Trying to help meet state food sustainability goals, while facing a lawsuit brought by a former tenant of its lands in North-Central O‘ahu, the state Agribusiness Development Corporation is being extra cautious about negotiating new land licenses for hundreds more acres in the area.
On March 4, the ADC solicited applications from farmers and ranchers interested in five parcels in the Whitmore and Mililani areas totaling more than 1,100 acres, although only about half of that land has been classified as usable.
The lands have not been farmed in decades, are overgrown, and in some cases, littered with junk and old cars. Some parcels also lack an onsite water source or easy access.
Even so, the agency received 33 applications, with each of the five areas having at least nine applicants.
The ADC’s evaluation committee ranked the top applicants based on their business plans, farming practices, experience, finances and the marketability of their products, with good finances carrying the most weight. The top six applicants were the following:
1) Larry Jefts, who already farms hundreds of acres of ADC lands in the area and is a former ADC board member himself;
2) Thomas Law, owner of Law Tieng’s Farm;
3) Tony and Manyvone Law, who run Tony Law’s Farm;
4) Cedar Grove Hawai‘i, Inc., a composting company managed by Clyde Kaneshiro, owner of Honolulu Disposal, the largest waste and recycling company in the state;
5) Hawaii Sustainable Agricultural Products, LLC, a company incorporated in April of this year, whose agent is Arion Energy, LLC, which has recently estab- lished a number of solar farm companies in the state;
6) Sila Farms, established in February of last year.
But according to ADC staff, the evaluation committee chose not to finalize its recommendations without further guidance from the agency’s board of directors on some of the proposed uses, including solar farms, industrial hemp, and sod.
“The committee also had concerns that the applicants are not fully aware of the conditions of the land and external factors that cannot be overlooked. For example, the applicant who is awarded the Whitmore Agricultural Lands surrounding Whitmore Village must engage and work closely with the community, including but not limited to outreach, and attending community meetings. The applicant must also have a plan to address the theft, vandalism, trespassing, and illegal dumping that occur in these areas. The ADC awarded these lands to a farmer in 2019, but they declined after learning about the history of the property and the challenges they would encounter while developing the land,” a staff report states.
“Before making its recommendations, the committee would like some assurances that the applicants who are selected are aware of their roles and responsibilities so there are no misunderstandings and disputes in the future, which may lead to litigation. The ADC will be issuing these larger tracts of land as is, where is, and the operators that the ADC Board selects must acknowledge ADC’s terms and conditions,” it continues.
Although it was listed clearly on the ADC’s advertisement to the prospective farmers that there was no water for some of the parcels, “a lot of these farmers were applying for TMKs [tax map keys] that had no water. There were instances a farmer or business would apply for every single parcel. … Questions arose whether they were aware with issues with the land,” staffer Ken Nakamoto said at the board’s June 23 meeting.
In 2019, former tenant Ohana Best, LLC, sued the ADC, claiming that the agency and its executive director, James Nakatani, failed to provide promised irrigation water to the 160 acres the company had planned to farm. This despite the company allegedly spending $1.5 million to clean and prepare the land for farming. The case is still pending; the state filed its responsive pre-trial statement last month.
To avoid future litigation, committee member Warren Watanabe said he wants to make sure the applicants understand the parcels are being offered as-is.
“My original intent with this committee was to move this as fast as we could, but understanding the difficulties the farmers will face … we want to make sure the applicants have the ability to follow through,” he said.
“I want to see these lands in production, to meet the governor’s mandate, to have agriculture be again an economic player across the state,” he added.
“It is not as simple as I thought it was going to be,” committee member Fred Lau said of the tenant selection process.
With regard to the use of the ADC’s lands for hemp production, state Department of Agriculture director Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser said it’s legal as long as the farmer has a valid license from the USDA.
However, she discouraged approving any applications in which a solar farm was the primary use. If a photovoltaic system is needed to aid in crop pro- duction, that might be acceptable, she suggested, but the lands the ADC is offering are of too high quality for just a solar farm.
Board member Mary Alice Evans, who is also director for the state Office of Planning, agreed, as did board member Kaleo Manuel, deputy director for the state Commission on Water Resource Management.
Evans said that in order to double local food production by 2030, which is the state’s goal, the ADC can assist by limiting O‘ahu agricultural leases to commercial farmers on at least 100 acres, rather than small subsistence-type farmers.
“For people who want to do subsistence farming, there is a lot of land on the neighbor islands. … The majority of consumers are on this island,” she said.
Manuel noted that hemp and sod are not food, although hemp “maybe could become a food product.”
Lau explained that the applicant proposing to grow sod would mainly be a food producer. Sod would account for only a quarter of the operation, he said.
The board agreed to take up the committee’s recommendations in August.
(For more background of this, see our article published in March, “Agribusi- ness Agency Explains Reasons Behind Slow Progress in Utilizing Lands.”)
— Teresa Dawson