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Thursday, October 30, 2014         

OUR VIEW | TOUGH SITUATION


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No bad guys in farmers' plight


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The essential agricultural struggle in Hawaii — achieving profitability with intense development pressure driving up land costs — is playing out in East Oahu at an accelerated pace.

That's evident in the current crisis faced by 13 small farmers in Kamilo Nui, businesses that represent the last vestige of what was historically a thriving agricultural community, displaced by the development of Hawaii Kai and other neighborhoods.

With the end of a low, fixed lease rent they secured four decades ago, the lessees now face a catastrophic, 25-fold rise in rent: about $5,000 annually per acre. Landlord Kamehameha Schools is open to negotiations, but the bar seems to be set at an intimidatingly high level for the farmers, many of them older and of limited means.

This is a drama in which there are no actual villains. The farmers accepted the favorable terms in compensation for their upheaval, and now Kamehameha Schools, which itself has a fiduciary duty to support its educational mission, rightly expects its property to yield income more in line with its actual value.

On the macro level, this episode underscores the importance of designating important agricultural lands, a mandate of the state Constitution. The idea is that if land is reserved for agricultural use, it is less prey to increases in land values due to development pressures.

The next step finally was taken two years ago with the passage of a law laying out incentives for land owners to designate acreage for agriculture in perpetuity. County officials still must finish work identifying the lands that qualify to be certified as important, so we're a long way from the finish line there.

But the specific Kamilo Nui case is on a more critical timetable. Kamehameha Schools spokesman Kekoa Paulsen said that although there is no hard deadline for finishing lease rent renegotiations -- the old rates expired at the end of June -- the new rent will be retroactive and the schools want to finish sooner rather than later.

So far only two of the farmers have settled, and it would be tragic if so few of these ag businesses can survive to the end of their lease in 15 years. The Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation argues persuasively for further efforts by Kamehameha to find a more realistic way to scale the increases for its long-term tenants.

Decades ago, Kamehameha deeded an adjacent parcel, the site of an ancient agricultural heiau, to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs for its preservation. Involving OHA in discussions for ways to support continued farming in the area would be a reasonable option at this point.

To its credit, Kamehameha remains committed to agriculture in Kamilo Nui for the duration of the lease and more broadly has staked out a position supporting agricultural viability for Hawaii. The plight of these farmers represents one opportunity to explore creative partnerships that could, at least for the immediate future, preserve viable agriculture in the area's last undeveloped sector. Economics may ultimately prevail, but surmounting that hurdle is worth one final effort.






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