A New Cash Crop

A New Cash Crop

(page 3 of 3)

“We went to all the senior citizen centers on the island and we invited them to come up, charging them an admission that was subsidized by the County of Maui,” she says.

By word of mouth alone, Weigert says, Alii Kula went from hosting 300 kupuna the first year to more than 3,000 the second. Then they began reaching out to students, private group tours and others. Today, the farm is cranking, offering five tours a day, seven days a week. At $12 each, Weigert says tours represent 12 percent of Alii Kula’s overall revenue. And, similar to Hawaiian Vanilla’s experiences, 83 percent of Alii Kula’s income is sales of value-added products — everything from organic lavender honey body scrub to lavender dark chocolate candy bars.

Sandra Lee Kunimoto, chairperson of the Hawaii Board of Agriculture, says visitors have identified with the Islands’ premium agricultural products, such as pineapple, sugar, macadamia nuts and coffee, for decades. She adds that both tourists and residents can benefit from agtourism.

“Knowing where their food is grown and getting to know the farmers who grow the food gives people a greater appreciation of agriculture,” Kunimoto says. Kylie says one of her missions is to show kids how and where bananas are actually grown. “So many kids think bananas magically appear at Costco,” she says. “I want everyone to experience what fresh, juicy papayas and mangoes taste like when they come straight from the fields. It’s sad that so many people will never know what that’s like since almost everything is either shipped in or shipped out prior to consumption.”

Citing the success of agtourism elsewhere — Napa Valley, for instance — Weigert says the potential for agtourism in Hawaii is tremendous.

“Look at all the strawberry farms and pick-your-own orchards all over the Mainland that are attracting big business,” she says. “People love this stuff. This industry could be huge!”

But no matter what, Weigert says, the goal is not for farmers to completely turn their businesses into tourist stops. “Our mission is to keep agriculture the top priority,” she explains. “This state was blessed with great ag lands and they should be used to promote just that — ag.”

 

A long row to hoe

While agtourism is growing in popularity, it is not a new concept here. Dole Plantation, Parker Ranch and the old Meadow Gold Farm in Waimanalo sprang up decades ago — but, they have one thing in common: they’re large-scale businesses. Agtourism is unfamiliar territory for smaller farms, Weigert says. Kylie suspects that’s one reason she’s been stuck in lease talks with the state for almost three years and why it was so difficult for her to get the necessary permits from the county.

“Part of the reason this has been so complicated is because the land that we want to do our agtourism on is owned by the state,” Kylie explains. “Not only that, but it’s part of a state ag park, and they have very strict guidelines about what is permitted on this land.”

Kunimoto, of the Hawaii Board of Agriculture, says the rules for state agricultural parks are stricter and more regulated than they are for private ag lands because the purpose of the parks is to provide affordable land for bonafide farming. However, the rules do allow for small-scale retail operations, again provided certain conditions are met. Additionally, each county has its own rules regulating agribusiness, under which agtourism usually falls.

Weigert says it’s not uncommon for farmers to spend $30,000 to $50,000 to obtain permits. “It’s not the permit itself that costs that much money, it’s paying for all of the consulting services,” she says. “Heck, you would think we were trying to launch space shuttles with all the experts the city and county wants you to call!”

Hawaiian Vanilla Co.’s Reddekopp says he experienced similar permitting challenges on the Big Island — and he owns the land. “I felt as if we were opening the Hapuna Prince Hotel,” he says of all the red tape he ran into.

While he does call it a wonderful learning experience, he estimates it cost him $30,000 in legal fees, lost revenue and “a lot of stress,” he says. However, Reddekopp admits the process did reap benefits.

“We were able to educate our decision makers about the importance of agtourism in Hawaii,” he explains. “I truly believe in its future and that’s why we did it.” During this same time, Hawaii County passed Bill 148, making it the first county in the state to recognize agtourism as a separate industry with its own set of regulations.

Robert Banister, assistant chief for the city and county of Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting (DPP), says for Honolulu County, agtourism is usually covered under the land use ordinance’s agribusiness or outdoor recreation sections.

Banister says as far he knows, since 2002, when the land-use ordinance regulating agribusiness was passed by the City Council, only a handful of applications related to agribusiness have come through the DPP.

Dr. Wayne Nishijima, associate dean for extension at the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, says, “The issue is that county ordinances on what kinds of activities are allowed on land zoned [for] agriculture vary widely.” Nishijima says that, in the past, there have been bitter lawsuits between neighbors concerning agtourism. “If the agtourism activity is low key and innocuous, there usually isn’t a problem. However, if tour buses make regular stops and travel on small, private roads, that raises some real problems.”

Banister says the best thing farmers can do is submit fully completed applications so the department can determine exactly what kind of project is being planned, and if all safety and accessibility issues are being addressed. Right now, he really doesn’t see a compelling reason for Honolulu to follow in the Big Island’s footsteps and pass a separate ordinance that covers agtourism. As for the process being too tedious, Banister assures that whenever the DPP receives permit applications, it will provide specific information to applicants on how to proceed, if for some reason their requests are incomplete or rejected. “We wouldn’t just say, ‘Go away. We don’t know what’s happening at all.’ We don’t take that position at all.”

Still, farmers like Ken Kamiya, of Kamiya Gold, would like to see the state and counties make the permitting process easier for farmers. “We talk about preserving ag, but they put so many roadblocks up for us,” Kamiya says. “It seems like they’re trying to put their urban rules and processes on us and we’re just small country farmers. Something’s not right here.” Kamiya makes it clear that farmers are not looking for handouts or special treatment, but “some of these requirements are making it so impossible for us to stay in business.”

Kamiya wonders: If local farmers cannot find ways to sustain themselves, what would happen to Hawaii’s agriculture industry?

“That’s a good question,” says Weigert. “I hope we don’t ever have to find out the answer.”

For now, Kylie will continue to be patient as she waits to see if the state will allow her to proceed with Kahuku Farms’ agtourism business. “It’s kind of sad, because we’re real farmers and we’re trying to do the right thing. I’m just hopeful that 2009 will be our year.”

Despite her frustration, Kylie says it’ll all have been worth it in the end if she can help other farmers navigate the process, the same way Alii Kula’s Weigert has helped her every step of the way.

“I don’t care what we have to go through, all that matters is that we keep the ag industry alive,” she says. “It’s what my dad wants and it’s what I want.”

 

Helping farms branch out

In 2006, 112 farms statewide reported agtourism-related income, but that number has likely grown since then, especially on the Neighbor Islands.

More than half of those farms are in Hawaii County. The Big Island Farm Bureau’s Lorie Farrell says the increased interest in agtourism spurred the creation of Hawaii AgVentures about five years ago. The project helps local farmers branch into agtourism, offering farm reviews, training and on-site inspections. “We basically help them get their farms up to standard and then help market them and schedule the visits,” says Farrell. Hawaii AgVentures is a project of the Big Island Farm Bureau, which pays farms to host group tours. Its network currently consists of 71 farms statewide, ranging from small family coffee farms to the Parker Ranch.

Farrell says between July 2007 and September 2008, Hawaii AgVentures booked agricultural tours for about 6,500 visitors — most from the Main-land — plus 105 group tours. However, “Agtourism is not Knott’s Berry Farm,” Farrell points out. “Our mission is to promote true Hawaii producers, not folks trying to come in here, plant one coffee tree and then sell a whole container full of mugs and souvenirs that were manufactured in China.”

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