Brittany Anderson and her husband Bodhi had great success turning 10 acres of former industrial farmland into a thriving ecosystem on the Big Island.
“It was completely lifeless, but in four years with this kind of varied pasture management we have grass, we have birds, we have worms,” she said. “It’s just a traffic jam.”
The Andersons sell organic beef, chicken, lamb and pork from their pasture in Honomu. Restoring their land and making a living selling sustainable meat has been a challenge, but it’s nothing compared to how difficult it was to navigate the housing bureaucracy.
As part of our Hawaii Grown series, we’re exploring solutions and ideas that could help smallholders across the state produce more local food. While affordable housing is a problem across the state, it is particularly difficult for farmers who make low profit margins and farm workers who often have multiple jobs or have to live in improper housing to make ends meet. Our latest edition of the Hawaii Grown podcast explores a proposal to help farm owners afford housing and another affordable housing option for farm workers.
Challenges in building
The Andersons wanted to live on their property in Honomu not only to prevent agricultural theft but also to avoid commuting to and from Hilo. Since their land is classified as agricultural land, there is a tax break to keep it in production. Now that there is a house on the property, that tax break has gone.
“I’m all for using taxes to support roads and schools, but I make a lot of food and it seems like my property taxes should still be a little lower,” she said.
It would also cost nearly $ 80,000 to bring electricity to their property, so they are 100% solar powered.
“Not by choice, but by necessity,” she said.
Megan Fox has been trying to find a solution to these challenges for more than five years. As the executive director of Malama Kauai, a nonprofit food sustainability organization, she often asks farmers what would help them make more money growing local food.
“Farming is a full-time job, and right now many new farmers have to do another full-time job in addition to starting a business in order to have a roof over their heads,” she said. “It’s a challenge that is very difficult to meet.”
The nonprofit came up with an idea for a community of small houses and an apartment complex next to active farmland. Rather than having each farmer build a house on their own land, grouping the houses would lower infrastructure costs such as power poles and sewer systems and allow farmers to use every last hectare of land.
“We wanted to make it small, affordable, and reproducible,” she said. “That way, it can be placed in multiple locations on multiple islands.”
Fox had backers willing to invest in the development if it could find a landowner who could offer a 30-year lease to justify the cost.
“Landowners either don’t want this type of development carried over to this land, or want to make a long-term commitment, or – I’m not sure what all of their reasons are – but there have been many setbacks from pretty much every option that we looked at, ”she said.
She reached out to the state-run Agribusiness Development Corporation for a public-private partnership, but said her calls and emails were never returned.
“There are a million obstacles in your path and we were on the verge of removing many of them,” she said. “We just couldn’t find the country.”
Malama Kauai got a 15-year lease in Moloaa, but they were forced to abandon their residential plans. There are about 70 commercial farmers leasing land around the property and a food center should be up and running soon. But it’s still hard for Megan to hear how the farmers she works with struggle to find affordable housing.
“It’s rare that you find enough people to make this happen and even feed our island,” she said. “It doesn’t mind feeding our economy beyond Kauai.”
Fox wants the state to incentivize landowners to grant longer-term leases to farmers who want to build houses on their land. And she believes that if the state offered some land for development, nonprofits and private companies would be more likely to invest in purpose-built housing for farmers.
“I think this type of public-private partnership should be explored and developed as a model,” she said.
Building houses for a rural economy
After successfully mastering the long and expensive process of building their own home, the Andersons found that their business had grown to the point where hiring a few employees was warranted.
“Lots of people hire WWOOFers,” Anderson said, referring to a program where people volunteer on organic farms in exchange for housing. “Agriculture has this image problem where people don’t really appreciate the farmer or the farm worker, and I want to change that and get the people who work on the farm to make money.”
Anderson wants someone who views farming as a career, and she knows that expecting someone to volunteer means Hawaiian residents will be barred from farming. But when she got into building a farmhouse, she was shocked at how complicated it was.
“Hawaii has gotten so used to farm workers living in poverty.” -Brittany Anderson, Sugar Hill Farmstead
A lot of personal information is required to apply and the farmer must describe the specific tasks and exact working hours of the employee. Anderson said this eliminates her ability to be flexible and grow and develop the position over time.
“I don’t want to put myself in a situation where I filled out the application and now I either have someone queuing for a position that can’t exist without an apartment, or I had it built, and then maybe the job will change, “she said.
Anderson said she now understands why more small and medium-sized farmers are not bothering to provide housing, but low wages combined with a lack of affordable housing mean farm workers are suffering.
“Hawaii has gotten so used to farm workers living in poverty,” she said. “This application is a huge barrier.”
Are Small Houses an Answer?
Marcy Montgomery also knows many farm workers who live in improper homes or who lie and say their mobile home is actually a recreational vehicle.
“You don’t have to live in fear,” she said.
Montgomery is the executive director of One Island Sustainable Living, a nonprofit that owns an organic farm on the Big Island and works for farmers in Hawaii, California and Washington.
In 2016, One Island began bringing farmers and farm workers together to think about how to create more affordable housing in rural areas.
“Up to 100 people would show up because there was so much interest at the time,” she said.
Stakeholders made a proposal: streamlining the farm housing application and approval process to specifically allow tiny houses. These small apartments are larger and more durable than a motorhome, but are still easy to move around.
Montgomery said many farm owners like the idea of tiny houses because the units are solar powered and have composting toilets so they could avoid building expensive power lines and sewage treatment plants.
The group helped prepare an invoice that included financial assistance to the farmers in purchasing and building the units. It had widespread support and passed both houses of the Hawaii State Legislature in 2017.
But Governor David Ige vetoed the bill earlier this year, saying that there was no need to specifically change the permit to allow tiny mobile homes as zoning laws already allow agricultural housing.
Montgomery said existing laws give priority to large farmers with existing capital.
“Hawaii has a certain number of additional homes that you can place on your land, depending on the number of employees. However, this is for someone who has already built a business on the scale that can qualify for it, “she said.” There is no quick or small mechanism that we were going to propose to the smallholder, and I think the governor has not understood.”
The group made similar proposals in 2018 and 2020, but the momentum was gone.
“We are waiting to see who will be the next governor,” she said.
One Island is now working with smallholders who live in the San Juan Islands, an archipelago in the Pacific Northwest near British Columbia. She hopes the Hawaiian legislature will consider changing the regulations if she can point to a successful implementation of her idea.
“If we want local food we have to be willing to invest in it,” she said.
Hawaii Grown is funded in part by grants from the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Ulupono Fund, the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Marisla Fund, and the Frost Family Foundation.