The state Agribusiness Development Corporation (ADC) is at crossroads. Is it going to be strict a landlord that terminates land licenses for repeated non-compliance, or is it going to do whatever it can to help those small farmers — who stepped up to work on lands no one else wanted — adjust to the stricter requirements associated with occupying state land?
That was the question ADC board members wrestled with at their May 30 meeting. Over the previous few months, they had heard from staff of the rampant non-compliance of tenants on the agency’s lands in North-Central O`ahu, purchased years ago from the Galbraith Estate. Specifically, most of them had not completed and obtained state approval of a soil conservation plan, which enables farmers to be exempt from having to obtain a grading permit from the county. ADC staff said that it’s going to start requiring conservation plans as part of their land licenses. And it’s likely they’re required, as well, under federal food safety regulations.
At the May meeting, it became clear that the non-compliance among the tenants has been constant and went beyond a lack of a conservation plan.
“We were having small farmer problems since day one, and not with just the immigrants,” ADC executive director James Nakatani said. “It’s not that they don’t know how to farm. They don’t follow rules [about] cleaning the place up. It’s constant coaching. It’s a paradigm shift,” he said.
The sugarcane and pineapple plantations that used to dominate the state’s agricultural landscape managed operations largely on their own. When they started to close, the ADC was formed to help manage the transition to diversified agriculture on state lands. Over the years, the agency has still dealt mainly with relatively large tenants, such as the large seed companies in West Kaua`i lands. But managing the small farmers on the former Galbraith lands, however, is proving to be difficult.
One of them, Chuan Produce, has been using a quonset hut without permission from the ADC and refuses to pay the agency anything for it. The ADC sent the company a letter regarding its non-payment.
The longer the ADC takes to deal with the issue, “we’re losing credibility,” ADC staffer Ken Nakamoto said, adding that non-compliance is becoming a pattern among the tenants. “For the most part, they comply, [but] it’s one thing today” — i.e., loose animals — “it’s another thing tomorrow,” he said.
As far as board member Yukio Kitagawa was concerned, the ADC should “get rid of them.” Like Nakatani, Kitagawa was a former director of the state Department of Agriculture.
Nakamoto, however, softened. “To put it in context, nobody wanted to farm Galbraith. These farmers took the risk. … We didn’t want to punish the risk takers,” he said.
“We can continue going on … or we can take a tougher position: You don’t do this and you’re out,” he said.
Nakatani offered, “Beating them up doesn’t solve it. You need coaching.”
Board chair Letitia Uyehara countered that the agency could receive heavy criticism for putting people on the land who don’t produce safe food.
To this, and suggestions from other board members that the ADC should stick with larger farms, Nakatani urged the board not to discriminate against the small farmers. “Let’s look at solutions, not just criticize,” he said, noting that his agency has already chosen to shorten its license terms from 35 years to 10, “so we make sure they follow our rules.”
(For more background, see, “Compliance Problems with Small Farms Hamper Use of Former Galbraith Lands,” from our March 2018 issue.)
Creating a soil conservation plan doesn’t necessarily cost any money. But it can cost valuable time, according to Jean Brokish, executive director of O`ahu Resource Conservation and Development Council (RC&D), a non-profit group dedicated to helping local farmers with conservation planning.
The USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) both provide plans for free, but with their limited work force and specific priorities — which are to work with people pursuing Farm Bill funding — the reality, especially on O`ahu, is that non-priority farmers can end up waiting six months to three years for a free plan, she said. “If you need this to get your lease … you’re kind of stuck,” she said.
The challenge that the ADC’s tenants are facing is not unique, she continued, noting that many large landowners, such as Kamehameha Schools, require conservation plans. “It can be a real bottleneck,” she said.
Enter the 808 Planner, a tool developed by O`ahu RC&D to create soil conservation plans more quickly, albeit for a price of a few thousand dollars. It’s based on an Idaho program developed around 2005 and was meant to address the fact that there was less and less government support for conservation planning at the time, she said.
A Hawai`i version was developed in 2009, but died when the state couldn’t figure out how to host it on its internet server. In 2011, O`ahu RC&D revived the project with the help of a planning grant from the Ulupono Initiative. After some 30 meetings with stakeholders, Brokish says her organization obtained even more funding from both public and private organizations, including the state Department of Agriculture, NRCS, SWCD, the South Oʻahu County Farm Bureau, the Marisla Fund, and the Atherton Family Foundation.
The site (808planner.org) officially launched in June 2017, but Brokish said it’s still being improved as her organization receives feedback from its users. (For example, users aren’t yet able to save a pdf version of their plan.)
In its first six months, the planner helped create 53 conservation plans covering 4,300 acres across the state, she said, noting that that rate was on par with what the federal agencies, which have staff on all islands, achieve in a year.
About two thirds of the plans were for farms on O`ahu, where she had done the most outreach, but about 15 percent each came from Maui and Kaua`i, and the rest came from Hawai`i island. To be official, those plans would still need to be approved by the local SWCDs, and she’s not sure how many of the 808 Planner users took that second step.
With regard to how the planner would help those farmers whose first language is not English, she said the nice thing about an online platform is that its text can be translated. While she acknowledged that language barriers are a problem with getting things like this done, the 808 Planner isn’t likely to be able to address that any time soon.
“I think that’s a dream, that’s down the road or it would take significant support from somebody to go through and translate parts of the program,” she said.
— Teresa Dawson