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Keep farmlands for actual farming

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    A field crew pulls weeds from a crop of sweet onion growing at the Aloun Farms’ Helemano site.

It’s easy to see the good intentions in Ohana Farm Parcels, the innovative agricultural project on 427 Wahiawa acres that offers 35 ready-to-farm tracts in hopes of advancing food sustainability and agronomy. It will, however, take vigilance and better monitoring than is occurring elsewhere to keep those intentions on course, to yield the levels of commercial farming and skills-sharing being envisioned.

In increasingly urban Oahu, it will take both creativity and steadfastness if Hawaii is serious about being more self-sufficient rather than dependent on imported food, which accounts for about 85 percent of food consumed statewide. Gov. David Ige’s target to double local food production by 2020 is a worthy aspiration — in an island state with a strong agricultural ability, it’s sensible to strive for more food independence.

With its Ohana Farm Parcels project, Aloun Farms is offering the 35 farmland “condominiums” — 10- to 18-acre parcels already cleared and prepped with water irrigation — that buyers can farm themselves, lease back to Aloun or have Aloun work under a service contract. Prices range from $75,000 to $110,000 per acre, which presents a good, rare opportunity for quality farm land.

For independent farmers in need of fertile plots, as well as the crop expertise that Aloun Farms could provide, Ohana Farm Parcels offers a promising path. It has the potential to seed a number of diversified ag ventures, creating more produce for consumers to “buy local.”

Concerningly, though, it’s easy to see the land tracts also being very attractive to non-commercial farmers — wealthy “gentlemen farmers,” for instance, and even housing and commercial-project developers. In addition to the idyllic expanse of the former pineapple fields, some parcels have distant ocean views of the North Shore and sunset views of Waialua. Marketing materials push ideal farming conditions — but also include the catchphrase, “You are home at the Ohana Farm Parcels.”

That harkens, ominously, to the frustrating situation that exists at the controversial Kunia Loa Ridge Farmlands. That 854-acre project, similarly, had been touted as a prime opportunity for agriculture when it was created about a decade ago — but it has devolved into a mishmash of uses, including tough-to-enforce violations of illegal dwellings and operations. Among these: a Buddhist temple, doggie daycare and even online vacation rentals.

All that was allowed to proliferate, due to weak and conflicting state and city governmental land-use regulations that quickly got exploited. Basically, county regulations allow “farm dwellings” on agriculture land as adjuncts to farming, but have no useful definitions or enforcement of the required farming. Exacerbating that are state laws that further enabled storage-shed structures, which scofflaws have expanded into dwellings or commercial ventures.

Adding to concerns of ag-land misuse: Steven Chiang, director of the University of Hawaii’s agribusiness incubator program, notes that other Hawaii agricultural subdivisions have only 10 to 15 percent of bona fide commercial farming.

And, while Ohana Farm’s “condo” rules will have protections for farm operations, Aloun Farms General Manager Alec Sou said he’s disinclined to use the rules to restrict whether buyers can build homes on the site. “We’re here to promote ag,” he stated. “We’re not here to regulate.”

It’s worth noting that one important way that Ohana Farm does seem to differ from Kunia Loa Ridge is in its clear subdivision of tracts with boundaries and roads, which should aid enforcement of any land-use violations. The Kunia Loa project has been compromised by its off-the-grid, informal subdivision.

Any loss of Hawaii ag lands can’t be taken lightly, given decades of preservation efforts against rampant development. As this venture unfolds, it’ll be imperative to remember how this situation came to be. Ohana Farms’ 427 acres are the result of an agricultural set-aside by Castle &Cooke in exchange for approval of its 5,000-home Koa Ridge community, which eliminated prime farmland in Waipio.

Striking a balance between agriculture and urbanization is a constant struggle in Hawaii. The potential for actually growing food on our precious farmland should not be squandered.

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