Hawaii’s second-largest diversified fruit and vegetable producer, Aloun Farms, has come up with a new crop for sale: dirt.
More precisely, the company has gotten into the business of developing and selling ready-to-farm fields on Oahu.
Aloun is announcing today that it is offering to sell 427 acres carved up into 35 farmland “condominiums” in Wahiawa that buyers can use themselves, lease back to Aloun or have Aloun farm under a service contract.
The project — dubbed Ohana Farm Parcels — can be a model to advance the reuse of expansive fallow former plantation land to increase the local food supply, said Alec Sou, Aloun’s general manager. Aloun can also help small farmers develop the skills they need, he said.
Making former plantation land productive “is a knowledge and experience we have, and we think we can share it,” Sou said. “This is a unique opportunity for small farmers to pursue a future in agriculture while building equity in their business.”
Hawaii imports around
85 percent of the food consumed in the state, and
turning fallow former plantation land into productive farmland could help reduce that number.
There is, however, the potential for buyers to build homes on this farmland, which includes some parcels with ocean views of the distant North Shore.
Aloun is using three real estate brokerage firms to handle sales — HI Choice Realty, Locations Hawaii and NAI Chaney Brooks — and in marketing materials touts the site’s qualities for farming such as good sunlight and water, as well as the sunset view of Waialua and the catchphrase “You are home at the Ohana Farm Parcels.”
The Ohana Farm Parcels project is an offshoot of a deal tied to state approval for converting prime farmland in Waipio to the 5,000-home urban community Koa Ridge planned by developer Castle &Cooke Hawaii.
To offset the loss of productive farmland on the 768-acre Koa Ridge site, Castle &Cooke committed in 2010 to lease Aloun 667 acres in Wahiawa for a 10-year term with a five-year extension option.
Sou said the offer presented challenges for Aloun because of the investment needed to clear the overgrown land, install irrigation lines in fields and amend the soil so it could grow crops other than pineapple, which long occupied the site. With the relatively short lease, such an investment wouldn’t pencil out, so Aloun sought the opportunity to buy the land.
Aloun initially leased 360 acres, and about three years ago agreed on terms to buy 480 acres. Aloun began planting crops on the land in 2013 after clearing it of trees and tall guinea grass, installing irrigation lines and adding about 12 tons of sand to the soil.
The improvements cost about $5 million, and last year Aloun bought the property for $11 million. It is developing the fee-simple agriculture park through Aloun Farm Inc. affiliate Helemano Ranch &Farms LLC.
Sou said selling parcels, including eight that can produce organic crops, is a way the company can make desirable sizes of prime farmland available to small farmers who have few prospects of buying good farm sites on Oahu. He also said it can relieve Aloun of challenges like finding labor for a company that began with 5 acres in Waianae 40 years ago and has grown to farm 2,000 acres on Oahu.
Aloun is offering to sell parcels between 10 and 18 acres at prices from $75,000 to $110,000 per acre.
At those prices, Aloun stands to take in $32 million to $47 million from selling 427 acres, which excludes field roads and four parcels set aside for water management uses.
Sou said the price per acre can be financed by small commercial farm operators and is below the market price of $125,000 to $150,000 per acre that typically would be for smaller parcels in places like Waianae and Kahuku that include access to water suitable for fruit and vegetable crops.
Steven Chiang, director of the agribusiness incubator program at the University of Hawaii, agreed that what Aloun is offering presents a good opportunity that small independent farmers could make viable, especially because quality land at such sizes and prices is rare on Oahu.
But Chiang also expressed concern over the potential for investors to buy parcels and use them for homes. County regulations allow “farm dwellings” on agriculture land as accessories to farming without useful definitions or enforcement of the required farming.
“It’s a problem,” he
said of what are known as gentlemen’s farms.
Chiang said other agricultural subdivisions that he’s aware of in Hawaii often have only 10 to 15 percent of bona fide commercial farming. He added that Aloun is a serious farm operator and isn’t going to want anyone building a house in the area and complaining about neighboring farm uses.
Sou said the condo rules for the property will have protections for farm operations. But while he said he isn’t intending to create a gentlemen’s farm community, he doesn’t want to use condo rules to restrict whether buyers can build homes on the site. “We’re here to promote ag,” he said. “We’re not here to regulate.”
Sou said he believes some entrepreneurial farmers could establish agritourism ventures on the site, given that Dole Plantation Visitor Center is nearby and attracts 1.1 million visitors annually. Dole’s “Pineapple Express” train tour runs on tracks that are separated from Aloun’s site by a large swath of land that Dole still uses to grow pineapple.
“I think agritourism can be big,” Sou said. “There is a lot of potential for creativity.”
Currently, Aloun is growing crops including zucchini, leeks, sweet onions, string beans, sweet corn, broccoli, Napa cabbage and avocados on its Wahiawa property.
For parcel buyers who are interested in having Aloun farm the property under contract, Aloun is offering two intensive crop options — broccoli or sweet onions — that would involve a parcel owner paying Aloun for expenses and receiving a return on sales. Aloun also is offering a lower-maintenance crop option of avocado or citrus trees (lime, lemon and orange).
Aloun has created spreadsheets of costs and revenue projections for each contract crop, but declined to share them publicly because of competitive concerns.
Sou said any parcels that don’t sell will continue to be farmed by Aloun, which has a processing facility in Kunia and plans to establish one on the Wahiawa site.