I still don’t think there’s anything that they could afford to rent in this town.”
One way Batha has been able to hold on to some key personnel is by becoming a landlord. There are four houses on his farm that he uses to house workers.
But for a farm with about 60 employees, it’s not enough. So last year he applied for a 1% interest loan from the United States Department of Agriculture’s on-farm labor housing loan program. He got the loan and used it to buy a $600,000 house two miles from the farm.
The house is now home to one of Batha’s high-level workers, which he said increases the likelihood that this worker will remain loyal to the job.
But workforce retention remains a problem for the farm because, of course, Batha can’t afford to buy housing for all 60 of his workers.
The USDA’s on-farm loan program offers farmers an inexpensive way to finance workforce housing — but it’s grossly underfunded. There’s only $2 million available nationwide each year for these loans, which are awarded on a first come, first serve basis.
In Hawaii, a couple million dollars doesn’t go very far.
In 2009, Ho Farms on Oahu used financing from the program to buy a duplex to house workers across the street from its Ewa Beach farm. The property cost about $825,000, according to operations manager Shin Ho.
Ho said she would ideally like to buy more housing to provide an incentive to more of the farm’s workers, but she has to temper that desire with the reality of what it would mean to take on more mortgages and all of the responsibilities that go along with being a landlord.
“I think we’ve come to a point where we’re just like, we just can’t keep up,” Ho said.
Cynthia Jackson, the USDA’s Housing Programs Director in Hilo, said she’s only facilitated three loans for Hawaii farmers through the on-farm housing program in the two and a half years that she has worked in the state.
Often, farmers don’t meet the program’s stringent requirements, she said. And even when they do, there’s only so much money available.
But Jackson acknowledged that housing insecurity is a major problem for the health and growth of Hawaii’s farms.
“We have the mechanism — it’s right here,” Jackson said. “We have the program specifically for farm labor housing, right? The problem is there’s just not a huge amount of money in the program. So, how do we get around that? That is not for me, as a government worker, to get into.”
There’s another USDA program that provides up to $5 million in financing, with a 1% interest rate, to organizations that want to build a housing development, such as an apartment complex, for regional agricultural workers. The loan comes with rental assistance for the tenants, who would pay no more than 30% of their income in housing costs.
This off-farm labor housing loan program, however, only accepts applications from farmers associations, family farm corporations, nonprofit organizations, state or local governments or federally recognized tribes. And the program does not cover costs associated with designing and engineering a new housing development.
The program’s usefulness is also limited by the $5 million ceiling in financing that it can provide.
“Now, we know that you probably cannot build an apartment complex for $5 million, so most of these big loans have to have third party money, especially here in Hawaii,” Jackson said. “So the USDA would kind of support the project, but it wouldn’t be able to to support all of it.”
In 1976, the off-farm program helped Hawaii County build Nani O Puna, a 32-unit apartment complex for agricultural workers in Puna. Today the housing complex is full with five people on the waitlist.
More recently, the program helped finance Kunia Village, a restored plantation town that provided workforce housing for the shuttered Del Monte pineapple plantation from 1916 to 2007.
A mix of new and restored plantation homes, Kunia Village offers housing to families with at least one household member working as an employee in the agriculture or aquaculture industries. Retirees and disabled members of a household who formerly worked in these trades are also eligible for housing.
One family that moved to the village when it opened in 2017 had been living in a car for three years until a three-bedroom home became available to them.
“So what’s happening in many areas is they’re pitching tents, they’re living in shipping containers, they’re living in these horrible conditions,” she said. “So when you understand that, you can see why we had some people who came to this project that cried on the first day because now they have their own bedroom and they’re just overwhelmed.”
Recreating a housing development like Kunia Village, however, would be difficult to pull off, Whalen said.
The 135-unit development has greatly benefited from the fact that the original landowner, Campbell Estate, sold the property, with the existing housing and infrastructure, to HARC for $10, with an understanding that it would continue to be used to provide affordable rental housing for agricultural workers.
And while the off-farm loan program from the USDA helped finance a portion of the project, other funding sources had to be cobbled together to get it off the ground.
These disparate funding sources had different requirements, which is why the village has two distinct property managers. Eligibility to live in the village varies between the two projects.
HARC manages 53 of the units. But Whalen said much of the infrastructure, including the aging drinking water and wastewater system, is in dire need of upgrades, and income from the rental housing often falls short of covering such maintenance costs.
“There’s money out there for these kinds of developments,” Whalen said. “But the more money you go after, the more rules and requirements there are.”
MAʻO Organic Farms in Waianae is looking for ways to help young people — including the farm’s workers — stay in the community without needing to resort to living in an overcrowded household.
One potential project would be for the farm to purchase a nearby property in Lualualei Valley that includes five homes that could be rented at affordable rates.
The farm is also debating whether to develop its own affordable rental housing, and possibly homes available for purchase, on a 236-acre site where the farm is also working to grow more organic food.
At this stage, these are more ideas than plans, said Gary Maunakea-Forth, the farm’s co-founder and managing director.
“I think the projects that we’re discussing are more an attempt to solve general housing and poverty issues in our community,” Maunakea-Forth said.
When Kelie Reimer arrived in Hawaii last May for a job as a management trainee apprentice at MAʻO Farms, the Wisconsin native said it was difficult to find housing she could afford — especially within a reasonable commuting distance.
She ended up renting a room in a house with five other people.
“I think the biggest factor for me in staying or leaving is finding reliable housing.” — Kelie Reimer
The situation, she said, was chaotic. She had just one designated shelf in the refrigerator to store her perishable food. And she was sharing a bathroom with people she’s not really familiar with.
She soon moved into a studio unit in Makaha, and the landlord gave her a discount on the monthly rent so that she could make ends meet. But Reimer said it’s uncertain whether she’ll be able to lock in that lower monthly rate again when her lease expires.
“I’ve been farming for six years now and I think about not wanting to get burnt out or, like, where will this career take me,” she said.
“Ideally, I’d love to stay here long-term and continue growing in agriculture here,” she said. “It’s essentially the dream. It’s what I’ve always wanted. But more recently I have been thinking about housing in the long-term. I think the biggest factor for me in staying or leaving is finding reliable housing.”
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