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What needs to be done to preserve Hawaii's important agricultural lands?

David Z. ArakawaDAVID Z. ARAKAWA
 Lynn Decoite

Over 1,000 agricultural stakeholders, including farmers, ranchers, landowners, the Department of Agriculture, the dean of University of Hawaii-Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and the Legislature all agree that the best way to preserve Hawaii’s important agricultural lands (IAL) is to enact Senate Bill 2646.

Thirty years have passed since Hawaii adopted a constitutional amendment to conserve and protect IAL and increase agricultural self-sufficiency. However, very little has been done to implement this mandate.

SB 2646’s comprehensive incentives will increase agricultural opportunities and activities and help thousands of farmers by encouraging landowner dedication of lands as IAL, and providing both financial and nonfinancial incentives to keep agricultural businesses viable.

Unfortunately, activists have attempted to mischaracterize, and stir up unfounded public fear about this bill. They focus on one of the bill’s eight incentives — the “85/15 provision.” The provision offers an incentive for landowners to designate 85 percent of a parcel to agricultural land as IAL, in return for a speedier state land use review process to reclassify 15 percent to urban, rural or conservation. However, a simple reading of SB 2646 proves that there is no free ride for urban development; in fact, the regulatory controls are actually more extensive and strict. Protesters also falsely claim that county rural plans could be ignored; however, state law requires compliance with all county plans as a criteria for rural reclassification. All county planning and zoning requirements remain intact. Nothing is bypassed. Nothing is automatic. Clearly, public input, sound land-use planning opportunities and all government processes and approvals are preserved.

The detractors have never offered workable solutions to fulfilling the IAL mandate. On the other hand, SB 2646 is a collaborative effort by local agricultural stakeholders and is the best way to both sustain viable agricultural operations and to preserve Hawaii’s important agricultural lands.
I am a third-generation farmer on Molokai. Our family-owned sweet-potato farm helps feed people throughout the state. I’ve spent my whole life in agriculture and I understand what it takes to make farming work. And making farming work is necessary to truly preserve Hawaii’s important agricultural lands (IAL).

Preserving IAL doesn’t mean more development on farmland. But that’s exactly what we will get with SB 2646, recent legislation disguised as an agricultural incentive policy. This measure lets landowners develop a portion of their farmlands in exchange for labeling a percentage as IAL. Farmers — who view land as a resource to produce food sustainably — don’t need to develop their land to prosper. But developers do. It’s those interests that have made farming more difficult in Hawaii, driving the price of farmland out of reach of most local farmers. The SB 2646 development tradeoff fosters more of the same — hence the support from the state’s largest landowners.

Instead of more development pressure, what do farmers need? It’s more than land affordability and tenure. They also need steady markets for their products, affordable and reliable water, dependable barge service, and facilities to develop value-added products. Local farmers need marketing support and infrastructure similar to the scale available to Hawaii’s tourism industry. If we are serious about protecting farm lands in perpetuity, capital-gain profits should be removed from land sales. This would ensure that farmland remains a resource — not a commodity sold to the highest bidder. Finally, protecting farming — and thus IAL — requires that we change the food culture in Hawaii. Local food needs to be the norm and outside, imported food needs to be the exception. Ohana means no one is left behind, including our farmer neighbors.

True farmland protection doesn’t come from giving away the farm, but from genuine leadership, promoting sustainability and food security for Hawaii.

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