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Challenges Getting Small Farmers on State Ag Land

Small farmers on state-owned land agricultural lands, or the lack thereof, was a point of criticism by lawmakers at a recent public hearing on Hawaii's embattled Agribusiness Development Corporation (ADC). A report by the state auditor found the government entity has done little in its 27-year history to fulfill its mission of developing diversified agricultural enterprises.

Rep. Amy Perusso says small farmers are struggling to secure a plot of state-owned land managed by Hawaii's ADC.

"What I'm hearing from the community, and what I hear from a lot of small farmers, is a willingness and an energy and an interest in, especially in this period of pandemic, expanding what we do around small farming," Perusso says.

But Jimmy Nakatani, executive director of ADC, says land is not an issue when it comes to small farmers. It's the lack of viable proposals.

"I wanna make this clear. The ADC is not against small farmers," Nakatani says. "We're not restricted to small farmers. I wanna point out that any operation, big or small, needs to be economically feasible, and I think that's what we should be focusing on."

The ADC was created in 1994 and given broad authority, millions of dollars, and nearly 20,000 acres of state agricultural lands to develop diversified agriculture and fill the economic void created by the closure of pineapple and sugar plantations.

But a recent state audit paints a picture of an ADC struggling to manage its lands and, a result, unable to move those lands into production. Ken Nakamoto, one of a handful of ADC staffers, says ADC lands in Wahiawa near Poamoho have been the most difficult to develop.

"Not only were we facing the normal agricultural challenges, the criminal activity in the area was just out of control," Nakamoto says. "It wasn't because of a lack of effort. We installed gates. We installed vehicle barriers. We constructed berms. We put concrete pylons and large boulders, only to return the next day to find out that it was moved and sometimes destroyed."

Nakamoto says the ADC has since been able to secure the area and will be soliciting applications this spring for an estimated 1,200 acres in Central Oahu. Small farmers are encouraged to apply.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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