Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Musings: Moonlight and Speculators

Few things in nature excite me like the full moon, which was playing mostly hide, but sometimes seek, with the clouds when Koko and I walked this morning.

Even when hidden, that bright spotlight illuminated earth, mountains, pastures, trees, me in its ethereal silvery glow, and I recalled the time I hiked down Sliding Sands trail under the light of a full moon, walking through the surrealistic landscape of Haleakala crater and arriving energized at the cabin at about 2 a.m.

It wasn’t that early when I went out today, but the scene was similarly splendid, prompting farmer Jerry, who passed me on the road on his way to work, to stop and chat about it.

“People who come here from the mainland think they gotta tell us how beautiful it is, like we don’t know,” he said. “That’s why we live here.”

Jerry also passed on the news that Kulana, the fake agricultural subdivision being developed in the Homesteads, is in rcceivership, which explains why the grubbing and grading that had begun — to the dismay of many — stopped several months ago.

That project, which took the usual CPR approach to cutting up good ag land, was plagued with troubles from the start, and I guess now those woes finally caught up with it. Neither Jerry nor I were feeling any sympathy for the developers and those who had already bought in.

“That’s why they call it land speculation,” he said, emphasizing the last word.

We both wondered if Kealanani, the faux-ag subdivision at Kealia mauka, will be the next to go belly up, what with 2,000 acres coming on the market when it’s already in a decidedly downward spiral.

One can only hope. This business of selling off ag land for spec housing, second homes and fake farms has got to stop if we’re ever hoping to achieve some modicum of sustainability.

Late last month, The New York Times real estate section ran an absolutely fawning article about how Andy Friend and Paul Kyno (no mention of the California real estate tycoon who is actually bankrolling the project) are hoping “to preserve Kauai's farming heritage.”

According to the article, lot prices will range from $500,000 to $3 million, depending on the ocean view — always a prime consideration in farming. “In contrast,” the article states, “a 56-acre lot with prime agricultural land carries a much lower per-acre price tag, costing only $2.2 million.”

One of the first to buy was 30-year-old Valerie Van Balen, who owns Majestic Gems in Kapaa and reportedly plans to work on the five-acre parcel, for which she paid $425,000, herself. "I want to grow tropical flowers and fruit," she said. "Mangoes and avocados — all the good stuff."

My favorite part of the article were the comments from own planning director:

Owners of agricultural land sometimes plant a few coconut palms, or graze a horse in the backyard, but ignore the laws that require them to "derive income primarily from agricultural activities on the property," said Ian K. Costa, the director of planning for the County of Kauai.

Mr. Costa said that plantation owners on Kauai began selling off large tracts of agricultural land in the late 1980s. These parcels covered "essentially half the island," Mr. Costa said. Because of the sales, "80 percent of the agricultural land is owned primarily by nonfarmers."

Well, at least he’s aware of the problem. Funny how he never explained why it is that the county allowed, and continues to allow under his direction, such actions to happen.

The article concluded with this:

Still, agriculture advocates question whether buyers will be able to derive a significant income from their small farms. "If you preserve and protect agricultural land but farmers cannot be economically viable on the land, then it's defeating the purpose," said Andrew Hashimoto, the dean of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Mr. Friend, though, sees farming more as a lifestyle than an occupation. "It's not a golf-course kind of property," he said of Kealanani. "It's rural. There could be livestock. There will be tractors and field equipment."

And yes, there will be a lot of shibai talk about farming while the developers take the money and run, leaving behind the usual gentleman's estates owned by newcomer mainlanders (who else has that kinda dough?) and a few starry-eyed folks thinking they can pay off half-million-dollar mortgages with avocados and cacao.

When are we going to get serious about getting real farmers on real ag land, where they can actually lead a real farming lifestyle?

Last week I interviewed a man named Joseph Dunsmoor, who teaches people how to garden and farm organically. He’s spent 30 years working in tropical ag, ever since he saw the connection between food and fuel during the Arab oil embargo in 1975.

When I asked if he had any closing thoughts, as I often do at the end of an interview, he paused for a moment, then said: “Yeah, maybe those guys who are talking about sustainability could put food production a little closer to the top of the list.”

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