A Hawaii lawmaker is calling for investigations of the state’s Agricultural Parks Program following allegations by an aquaponics farm that the Department of Agriculture has been negligent in managing the Kahuku Agriculture Park, where the aquaponics operation is located.

Hawaii Grown

In a letter sent to Gov. David Ige on Tuesday, Rep. John Mizuno called on the governor to review allegations made against the department by Hooah Farms and its owners, Katherine and Simeon Rojas. The couple was featured in a Civil Beat story earlier this month about a lawsuit the couple has filed and concerns raised in the case.

Separately, Mizuno, who is the vice speaker of the House of Representatives, has drafted resolutions calling for the State Auditor to conduct a performance audit of the state’s 10 agricultural parks. Concurrent resolutions are standard triggers for an audit. Mizuno said he’s seeking additional signatures and intends to file the measures by Thursday.

Simeon and Katherine Rojas of Hooah Farms
Simeon and Katherine Rojas of Hooah Farm in the state’s Kahuku Agriculture Park say negligence by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and the official in charge of the park has forced them to scale back their lettuce growing operation. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2022

In a statement released Wednesday, the Department of Agriculture did not address Mizuno’s broad question of whether the department is adequately managing the state’s agricultural parks. Instead the department focused on the lawsuit the Rojases and Hooah Farms have brought.

“This is a dispute between two private parties which the Department of Agriculture was unfortunately dragged into,” the department said. “In the pending lawsuit, the plaintiffs’ attorney already voluntarily agreed to dismiss two of the claims by stipulation, and the department anticipates the Court will address the other claims on or shortly after March 24, 2022.”

The Rojas’ lawsuit names their landlord, Thomas Narvaez, and his company, Alii Kawa LLC; the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, and the Kahuku ag park manager, Roy Hasegawa. The couple says the department and Hasegawa have essentially allowed Narvaez to act as a middleman, not actually farming, but instead simply leasing ag park land from the department, then subleasing to actual farmers for a higher price.

Narvaez has said he farms bananas but declined to say how much revenue his banana operation generates. According to the Department of Agriculture, he leases Lot 10 from the state for a base rent of $1,999 annually, plus 3% of the revenue from his banana farm and any subleases. The Rojases rent part of Lot 10 for $3,000 annually, according to their lease.

Under state law and the terms of Narvaez’s lease with the state, subleases like the one with the Rojases are supposed to be approved in advance by the Board of Agriculture. But Narvaez never got approval. And Hasegawa never told the Rojases they needed approval, they say, even though, as the ag park manager, Hasegawa introduced the Rojases to Narvaez and knew about the sublease.

Opening Day Legislature 2022. Center, Representative John Mizuno is flanked by left, Representative Mark Nakashima and Speaker Scott Saiki during a press conference held at the Capitol.
State Rep. John Mizuno, center, says the Kahuku ag park couple’s experience merits a broader inquiry into the state’s ag parks. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

According to court records, Narvaez later tried to use his failure to get board approval to convince a Hawaii district court that his lease with the Rojases was invalid. But the court rejected the argument, saying Narvaez couldn’t use his own failure to do something as a reason to evict the couple and take over their business, in which the couple say they’ve invested $200,000 in cash and labor.

After the eviction attempt failed, Narvaez quit supplying water to the Rojases as required by their sublease, according to the lawsuit. He agreed to turn the water back on only after the Rojas’ lawyer sought a court order requiring Narvaez to do so. By that time, the couple say they has suffered thousands of dollars of lost production because of the lack of water.

State Ag Department Dropped The Ball?

In an interview, Mizuno said the Rojas’ experience raises concerns beyond a simple lease dispute. More important, he said, are questions about whether the Department of Agriculture is adequately managing the ag parks.

The Legislature established the parks three decades ago as the state’s plantation agriculture economy was declining and there was an emerging vision of Hawaii producing not just a few big commodities like sugar and pineapple for export, but a portfolio of crops to consume here. At the time, the enabling statute shows, lawmakers sought to encourage precisely what the Rojases are doing: “diversified agriculture and aquaculture” conducted by small and startup farmers.

A retired military veteran, Simeon Rojas learned farming at the University of Hawaii’s GoFarm program. Hooah Farms produces lettuce, catfish and tilapia. The City of Honolulu’s Food Security and Sustainability Program Manager Dexter Kishida has called Hooh Farms “a model that City of Honolulu is looking to promote.”

But the state seems to have dropped the ball with Hooah Farms, Mizuno said.

“To date, what I’ve seen is a fumble by the Department of Ag and the ag parks,” Mizuno said.

Mizuno said he first met the Rojases years ago when he was going door-to-door talking to constituents in his district. He said he was glad to try to help when they contacted his office about their dispute with the state.

“They’re my boss,” he said. “I can do the best I can to get the governor involved, and to call out the Department of Ag and the Kahuku Ag Park.”

Mizuno said the Rojas’ experience merits an investigation. At the very least, the department and Hasegawa appear to have been negligent.

“I’m really concerned we have criminal activity going on,” he said. “If for whatever reason the state stalls on an investigation, maybe the federal government should be involved in an investigation.”

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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