The vog is still thick, but it couldn’t blot out the moon last night or the mountains this morning, though the haze and high clouds have cast the sky in a gray pallor. Still, for a brief period when the sun rose as Koko and I were out walking, the world took on that golden-pink shimmer of ethereal beauty that reminded me the magic is always present, even when it's hidden.
Ran into my neighbor Andy, whom I hadn’t seen in a while, and to answer yet another inquiry, no, it’s not rabid reporter Andy Parx, but Andy Bushnell, the retired KCC history professor.
Anyway, Andy mentioned he’d read the piece I wrote on Jerry Ornellas — aka farmer Jerry (might as well out everybody this morning) — in this week’s Kauai People, and noted: “See, he agrees me with me that there aren’t guys lining up to do farming.”
It’s true, and it’s something I’ve talked to Jerry about more than once, as well as other people involved in agriculture. The question is why? Is it because they’re not interested, or they’ve given up the dream because it’s so darn hard to get land?
Let me correct myself. It’s easy to get land if you’ve got money. There’s stuff for sale right now — at $300,000 to $500,000 an acre. Problem is, paying down a nut like that requires way more revenue than you can generate from any legal crop. And then you’ve got to deal with anti-farming neighbors in your so-called “agricultural subdivision.”
As for leasing, the agreements tend to be a little too short to make the investment required for farming feasible. A couple of guys I know who were looking for taro land could only get one-year leases, which doesn’t quite wash with a 14-month crop. Several other people told me of getting squeezed off Grove Farm land because the terms were short and the rent kept increasing.
Who else is leasing any sizable acreage? Of course, there’s the state, but Kalepa Ridge, which is supposed to be for the general public, needs to be transferred from DLNR to the Agribusiness Development Corp. before it can be turned over to farmers — a process that’s moving along at a snail’s pace. In the meantime, it’s being mostly used for grazing.
Interesting, though, how the state lands at Kekaha, which are leased primarily to the seed companies, got transferred over to the ADC toot sweet. Guess it shows who has influence.
Maybe what’s needed is for those who are interested in farming, especially at Kalepa, to begin applying pressure to DLNR to make the transfer. Much of the land there has water, and its central location just outside Lihue adds to its desirability. It might be good for folks to start moving on that, before the seed companies expand over there, too.
In the meantime, to ensure that farmer wannabees know what they’re doing when land becomes available, Malama Kauai has been running a farmer incubator program, and Kauai Economic Opportunity has been teaching people how to grow papaya so they can supply the new fruit fly disinfestation facility that’s coming on line on Kauai.
I recently talked to Terry Sekioka, a farmer and former CTAHR administrator who is doing some of that KEO training, and he seemed to think that people do want to farm. But when the topic turns to marketing and business, “they close their books. They’re not interested in that part of it. But you have to understand all of it to succeed in farming. It really helps if you have a spouse or partner who can handle that part of it, because most farmers are busy farming, and they let the business and marketing end slide.”
And as Andy mentioned this morning, when KCC was talking years ago about developing farming curriculum, it was recognized that small engine repair is yet another skill that most farmers find useful.
Then there’s an understanding of irrigation, soil health, pest control and the varieties and cultivation techniques that work well in the tropics. It’s not quite as simple as dropping seeds in the ground and letting nature work its magic.
Farmers also need to write up a plan, Jerry said, if they expect to lease land. But most of all, he said, they need that commitment to stick with it — or even get started in the first place.
So where are we at when it comes to farming? We’ve got some land and water, some marketing assistance, some logistical support, some training. And I believe we’ve got people who are serious about doing it.
What I’ve been pondering lately is how to bring it all together before we lose more prime ag lands, more irrigation systems, more people who abandon their dreams of growing food in frustratation and discouragement.