Cover Story

Saving Hawai'i's Farmlands


Cover image for Feb 13, 2008

In her State of the State address last month, Governor Linda Lingle made waves with her proposal that the state buy the Turtle Bay Resort and prevent the development of five more hotels on this green windswept swath of Oahu’s North Shore. While a plan has yet to take shape (next step, the Governor said, is to form a working group), the very thought of such a land save–850 acres, five miles of coastline–is breathtaking. It also presents an opportunity for us all to consider our priorities regarding the use of our state’s limited land, water and financial resources.
One thought-provoking response to the Governor’s proposal comes from Dean Okimoto, president of the Hawai’i Farm Bureau and owner of Nalo Farms in Waimanalo. ‘Why should we invest a huge sum [ $400 million, by some estimates] in Turtle Bay when we could achieve so much more through a similar investment in the purchase of the state’s Important Agricultural Lands?’ he asks, referring to state legislation in 2005 aimed at creating incentives for farmers to keep their land in agricultural production in perpetuity.

This is a timely question, particularly as a recession and inflationary prices loom, for a state that imports 90 percent of its food.

Seeking Food Security

Historically, small-scale commercial agriculture all but wasted away during the heyday of the big plantations when private and state resources (including the University’s research capacity) were focused on sugar and pineapple. Then, left vacant by the retreat of the plantations, these lands were laid siege to by our voracious appetite for housing and commercial development.

Today there’s hope that our islands may increase our capacity to feed ourselves, thanks to growing consumer demand for locally grown products and an increasing awareness of our precarious dependence on fossil fuel driven imports (Hawaii relies on imported fossil fuels for 92 percent of its energy–more than any other state.)

According to Okimoto, for local farming to be economically viable, agricultural land should be valued at $10,000-15,000 per acre. In Waimanalo, farmland currently sells for $150,000-$200,000 per acre. These prohibitively high prices are found throughout the islands, compounded, especially on O’ahu, by the difficulty of finding large enough contiguous pieces of land, as so much has been subdivided to enable denser residential use.

In this environment, agricultural producers have to fight hard to maintain existing operations, let alone expand into new lands.

However, a groundbreaking new state Legacy Land Conservation Program– mentioned by Governor Lingle along with other possible funding sources for Turtle Bay–has quietly begun to enable the conservation of Hawai’i’s agricultural as well as natural and culturally significant lands. Applications for land saves are reviewed by a nine-member Legacy Land Conservation Commission. The 2008 agricultural nominees, awaiting confirmation next month, are the non-profit Wai’anae Community Redevelopment Corporation, for $737,300 towards the expansion of MA’O Organic Farms; and Ke’Aupuni Lokahi Inc./Moloka’i Enterprise Community, for $937,500 to buy and transfer 196 acres to Moloka’i Land Trust to restore agricultural production, better stream management and public access.

It remains to be seen whether the tapping of fledgling Legacy Land funds for Turtle Bay will place ag lands in unfair competition with other worthy conservation projects. Hopefully, this issue will be mitigated by the allocation of more funds for LLCP across the board.

The Ag Potential of Legacy Lands

Within the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, the Legacy Land Conservation Program (LLCP) and its Land Conservation Fund provide funding to state and county agencies and non-profit organizations for acquiring (or creating conservation easements on) land with natural or conservation resource value. Fundable acquisitions and projects include watershed protection, parks, coastal areas, beaches and ocean access, natural areas, habitat protection, agricultural production, cultural and historical sites, open spaces and scenic resources, and recreational and public hunting areas.

The LLCP is of particular interest to the agricultural community ‘because of its emphasis on the preservation of different and varied types of lands that together protect a ‘Hawaiian sense of place’ – not only in terms of protecting landscapes but in protecting our friends and families’ ability to live here,’ says Josh Stanbro, formerly with the Trust for Public Land and a key participant in the creation of the LLCP. For these reasons, ‘the Fund is unique,’ Stanbro notes.

In the two years since its inception, the Fund has had a significant impact on Hawai’i’s landscape. In 2007, the LLCP’s investment of $4.7 million facilitated the protection of approximately 1,755 acres of land worth an estimated appraised value of $10.3 million. If the BLNR approves the projects recommended last December by the Legacy Land Conservation Commission (the announcement is anticipated in March), the 2008 awards of $4.6 million will result in the conservation of a further 900 acres. (For a full list of recommended and currently funded projects, go to [], or call 586-0921).

BLNR member Sam Gon agrees with Stanbro, emphasizing that the Program’s wide net enables it to provide support for cultural and agricultural projects that provide value outside of the traditional conservation paradigm. Gon, who also serves as senior scientist for The Nature Conservancy, notes that LLCP differs ‘from many of the other land conservation options in allowing for lands that have seen a long history of change and use, yet hold potential for restoration, development of agricultural practice, or open space. This might include open agricultural lands in central O’ahu that might otherwise be gobbled up eventually in residential, industrial or other uses.’

While the Fund’s accessibility for non-traditional conservation acquisitions is welcome, it provides the Commission with a real challenge when it comes to making comparative evaluations of applicant projects and their resource values, and ranking them accordingly. As Commission Chair Dale Bonar (Executive Director of the Maui Coastal Land Trust) puts it, ‘how do you select ‘best’ when ‘best’ is an overlapping concept?’

Commission member Kaiwi Nui articulates this challenge from a Native Hawaiian perspective. ‘ALL lands, whether commercial, legacy, or otherwise are special and serve as an integral part of a whole. A fractional view of land is hard for me to digest and therefore the comparative ‘value’ process is very difficult. Synonymous to our own bodies, every square inch of Hawai’i Nei has purpose, place and above all mana,’ Nui says.

One of the great advantages to funding agricultural projects through LLCP is that they often provide multifaceted community benefits. An excellent example of this potential is MA’O organic farm in Lualualei Valley. The 11 acres MA’O hopes to purchase formerly housed a large poultry farm, but have lain fallow for nearly twenty years. According to MA’O Director of Ag Operations Gary Maunakea-Forth, LLCP funding will be absolutely critical to making the purchase. Anticipated matching funds of $250,000 are contingent upon MA’O’s receipt of the LLCP funds.

The obstacles to MA’O’s expansion in Lualualei Valley are representative of statewide trends. There are few large contiguous pieces of land available along the Wai’anae coast, and those that exist typically cost about $100,000 per acre. Not only does Lualualei Naval Magazine occupy over 7,000 acres of the valley, but residents have subdivided the remaining lands for housing and some commercial development. ‘Wai’anae has become an urban space home to 50,000 people,’ Maunakea-Forth says. He wonders how the ‘community can still consider itself rural without the overarching economy/culture of agriculture.’

However small-scale, MA’O provides an integrated solution to the difficulties facing Wai’anae’s agricultural and youth communities. Expansion will enable the farm to increase its volume of production five-fold by 2011. As a model of ‘sustainability,’ the farm uses as many locally-derived inputs as possible and plans to install a solar array to provide the farm’s power. Through partnerships with researchers at the University of Hawai’i, the farm is exploring agronomic practices that can be used throughout the state. In a partnership with Leeward Community College, students are educated in both the natural sciences and cultural values. This upcoming generation of farmers represents the future of ag in Wai’anae and elsewhere. Extending far beyond those 11 acres, the environmental, cultural and economic benefits that could flow from MA’O’s expansion demonstrate the leveraging power of state funds wisely used.

Ag Easements – A new tool

LLCP grants have also been used to purchase development rights and create perpetual ag easements on existing ag lands. This tactic, while familiar among the local and national conservation community, is a new strategy for Hawai’i’s agricultural community.

Organizations on the mainland, such as the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, have successfully used easements since the early 1980s. In this approach, a landowner voluntarily sells the rights to develop a parcel of land to a public agency or nonprofit organization dedicated to natural resource conservation or agricultural activity. The landowner retains all other ownership rights associated with the land. A conservation or agricultural easement is recorded on the title and the buyer of the development rights retires those rights permanently. This ensures the perpetual conservation or agricultural use of the property, regardless of future changes in ownership.

Okimoto believes that the creation of ag easements is vital for ensuring Hawai’i’s agricultural future. He explains, ‘in the long run we’re asking people to give up value by keeping their land in ag rather than developing it. It’s right to give value back to landowners who make the economic sacrifice of creating a perpetual ag easement.’ Okimoto is himself considering selling the development rights to the seven acres he currently farms in Waimanalo, and he may seek LLCP funding to do so.

Leveraging LLCP Resources

While agricultural acquisitions and easements are an excellent use of LLCP funds, so too are the environmental, cultural and historical conservation efforts the program has funded since 2005. As Commission Chair Dale Bonar and Member Kaiwi Nui have pointed out, the Commission is indeed faced with very difficult choices. According to Bonar, there is ‘nowhere near enough money for what we need to do’ to protect Hawai’i’s resources.

So how can we expand the resources of the LLCP?

The Land Conservation Fund currently receives 10 percent of the revenues generated by the conveyance tax, which is assessed on the seller of any property based on the purchase price, but focuses on high-end real estate transfers. The conveyance tax was chosen by the Legislature to fund resource protection because: ‘The development, sale, and improvement of real estate in Hawai’i adds additional pressure on natural areas, coastal access, agricultural production, and Hawai’i’s water resources and watershed recharge areas.’ (House Bill 1308). Of the remaining funds, 25 percent is paid into the Natural Area Reserve Fund, 50 percent into the Rental Housing Trust Fund for affordable housing, and 15 percent into the General Fund.

‘Additional resources from the conveyance tax would help enable more opportunities to leave a legacy,’ says Jeff Mikulina, Director of the Sierra Club, Hawai’i Chapter. ‘With global real estate speculation and tremendous growth pressure on Hawai’i’s breathtaking coastline, rare habitats, and productive farmland, the Legacy Land funds allow us to help shape what Hawai’i will look like in the future,’ Mikulina says.

Many in the conservation and agricultural community believe that the 15 percent of the conveyance tax currently allocated to the General Fund should be reallocated to the LLCP to protect more land. Josh Stanbro agrees. ‘The legislature has repeatedly stated that this session is dedicated to protecting ag lands,’ he says. ‘There’s an old saying about putting one’s money where one’s mouth is. Wouldn’t ensuring that this 15 percent go directly to land preservation rather than the general fund be a logical place to start?’ In addition to increasing the funds available to the LLCP, Okimoto hopes that the State will allocate additional funds to purchase some or all of the much-touted but still imperiled ‘Important Agricultural Lands.’

Increasing funding for the LLCP would result in a legacy that would indeed echo our state motto: ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono – the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.