Concern grows over allegations of abuse within farm-exchange program

Updated: May. 25, 2017 at 6:05 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A farm-exchange program which provides housing in exchange for work on organic agricultural operations is the source of growing concern from some state lawmakers.

On Carolyn Sandison's Pupukea farm, fruit trees and flowers grow wild. She uses what those in the farming industry call WWOOFers – patrons of the World Wide Opportunites on Organic Farms program – to help out in her banana patch.

"I have so many weeds to pull, and only so much time and energy," Sandison says.

A locally-managed website dedicated to the program lists roughly 300 of the popular farms in Hawaii; 190 of them are on the Big Island, 50 are on Maui, and about 24 are located on Oahu.

Using the internet, interested WWOOFers can make contact with Hawaii farmers who utilize the program, drawing up agreements that allow people to live rent-free while working on the organic farms.

"I'm providing them a place to stay in paradise, and in return, I hope to get some work out of that," said Sandison.

But some members of Hawaii's legislature are worried about abuses within the program. During the 2017 session, Rep. Cindy Evans authored a resolution that asks the state's labor and agricultural departments to look into the program's alleged issues, including poor living conditions, long working hours and rampant drug use.

Evans says she simply wants to make sure the program is following safe labor laws. While there have been no official complaints, Evans says, she's heard troubling stories of people being victimized.

"There was a young woman who came up to me and she said there's many WWOOFers here, and some of them are in dangerous, not very safe situations," Rep. Evans said.

Farm hosts say they understand the potential for abuse, and many recommend participants check references before entering into any agreements.

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