In a bid to economically boost Hawaii agriculture, the Legislature in 2012 adopted a state law to let farmers sell their farm products on agricultural land.

Two years later LBD Coffee — a chocolate, coffee, cigar and honey company with three farms on Kauai — requested a permit to build a facility on its Kapaa farmland to sell cigars and coffee made with Hawaii-grown tobacco and coffee beans.

But Kauai County never issued LBD’s requested zoning permit, prompting LBD to file a lawsuit in 2017 asking a state court to essentially require the county to permit the proposed on-farm retail store.

LBD Coffee, which grows tobacco used in its Kauai Cigar Co. brand cigars, first sought to open a retail operation on Kauai agricultural land in 2014. LBD Coffee

LBD owner Les Drent said his business will finally forge ahead with those plans after Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami signed an ordinance last week that amends the county zoning code to allow farmers to sell their agricultural products on their farms without obtaining a permit from the county Planning Department.

The rule change, Kawakami said in a prepared statement, aims to preserve Kauai’s agricultural heritage by helping to make the important but difficult work of farming more viable. 

The COVID-19 pandemic further spotlighted the need to create new avenues to allow farmers to get locally grown goods into the hands of consumers, county officials said.

The county also consulted with the Kauai County Farm Bureau to ensure that the new farm stand provision won’t be abused by fake farmers, said Kauai Planning Director Kaaina Hull.

Hull said the LBD lawsuit had no bearing on the county’s adoption of the new ordinance.

But for Drent, the question is why didn’t the county legalize on-farm sales sooner. Kauai was the only county that did not alter its zoning rules to permit on-farm sales after state lawmakers legalized the practice in 2012.

“Why did Kauai County choose to wait nine years and allow their farmers to suffer under this?” Drent said.

Until last week, establishing a retail stand on agricultural property would have required a permit, which could only be obtained through a process involving a public hearing and review by the county Planning Commission.

That process never yielded a permit for LBD coffee, Drent said.

Some of LBD’s Kauai Cigar Co. products. It would like to sell them at a retail outlet on farmland. LBD Coffee

The inconsistency between county and state rules that govern these agricultural activities has made launching an agrotourism activity, such as an on-farm retail store, difficult for some Hawaii farmers, said Angela Fa’anunu, a tourism professor at the University of Hawaii Hilo.

In Hawaii’s unique land-use regime, a form of statewide zoning, land is divided into four categories: urban, rural, agricultural and conservation. State law then outlines uses allowed in the various districts.

But counties also get a say in how land can be used through local zoning laws. When it comes to ag land, the state and counties jointly regulate use.

Simplifying policies to make agrotourism more viable could offer Hawaii farmers a bit of a lifeline, said Bruce Mathews, a professor of soil science at the University of Hawaii Hilo.

“It totally changes (farmers’) bottom line to be able to sell value-added products on their farm,” he said.

For LBD, Drent said he expects an on-farm retail business will invite a lucrative new revenue stream.

“When tourists are able to come onto your farm and buy products and interact with the farmer, that’s how you build a mail-order clientele,” Drent said. “People buy your products, they love it, they go home to the mainland and then they order from there.” 

“But when you lose that ability to interact with tourists and have people come to the farm to buy things, it’s just a big, big loss,” he said.

Civil Beat reporter Stewart Yerton contributed to this report.

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