Brittany Anderson and her husband Bodhi have had great success turning 10 acres of former industrial farmland on the Big Island into a thriving ecosystem.

“It was completely devoid of life but in four years with this kind of diversified pasture management we have grass, we have birds, we have worms,” she said. “It’s just jammin’.”

The Andersons sell organic, pasture-raised beef, chicken, lamb and pork from their pasture in Honomu. Restoring their land and making a living selling sustainable meat has been a challenge, but it’s nothing compared to how hard it’s been to navigate the bureaucracy surrounding housing.

As part of our Hawaii Grown series, we’re exploring solutions and ideas that could help small farmers in the state produce more local food. While affordable housing is a problem across the state, it’s especially difficult for farmers who make thin profit margins and for farm workers who many times have to work multiple jobs or live in unpermitted housing to make ends meet. Our latest installment of the Hawaii Grown podcast looks at one proposal to help farm owners afford housing and another to provide affordable housing for farm workers.

Artwork: Kalany Omengkar 

Challenges With Building

The Andersons wanted to live on their Honomu property, not only to deter agricultural theft, but to avoid commuting to-and-from Hilo. Because their land is classified as dedicated agricultural land, there’s a tax break for keeping it in production. Now that there’s a house on the property, that tax break went away.

Hawaii Grown

“I’m all for using taxes to support roads and schools but I’m producing an awful lot of food and it would seem like my property taxes should still be a little bit lower,” she said.

It was also going to cost almost $80,000 to bring electricity to their property, so they’re 100% solar-powered.

“Not by choice, but by necessity,” she said.

Megan Fox has been trying to find a solution for these challenges for more than five years. As the executive director of Malama Kauai, a food sustainability nonprofit, she often asks farmers what would help them make more money to grow local food.

“Farming is a full time job and right now many new farmers are having to work another full time job on top of starting a business in order to keep a roof over their heads,” she said. “It’s a challenge that’s very difficult to overcome.”

Brittany and Bodhi Anderson started Sugar Hill Farmstead because they had a hard time finding healthy meat from a trusted source. Courtesy of Sugar Hill Farmstead

The nonprofit sketched out an idea for a community of small houses and an apartment complex adjacent to active farmland. Instead of every farmer building a house on their own land, grouping the homes together would cut down on infrastructure costs like electrical poles and sewer systems and allow the farmers to take advantage of every last acre of land.

“We were looking to do it small, affordable and replicable,” she said. “That way it’s something that can be put in multiple places on multiple islands.”

Fox had funders who were willing to invest in the development if she could find a landowner who could provide at least a 30-year lease to justify the cost.

“Landowners either don’t want that kind of development put onto that land, don’t want to make the long term commitment or — I’m not really sure what all of their reasons are — but there was a lot of pushback from pretty much any option that we looked at,” she said.

She reached out to the state Agribusiness Development Corporation to pursue a private-public partnership, but she said her phone calls and emails were never returned.

“There’s a million barriers in your way and we were close to getting a lot of those out of the way,” she said. “We just could not find the land.”

Malama Kauai ended up getting a 15-year-lease in Moloaa, but they had to abandon their plans for housing. There are about 70 commercial farmers leasing land surrounding the property and a food hub should be up-and-running soon. But it’s still hard for Megan to hear how farmers she works with are struggling to find affordable housing.

“It’s rare that you’re going to find enough people to pull this off to even feed our island,” she said. “Never mind feed our economy beyond Kauai.”

Fox wants the state to offer incentives to landowners to provide more long-term leases to farmers who want to build houses on their land. And she thinks nonprofits and private companies would be more likely to invest in dedicated housing for farmers if the state offered up some if its land for development.

I think that kind of private-public partnership should be something that could be explored and developed further as a model,” she said. 

Building Houses For A Farm Economy

Once the Andersons successfully navigated the long and expensive process to build their own home, they realized their business had grown enough to justify hiring some employees.

“A lot of people hire WWOOFers,” Anderson said, referring to a program where people volunteer on organic farms in exchange for housing. “Agriculture has this image problem where people don’t really value the farmer or the farm worker, and I want to change that and have people that come work on the farm make money.”

Artwork: Kalany Omengkar 

Anderson wants someone who sees farming as a career, and she knows that expecting someone to volunteer means Hawaii residents are shut out of agricultural work. But when she looked into the process to build a farm dwelling, she was shocked at how complicated it was.

“Hawaii has become so accustomed to farmworkers living in poverty.” -Brittany Anderson, Sugar Hill Farmstead

The application requires a lot of personal information, and requires the farmer to outline the specific job duties and exactly how many hours the employee would work. Anderson said this removes her ability to be flexible and for the position to grow and evolve over time.

“I don’t want to put myself in a situation where I filled out the application and now I either have someone that is in line for a position that can’t exist without a dwelling or I had it built and then maybe the job changes,” she said.

Anderson said she now understands why more small and mid-sized farmers don’t bother to provide housing, but low wages combined with a lack of affordable housing means farm workers suffer.

“Hawaii has become so accustomed to farmworkers living in poverty,” she said. “That application is a huge barrier.”

Are Tiny Homes An Answer?

Marcy Montgomery also knows many farm workers who live in unpermitted housing or lie and say that their mobile home is actually a recreational vehicle.

“They need to not be living in fear,” she said.

Big Island-based company Habitats Hawaii builds custom tiny homes priced from $50,000 to $80,000. Courtesy of One Island Sustainable Living

Montgomery is the executive director of One Island Sustainable Living, a nonprofit that owns an organic farm on the Big Island and advocates for farmers in Hawaii, California and Washington.

In 2016 One Island started bringing together farmers and farmworkers to brainstorm how to provide more affordable housing in rural areas.

“Up to 100 people would show up because there was such a lot of interest at the time,” she said.

The stakeholders came up with a proposal: streamline the farm dwelling application and permit process to specifically allow tiny homes. These small dwellings are larger and more permanent than an RV, but can still be moved easily.

Montgomery said many farm owners like the idea of tiny homes because the units are solar-powered and have composting toilets, so they could avoid building expensive power lines and septic systems.

What Should We Cover Next?

The group helped write a bill, which also included financial support for farmers to buy and build the units. It had broad support, and passed both chambers of the Hawaii State Legislature in 2017.

But Governor David Ige vetoed the bill that year, saying that because zoning laws already allow for farm dwellings, there was no need to change the permitting specifically to allow mobile tiny homes.

Montgomery said the existing laws prioritize large farmers with existing capital.

“The county of Hawaii has a certain amount of extra dwellings that you’re allowed to put on your land based on the number of workers that you have but that’s for somebody who’s already grown a business to the scale (that) can qualify for that,” she said. “There is no fast-track or small scale mechanism like we were proposing to help the small farmer, and this is what I think the governor did not understand.”

The group introduced similar proposals in 2018 and 2020, but the momentum was gone.

“We’re kind of waiting to see who becomes the next governor,” she said.

Now One Island is working with small farmers living on the San Juan islands, an archipelago in the pacific northwest near British Columbia. She hopes if she can point to a successful implementation of her idea, Hawaii lawmakers will consider changing the regulations.

“If we want local food, we have to be willing to invest in it,” she said.

“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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