Images by Matt Alvarado

Even for an urbanite, it’s easy to see the virtues of an agrarian lifestyle. Farming is a direct departure from the rat race; it’s a simpler pace of life, an opportunity to live off the land, a noble profession. All romantic notions aside, it is also incredibly hard work. But for those up to the strenuous labor and long list of chores, Hawai‘i is a field of dreams, a place where one can celebrate a bucolic lifestyle just a stone’s throw away from the accoutrements of urbanization.

Across the state, thousands of acres of land are zoned specifically for agricultural use. But don’t be too quick to envision a herd of cattle grazing lazily in lush pastures or spiky rows of pineapples stretched across an open field. Farming has taken on a new form in Hawai‘i. Of these thousands of acres, there are scores of two-acre agricultural subdivisions within designated “ag-zoned” districts.

Ostensibly, these so-called farm dwellings are intended to preserve viable agricultural uses of land in perpetuity. However, if you ask anyone familiar with local real estate, they are likely to tell you that many of these properties were clearly not designed to be large- or small-scale farming operations. Rather, they were designed to satiate the demand for developable land in Hawai‘i’s highly coveted rural areas, often allowing million-dollar homes to litter the landscape for a pittance.

Because while these ag-lot developments do afford homeowners an opportunity to don a farmer’s hat and harvest crops in their own backyards—with the added bonus of reaping a profit and enjoying state and county agricultural tax benefits—many owners of such ag-zoned lots do not farm, nor do they have any intention to do so. Ever. The issue has become so controversial, in fact, that even bona fide farmers are being denied agriculture land-use designations that would give them tax credits and other benefits.

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In Maui County in particular, the issue of ag-lot developments has reached fever pitch. Here, there are more than 1,000 residential lots within designated agricultural subdivisions. Of these properties, it is estimated that a mere handful engage in legitimate farming activities. Instead, you might find a million-dollar estate with a horse or two on land slated for agricultural use, hence the cynical term, “Gentleman’s Farm.”

It’s not as if the rules are unclear. As explicitly stated in the Maui County Code, “The term ‘agricultural use’ shall mean lands actually put to agricultural use adhering to acceptable standards to produce crop [or] specific livestock. … ‘Actually put to agricultural use’ shall be deemed to be when crops are actually in cultivation, and farm management efforts such as weed or pruning control, plowing, including housing, fencing and water facilities for livestock and pasturing of animals are clearly evident. It does not include nor apply to areas used primarily as yard space, setbacks, or open landscape associated with residential use planted with fruit and ornamental trees, flowers and vegetables primarily for home use.”

The regulations may be straightforward, but some argue that it’s not economically feasible—that it’s close to impossible, even—to farm on a four- or two-acre lot, especially those sited on infertile land. As such, it’s argued that this infertile land is being incorrectly designated as agricultural, or put another way, might be more responsibly utilized. This idea, as well as the confusion resulting from the decidedly ambiguous nature of state land-use laws, has ignited a fierce debate among state and county lawmakers, and reclassifications and moratoriums on future ag-lot developments are being considered.

While the debate’s focus thus far has been squarely fixed on non-operative gentleman’s farms, there are those who are cultivating the land they live on according to the letter and spirit of the law. These few residential farmers across the state are doing it right, and for all the right reasons.

THE HOUSE ON HAIKŪ HILL

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When Dave and Hiroko DeLeon bought their home in the East Maui agricultural subdivision of Haikū Hill nearly two decades ago, they decided to give their backyard a serious makeover. The result? Some might say sour, but for the DeLeons, it’s unquestionably sweet. “My wife doesn’t have a green thumb,” says Dave. “It’s chartreuse.”

Judging from the thriving citrus grove in their one-acre backyard, he isn’t exaggerating. Hiroko is visiting family in Japan when I drop in, but the fruits of her labor are evident in her absence. As we tour the leafy expanse of the property, two dogs trail behind us, pausing to sniff at a squashed mango in the grass, tails wagging happily.

It’s hard to imagine that this dense greenery was once a fallow pineapple field that gave way to a tangled thicket of coarse shrubs and forest grass. “We literally created this from the ground up,” he says with a laugh. “The only problem now is that we are running out of room.”

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Instead of a swimming pool or ‘ohana unit, the DeLeons opted to plant dozens of trees of differing varieties that now brim with luscious fresh fruits and avocados galore. “These trees are like my children,” Dave says affectionately. “I’ve known them all since they were seedlings.” That’s certainly impressive, as most of these robust trees now tower far above our heads. “It’s a labor of love,” he says. “We do it because we want to do it.” And there are a few added perks. “I’ll park my truck on the side of the highway and sell some of our lychee fruit,” Dave says. “Sometimes there are four or five cars sitting in line. It’s extraordinary to watch.”

As a farmer, freelance fruit salesman, and government affairs director of the Realtors Association of Maui, Dave wears many hats (today, it happens to be a kelly green John Deere cap), and his day job offers him a unique perspective on ag-lot developments. Like many other agricultural subdivisions, farmers are few and far between in Haikū Hill, an enclave of 37 stately homes sited on two-acre lots.

This comes as no surprise to Dave, who believes, despite his love of it, that these properties are too small to sustain a productive or profitable farming operation. “The two-acre farm concept is ludicrous,” he says, “and forcing homeowners to farm is equally, if not more, ludicrous.” He’s echoing the sentiments of those who believe the existing zoning classification breeds fake farms and leaves landowners no other option but to cheat the system.

One resolution, Dave says, is to reclassify certain agricultural subdivisions (specifically, those deemed ineffective when it comes to agricultural use) as “rural.” Counties would need to identify which lands are truly “ag” and which lands are truly “rural,” because when it comes to farming, these classifications are mutually exclusive. Farming would then become a choice, not a requirement, and lands would continue to remain free of urban sprawl. “It would save everyone a lot of money, time, and effort,” says Dave.

Despite his acerbic feelings toward these zoning issues, Dave, like a parent with unconditional love for a rebellious child, is unshakeable in his passion for farming. “It gives us a chance to bond with the land,” he says. “It’s not about economics—it’s about heart.”

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE FENCE: KUPA‘A FARMS

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When you first meet Gerry Ross and Janet Simpson, one thing is abundantly clear: They aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. The husband-and-wife team own and operate Kupa‘a Farms, a 14-acre organic farm just a short distance from their front doorstep. With its rustic beauty and million-dollar view, the farm epitomizes country living at its finest. Gerry and Janet could have easily subdivided the property into smaller lots for a sizable profit, but for these two farmers, you can’t put a price on the thing they value most: land stewardship.

Guiding us through a patchwork quilt of fertile farmland, Gerry occasionally stops to scoop up handfuls of soil, letting it run through his fingers. “There’s some things on this planet that you look at,” he says, “and you know it’s wrong.” He’s talking about soil erosion, one of agriculture’s dirtiest little secrets, which occurs when soil is washed or blown away.

Contrarily, kupa‘a, which means “steadfast” in Hawaiian, best describes the unyielding nature of the earth beneath our feet, as well as Gerry and Janet’s resolve to amend it. In 1979, the couple first visited Janet’s family farm, then a rough patch of land perched at an elevation of 1,900 feet on the leeward slopes of Haleakalā. Here, they envisioned a future together as organic farmers.

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More than two decades later, Gerry and Janet’s vision germinated, and in 2003, the newly anointed Kupa‘a Farms went organic. Today, the couple works side-by-side tending to a smorgasbord of fruits and vegetables including pineapples, sweet potatoes, taro, lettuce, sweet corn, carrots, onions, mangos, sugar cane, beets, kale, bananas, papayas, and an assortment of herbs. Their farm also produces award-winning coffees, as well as Hawai‘i’s only source of elephant garlic.

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Their efforts from early on have paid off, but it wasn’t an easy start. Gerry, a former Earth systems scientist for the Canadian government, is intimately familiar with the migratory patterns of soil. “Agriculture is a disturbance of natural processes,” he explains. “When we moved in, the soil erosion rate was six tons per acre, per year.” Just two years later, thanks to strategic, outside of the box solutions such as rotating fields, adding cover crops, and permaculture design, erosion at Kupa‘a Farms has dropped by a staggering 95 percent.

Without question, erosion control is a perpetual task. And if you think Gerry and Janet go to such great lengths only to benefit themselves, think again. For them, it’s about attempting to figure out a solution that betters the entire community. “There are too many people, not enough dirt,” says Gerry. “Erosion control is synonymous with land stewardship. … It’s a big problem, and it’s why you often see ‘chocolate water’ around the shoreline.”

Janet says she’s hopeful that more owners of agricultural properties—especially those primed for sustainable agriculture—will do the right thing by either harvesting their own crops or leasing the land to farmers. Otherwise, it’s a wasted opportunity. “It takes away opportunities for good stewardship,” Gerry says. “And since we face so many food security issues here in Hawai‘i, it just seems like common sense.” He believes we can cultivate multiple generations of land stewards through education, which will lead to shifting behaviors and attitudes. “The sooner we get there, the longer we will be able to stay here.”