New farmers face obstacles to landing agricultural leases

New farmers face obstacles to landing agricultural leases
Image: Hawaii News Now
Image: Hawaii News Now

WAIMANALO, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - To secure a lease for land from the state Department of Agriculture, first-time farmers need to prove they can make a living working the earth.

It's a challenge faced by scores of start-up farmers like Leonard Hall.

"I love growing things, I love to see it come through. I just love working on the land," he said.

Hall is finishing his three-year farming education in GoFarm Hawaii's training program.

GoFarm's Steven Chiang said new farmers face a paradox when they commit to farming as a career.

"We want more farmers, ag is important to us, and yet the system as it is makes it difficult for those folks to do that," he said.

There are stiff application requirements and barriers to accessing water, plus farmers can't live on property to deter agricultural theft.

"Living on the farm land is, I think, one of the main things that Hawaii has gotten away from and that's posting a big obstacle to starting up farming," Chiang said.

The concerns come as a new report highlights the changes Hawaii farming has undergone since the 1980s, and as there's a growing push to grow more food in the state.

The 100-page state study showed that in 1980, there were 350,830 acres in Hawaii for crop production, most of which was tied to sugar and pineapple.

By 2015, the total number of acres for crops had declined 131 percent, to 151,830 acres.

State Agriculture Department Director Scott Enright said there are good reasons for the agricultural land restrictions.

The restriction for tenant farmers, he said, is to skirt problems when people stop farming.

"What happens is somebody stops farming, but they are still residing on the property, then you go through the legalities trying to remove them off of the land," he said.

To apply for an agricultural lease from the state, a start-up farmer needs three years of farming experience or a college degree in agriculture.

"This ensures us that even though agriculture is by nature a risky business we have a degree of comfort that it will be a success," he said.

Chiang said another obstacle is the acreage available for small farmers. The plot size may be too large for a new farmer to manage.

To help more first-time farmers get leases on smaller parcels, the Agriculture Department is now accepting GoFarm experience in lieu of other requirements, and the department's agribusiness arm is opening 200 acres for small farms in central Oahu.

"We're also in the process of buying additional land from Dole which will open up for smaller farmers," Enright said.

Of Hawaii agricultural land, about 16,900 acres are for diversified crop production. More than half of diversified crops are grown on Oahu, and most are for local consumption.

Hall sells what he grows on the half-acre incubator farm he maintains at GoFarm's Waimanalo headquarters. He hopes to land an agricultural land lease from the state before he leaves the training ground.

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