KIHEI, Maui — Inside a gated community of nine multimillion-dollar homes on the lower slopes of Haleakala Crater, fruit and vegetable farmer Jordan Longman has an unusual agreement to transform several property owners’ expansive grassy lawns into miniature food forests.
Although the 2-acre parcels at Kaimanu Estates are zoned for agriculture, a recent real estate listing describes one of them, valued at $20 million, as an “elegant resort-style compound.”
In fact, beyond scattered and neglected fruit trees, Longman said there wasn’t much agriculture happening in the neighborhood at all until he stepped in a few years ago and, with permission, started planting mango, avocado, banana, ipu gourds, tomatoes, chard and more.
“Imagine neighborhoods where you have food security, where you have food growing between homes instead of a fence or you have common areas dedicated to growing food,” Longman said. “This neighborhood was utilizing all this water and not producing anything, almost all of it was just ornamental plants and lawns.”
“So that’s been kind of my shtick — I go around and I get people excited about building their yard and their landscaping around food.”
At the heart of the farmer’s creative scheme is a desire to boost Hawaii’s food security by putting more agricultural acreage into production.
His informal agreements with wealthy landowners (many of whom reside in their Maui estates for only a few months of the year) also function as a get-around to one of the biggest challenges Hawaii farmers face: access to farmable land.
Finding good land to farm in Hawaii is expensive, and therefore difficult.
The state’s agriculture park program offers farmers long-term leases on small plots of land across the state. But the waitlist to start growing food at some parks is several years long and some farmers complain that the odds of ever securing a lease are tainted by favoritism.
Outside the 227-plot agriculture park program, the state has no shortage of agricultural land — but much of it is less than ideal.
Some farmland has steep slopes or a lack of water access. And some of it is not accessible by car. There are also zoning and infrastructure issues that may hinder growing crops — sometimes for years at a time.
Other viable farm acreage has been developed into solar energy farms or, as is the case with Kaimanu Farms, high-end luxury homes.
What’s left is often priced too high for most farmers to lease or buy.
“The No. 1 problem for farmers is the expense of the land, the cost of the land, the taxes, the upkeep,” Longman said. “Anybody trying to purchase agricultural land has to be a multimillionaire — or you’re not going to be able to afford it. It’s gotten to the point where finding land to farm is almost impossible.”
Longman, 44, does not pay any money for access to any of the yards he farms in and around Kaimanu Estates.
And while some property owners ask Longman to supply them with enough food to keep their family fed, the bulk of Longman’s harvests, and in some cases all of it, are his own to sell at farmers markets.
Every homeowner has a different reason why they’re allowing him to do it, Longman said.
“For one guy, it’s very much about giving back to the land and doing something productive and not just wasting resources on a lawn,” Longman said. “For another guy, it’s 100% about the fact that he gets a discount on his water if the land is being used for agriculture.”
“And for this other guy, it’s just about keeping the rats away and helping the landscaper so he doesn’t have to pick up so much starfruit off the ground.”
Then there’s the couple that allows Longman to live in their home so long as he maintains the landscaping.
All told, Longman is now growing food on about 2 acres cumulatively across eight residential properties in South Maui.
The scale of his efforts is nowhere near enough to turn the tide of Hawaii’s problem with food insecurity. But it’s a step in the right direction.
The farmer said he’s getting above average production out of the small acreage he maintains by implementing a unique growing technique pioneered by Australian tropical fruit farmers Peter and Alison Salleras that he said uses a trellis system to help fruit trees achieve more abundant harvests.
Longman learned the technique from Peter Salleras several years ago at a workshop hosted by Hawaii Farmers Union United. Now he monetizes it by helping other small farmers build their own trellis systems.
While it’s not a solution for everyone, Longman’s unique approach to finding land to grow food should be considered an inspirational model for new farmers, said Phyllis Robinson, co-director of the Maui Family Farmer Training Network.
“The issue is that we have a lot of absentee landowners and we have a lot of farmers who need land, but pairing them together is an arrangement that hasn’t always worked,” Robinson said.
“Sometimes it ends up being problematic because the landowner just sells out from under the farmer after the farmer’s invested a lot, that kind of thing, and they don’t have the same arrangement with the new owner,” she said. “And so it’s chancy in some ways. But (Jordan) is diversifying enough so that if any one of these landowners decided to sell and somebody else came in and they didn’t really want him there, he wouldn’t suffer so much.”
Yet Longman acknowledges that none of his efforts would be successful without his untiring work ethic and genuine passion for providing local families with local food.
“I’m obsessed,” Longman said. “That’s what it takes.”
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