Let Moloaa farmers farm

SUBHEAD: Farmers harvest high hopes for farm worker housing bill before Kauai Planning Commission.  

By Danny Brown on 10 March 2009 in The Garden Island News -  

Image above: Rod Smith takes a break outside his makeshift Kauai farm home. Photo by Danny Brown

A farm worker housing bill before the county Planning Commission would enable farmers to build homes on agricultural land on Kaua‘i. A flickering glow from a tarp-shed is the only light on a Kaua‘i farm field at dusk. A banjo twangs away inside, where five farm workers sit on salvaged car seats and upside down buckets talking over the music.

They’re stained in orange dirt; it seeps up their legs from their feet. There’s a 5:30 harvest in the morning and they wander off to bed early — bed being makeshift campsites underneath the trees
In the eyes of the law, this is illegal.

They’re not allowed to live on the land they work, but if they didn’t the farmers claim there would be no other way to get the work done. So for the last few decades the law has feigned blindness.

“I’m tired of having to live like a criminal on my own land,” said Moloa’a farmer Scott Pomeroy.
Pomeroy works 12- to 14-hour days growing organic fruits and vegetables for local Kaua‘i markets and stores. He sleeps in his tool-shed so he can work before sunrise.

“We just want to build small structures to house our workers, but because developers took advantage of the law small farmers end up being the ones who get squished.”

Today, county officials plan to review a farm worker housing bill to amend county zoning laws, allowing farmers and their workers to live on agriculture land. “Over the last 30 years or so there’s been a significant amount of ag land divided and subdivided into housing developments,” said former Councilwoman and Mayor JoAnn Yukimura, who is one of the original authors of Bill 2293. “This bill is intended to enable farm workers housing without creating a loophole for developers to parcel up the last of Kaua‘i’s farms.” A coalition of farmers met Saturday to discuss the final language of the bill before submitting it to the county Planning Commission.

The main debate focused on defining what constitutes a “Farm,” a “Farm Worker” and “Farm Worker Housing.” President of a constituency of farmers known as the Farm Bureau, Roy Oyama is a stocky Hawaiian with sun-worn skin and a concrete handshake. “Farmers can’t compete with businesses here that are able to pay laborer’s high wages,” he said.

“Ten or 12 bucks an hour just won’t cut it for paying rent on the island, considering the type of work they do. In order to entice people to work the land we need to be able to offer them something more competitive such as a free place to stay.”

 At the very least Louis Wooten of Kunana Dairy, Kaua‘i’s only dairy farm, said she’d like to be able to build her workers a separate kitchen. In order to comply with the current zoning law, she and her husband live with six to eight other workers under their roof.

Two years ago they had a separate kitchen for them but were forced to remove it when the Planning Department ruled it was not legal. “I understand they’ve got rules to follow and they’re doing their job, but right now the rules don’t allow us to live properly,” she said.

Deputy Planning Director Imai Aiu said that while the department has been working to bring farmers under compliance with the law, there is currently a section of the code that allows them to apply for temporary housing permits. But for farmers the process is too convoluted and fails to offer the appropriate amount of housing.

In January 2008, a group of them invited council members to their farms to demonstrate how sufficient lodgings are necessary for productivity. “I remember one farmer showed us two fields,” said Councilman Jay Furfaro.

“One was properly weeded and maintained. The other wasn’t. The farmer said that the one that looked bad was the one he couldn’t retain a workforce to farm because there was nowhere for them to stay.”

The bill is important, he said, because Kaua‘i currently imports 97 percent of its produce and needs to work on becoming more self-sufficient. “Kaua‘i’s zoning ordinances weren’t intended to discourage farmers,” Furfaro said.

 The first zoning ordinance passed in 1972 following the first of four closures of the island’s sugar and pineapple plantations. “People used to live outside of the plantations and travel in to work,” said Yukimura. “(The plantations) were thousands of acres large.” Currently, one plantation still exists. Yukimura said that the county council predicted the closing of plantations.

In order to stop the wholesale subdivision of agricultural land it passed zoning ordinances. “But it wasn’t able to completely stop developers,” she said. “They found ways around the law sighting totally unanticipated condominium laws. In the 80s there was a recession, then in the 90s there was a hurricane, which was able to leave Kaua‘i less developed than the other islands.

But then about a decade ago the developers started flocking here.” Moloa’a Organica’a farmer Ned Whitlock put it succinctly: “This bill would take farmers out of limbo so their neighbors or the county can’t just come in on the land and fine you, sue you or kick you off.”

One farm worker who wished to remain anonymous said that if the bill failed to pass and the farmers had to kick them off the land he was certain most would find other occupations. “I could get paid at a good job so much more than the hourly wage I get paid here. If I worked full time at a job-job I’d have benefits.

But I’m not here for the money. I’m here because I like living outside on farm. “And that probably wouldn’t be a good thing,” he added weeding out a sprout of wheatgrass with a ho. “You can have the land to grow the food, but if there’s no one to work it, then it doesn’t matter how much land you have.”


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