Monday, August 3, 2009


HERE A WOOF, THERE A WOOF, EVERYWHERE A WOOF WOOF: You’d have to search long and hard to find someone who opposes “sustainability” and then you’d probably come up empty anyway.

That may be because there is an almost unlimited number of categories of sustainability and within each of them there are as many definitions as there are people giving them.

Here on Kaua`i where we have a preponderance of agriculturally state-districted, county-zoned land, most think first about growing food- and nowadays biofuels too- for the day when “the boat no more come”.

That’s led to a budding small farm movement- for the most part organic- on the north shore where the area of Moloa`a to Kilauea has become what one councilperson called “our breadbasket”.

But the planning department decided recently that, although they scream about being so short staffed that they can’t even properly enforce the new restrictions on transient vacation rentals in residential areas, they’ll make the time to crack down on “illegal” farm worker housing, especially in Moloa`a.

So to save the day the Kaua`i County Council is now considering a bill (#2318) to create a special use permitting process to allow farm worker housing where the legitimate farm that has “used up” it’s allowable density- the number of dwelling units permitted on the land- can house for their workers.

Sounds good, eh? Well maybe. But if the bill goes through in its current “original” form it could well be the last nail in the coffin of diversified agriculture.

Though the bill would seemingly allow extra worker housing on a handful of actual working farms it would also allow the hobby and gentleman farms- which have left us on, what most agree is, the precipice of the end of agriculture on Kaua`i- to also add to their now-limited density on their already subdivided and further condominiumized lots as well.

Let’s back up a little to the claim in the “findings and purpose” of the bill”

(F)arm labor is an essential component of farming... Despite the numerous benefits bestowed on the community by the agriculture industry, however, agricultural work is strenuous and historically low paying... Finding and keeping labor is thus one of the biggest challenges for agricultural businesses. This can make the difference between survival and failure, struggle and success, in an agricultural enterprise.

Many claim that there’s just nobody left that wants to do the “strenuous and historically low paying” work and say that is what is killing farmers in our increasingly office-work oriented society and the laziness of “these kids today”.

But overall there is one factor on Kaua`i that is not just distinctively unique but is the real reason why farming is out of the question for any young person who tries to obtain land and devote their lives to farming it- the cost of the land.

We would, well, “bet the farm”, that there isn’t a farmer on Kaua`i whose business plan included taking out a loan to buy the land and repaying it out of the income derived from the farm.

Every single farmer we’ve seen succeed somehow had the resources to obtain the land before they decided to farm it and that “investment” is not something they have to worry about in determining if they are to be, to use that word again, “sustainable”.

Why is that? It doesn’t take a land use genius to know that since Benji Garfinkle and his Kilauea area land-baron friends discovered the applicability of the state condominium laws to agricultural lands, the ban on multiple “subdivisions” of ag land became a joke.

Though we’ve gotten laughs from mainland denizens by mentioning our “agricultural condominiums” they are primarily responsible for the proliferation of sliced and diced ag parcels with residential houses that magically became “farm dwellings” when they put in a mango tree or bought a horse.

There isn’t anyone who will disagree that this de facto rezoning from ag to residential- usually at a land and house price that is just out of the reach of working people- has been the prime factor in making farm land unavailable to farmers at a price they can afford to incorporate into their business plan.

And no matter how you slice and dice it, this bill will undoubtedly make it worse.

Although there are some so-called “circulated amendments” proposed to try to close some of the “loopholes”- ones that will most likely be introduced at the planning committee meeting a week from Wednesday (Aug 12)- all of them will at best simply tinker around the edges and some of will even lower the threshold for what makes a farm a real farm as opposed to a “fake farm”.

The problem is that almost all of the amendments fall into the latter category They include lowing by a third or even eliminating the “gross income” that represents a farm from $35,000 per acre, lowering the number of hours a farm worker must work per week from 19 to 12 and trying to devise a precise “crop-to-land coverage” formula to supplant the income requirement entirely so that it will suffice for long term “crops” like hardwood or fruit trees, while nixing the fake farmer’s application.

Each one of the watering-down requests from small farmers have the land sharks drooling at the prospect of putting up an unlimited number of houses on their now single density- or even no density- ag condos.

One of the scariest things is some of the statements from some councilmembers amounting to “whatever we do we will make mistakes and leave big loophole but that this is so important to the future of ag if we have to give the fake farmers a break too, that’s ok.”

Given the fact that (to pull a number out of nowhere but observation- it’s actually probably more) 90% of the ag condos are purely residential or fake farms when you do the math on the pressure to expand that use and therefore jack up the price of “ag land”, the question is, will it be likely to generate more food and fuel sustainability or simply contribute to the land rush that has already destroyed the viability of ag on that 90% forever.

The problem as we see it does have a solution, one rooted in the purpose of the bill- to provide for assistance on farms that really need worker housing.

There has to be a direct nexus between the farm worker and work that the farm requires.

And it should apply only to full time workers on that farm.

Some of the testimony before the council from the people who are doing things like growing hardwoods and even fruit trees implied that they should be included in the bill because they have to have labor to plant and harvest the trees. But where’s the actual work?

In the hardwoods case it may take a few months to plant them and then what? Do they need a full time worker to watch them grow? And the fruit grower needs intensive labor at harvest time- usually once a year- and virtually none at other times... and in the case of things like mangos or avocados none for at least seven years.

So if someone owns one house on their parcel all they need to do is pay someone to put in a bunch of baby trees and they get to build another house, something that might cost $50-100,000... a low price to pay for that otherwise unavailable-at-any-cost density.

Of course working papaya or banana farms might qualify but that’s the point- there must be a nexus between the actual work and the need for a permanent dwelling for bone-fide workers on the land. Even though the bill calls for removal of the dwelling if farming ends or they no longer adhere to the “farm plan” that presupposes that the need was established by the “plan” which need not be the case under the bill.

Supposedly the bill is not for hobby farmers or even subsistence farming which is presumably- perhaps by definition- a family operation. But the worker at 12 hours a week as a popular amendment requires- or even 19 as the current bill calls for- make the farm worker into essentially a hobbyist who presumably has another job.

A full time employee is easy to document too- they would be filing taxes and have the farm job as their prime if not sole source of income. Not so the 12 hour a week worker who could well be a family member who occasionally helps out on ag condo farm where the density has run out and. Is that the purpose of the bill?

That brings up another amendment being proposed- one that would allow farm worker units where the density of the parcel is not “used up” yet.

We actually heard ag condo owners who have a density of two houses testify that they don’t want to use the second density because they are saving that for when their children grow up so they can build their house there.

The fact is that by saying such they are almost admitting that they are breaking the law because to build a house on ag land, according to state law, it must be a “farm dwelling’ and have a direct nexus to the “farm” upon which it sits.

Then there’s an amendment to say that if someone has an ag condo and they bought it without any density at all, they should be allowed to build “worker housing” because they have “no control” over the density that was given to the other condo owners when the bigger parcel was “condominiumized”. Some even want it to be applied to themselves so they can build a house on their farm.

The bill as it stands now would not allow farm worker houses to be built until the density of the whole parcel was used up- in other words only if all the other condo owners had built all the houses they were permitted.

The fact is that they could go back and try to negotiate with other owners for that density. But the real issue is that the fact that their parcel didn’t have density led to a much lower price paid for that no-density condo.

Imagine someone who has an ag parcel with a five house density. That means they usually set up five condo units if the size of the original is big enough, and give one house to each. Sometimes if the “parcel” is big enough they may not just have five condos with houses but some additional “land-only” or “remnant parcel” condos.

Now, under the amendments, they could simply make one condo unit with five houses and sell however many zero density lots they can and those that buy them will have de facto density if they set up a farm that fits the criteria.

That’s just one scenario but there are dozens that would fit under the bill as written that have real estate moguls rubbing their greedy little hands with glee.

Some councilmembers have said they want to pass the law with vague generalities, loopholes or not, and hope that the planning department works out the bugs in the administrative rules they will have to promulgate to grant and enforce the “use permits”.

Well the “loopholes and all” factor aside, who is it that trusts the planning department to do that job?- the same planning department that seems incapable of enforcing, as we said, the transient vacation rental law and also many other ordinances where the administrative rules are inadequate- like the definition of a farm dwelling itself- or when their enforcement team is overworked and understaffed (always).

We haven’t heard a good reason why part time workers should be accommodated- this isn’t a density giveaway although some fake farmers seem to think it is. We can’t think of a real farm that really needs housing for full time employees that would object to it covering full time workers only.

Then finding the nexus between the actual work that needs to be done by hired hands would be all that’s left- something that should be no problem for a real farm but poses nothing but headaches for fake ones.

The fact that farms need farm workers is a given. And the fact that farm wages do not provide enough income for market price housing on Kaua`i is too.

Homes for fulltime workers at real farms are what we need to provide. But if we just open the floodgates and hope for the best we’re providing what may be the final “et tu Brute” stab in the back of any sustainability we might envision.


Nonyer Biz said...

giant circle jerk. farms here are uneconomic compared to imports. do what you will, but that won't change in the short run.

The question should be zoning for the density that we want to see as a society in each area. Forget about use, the idea that you can force farming when it's unprofitable is a pipe dream.

Brad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brad said...

Andy, speaking from experience:

Re: "...But where’s the actual work? In the hardwoods case it may take a few months to plant them and then what? Do they need a full time worker to watch them grow?"

No, it's the weeds (some are more like bushes) that grow between the hardwoods. Those have to be cleared at least 6 times a year. Depending on how many trees there are and how many workers, each time can take weeks to do. Also, pruning of the tree has to be done once or twice a year, also could take weeks to do depending on how many trees. Lastly, the watering systems have to be monitored at least weekly, to fix the places where the pigs break or knock the watering system loose.

"And the fruit grower needs intensive labor at harvest time- usually once a year- and virtually none at other times... and in the case of things like mangos or avocados none for at least seven years."

Fruit trees here can have 2 to 3 seperate harvests a year, not just one. The harvests don't all happen at once. One harvest can take place over the course of a couple months at least.

I agree with your point, though, that the number of farm workers that should be counted for housing space should be full-time farm workers. I would say 30 to 40 hours a week and that 2 part-timers should be allowed to be counted as 1 full-timer, and that the housing square footage allowed should be 600 sq.ft. per full-time worker. There should not be a 1200 sq.ft. allowance for a farm worker "family." That is a loophole intended to be taken advantage of.

Also, almost all real farming on Kaua'i now and going forward is subsistence farming. There will never be a lot of money to be made in farming or agriculture itself on Kaua'i. The best that it can be is a subsistence source of local food.

Nonyer Biz said...

$35,000/acre?? I doubt even Wooten's intensive veg operation makes even half that amount. The only crop that can make that amount is your fav.