Text by Samson Reiny
What do we do when our ‘ainalani, our heavenly land, looks no different than any other major metropolitan city? What do we tell the thousands of vacationers, who visit our islands for its inherent natural beauty, when our beaches are eroded upon and steel and concrete weigh down too heavily on our sacred land, our beautiful land? These are the questions the Wai‘anae community will wrestle with as developers push to rezone agricultural farmlands to make way for light industrial.
Tadashi Araki carefully steadied his feet on the loose soil as he descended from the road to the edge of the Lualualei Valley property in Nānākuli that he leased for more than a decade. Peeking through the chain link fence that towered over his slight frame, his eyes scanned the terrain like a surveyor.
There wasn’t much to see on the trek of land that butts up against the Naval Reservation on the Access road. Tall dead grass – brown like the mountainside that rises in the backdrop – canvassed most of the property otherwise barren with crumbly, grayish soil. The foliage of the hardy koa haole tree offered glimpses of life, but among them stood skeletons, scorched dead trees blackened from brush fires that had ravaged the area at one time or another. Even the palm trees, planted along the perimeter by the present owners, appeared stunted.
Araki stared deeply into this seeming desert before pointing to an area near the foot of the bald mountain stacked with large moss-covered rocks. He then cupped his hands as if he were holding a bowling ball. “You should’ve seen ‘em,” he said. We grew the biggest and sweetest sweet onions right over there.” Along with his older brother Kazuto Araki, the now gray-haired Tadashi leased the 17-acre property in 1967 from the McCandless family, one of the islands’ great ranching dynasties. The brothers would till those fields for 11 years.
More than 30 years later, a trio of high-powered developers – Tom Enomoto, Michael Nekoba, and Clyde Kaneshiro – now owns the land. Having bought the former farm and the surrounding parcel in 2005, they’re working with state and city agencies to change the zoning from agricultural to industrial in order to build a 96-acre light industrial park. Forty-one units are planned on being built ostensibly to help local residents afford office space for their businesses.
Developers want to rezone this agriculture land to light industrial, saying soil is not suitable for farming. Photo by Michael McDermott.
The developers, who named their venture “Tropic Land, LLC,” claim, ironically, that the land is not fertile enough to support agriculture. “There’s not enough nitrogen in the soil to sustain crops,” said Arick Yanagihara, the project lead for the initiative, who also noted that the recently completed Environmental Impact Statement also states there are too many rocks and a lack of accessible water in the area. “The area is simply not conducive for farming.”
One of Yanagihara’s strongest claims comes in the form of a letter signed by Tadashi Araki earlier this year noting the land was very difficult to manage and that he and his brother tried to grow crops, but had very little success. Most pointedly, he allegedly states that farming there was a time in his life that he’d like to forget.
When he was shown the letter, he claims it was the first time he had seen it. “They mixed everything up,” he said. Although Yanagihara insists that everything was done by the book, one thing is for certain: The 77-year-old tells a completely different story than the one filed in Tropic Land, LLC’s brief.
Tadashi Araki shown right on the “heavenly land” more than 30 years ago.
The Araki brothers were farming long before they broke ground on Lualualei Valley soil in 1967. As young boys they helped their father Kajiro on a family farm in Kahuku. The elder Araki instilled a strong work ethic and taught them the trade. As an example, Tadashi showed his palms, which showed no signs of callous or wear that would be expected of a man who labored in the fields for more than 30 years. “Don’t hold your tools tight,” he recalled his father telling him. “You hold them loose and let your upper body do more of the work.”
He would take all that knowledge with him to Mākaha Valley in 1948 when father and sons began farming what they called Green Acres. At 15 years old, Tadashi was working non-stop – he would head right to Mākaha after school let out at Waipahu High. “I don’t even remember anyone from school I was so busy,” he said.
In 1966, after 18 prosperous years, their landlord Chinn Ho decided to sell his huge holdings in the valley. Ho offered them the option to buy the parcel for $200 an acre, but his parents, who were Japanese nationals, could not own land, and Tadashi and his brother didn’t qualify for a loan. The family had no choice but to leave Green Acres. The farm eventually became part of the Mākaha Resort and Golf Club. Luckily, a friend had told the Araki’s about a small tract of pasture in Nānākuli that was available for lease by the McCandless family. They accepted and moved their operations to Lualualei Valley.
As derelict as the place looks now, Tadashi recalls that the land wasn’t in much better shape when they first began prepping the fields. Rocks both large and small were riddled everywhere. He and his brother combed through all 17 acres and manually picked up and threw all the stones into nearby tractors and hauled them to the edge by the foot of the mountain. The soil was thin and feeble, so with a mixture of cow and chicken manure and compost, they used a spreader (he prides himself on having had a large 10-yard, custom-built one) and tilled the soil into a rich chocolate cake color. They invested in a drip irrigation system: 300 feet of 4-inch piping that cost a mini fortune.
Six months later, their sweat equity paid off and the soil was ready for planting. It was fitting that Tadashi’s grandmother-in-law blessed the parcel with the name ‘Ainalani, or “heavenly land,” because their harvests were plentiful. The Araki’s famous Wai‘anae onions became known for their saccharine sweetness. Eggplants were so large they looked like they could be carved into ipu heke. Green bell peppers filled rows of crates that stretched the length of the plot. They even raised a few hundred goats for milk. Then there were green onions, cantaloupe, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, papaya … and watermelons. “The Marines would come at night and crawl under the stream drainage and steal my watermelons,” Tadashi said with a snarl before smiling.
He recalled others he had forgotten long ago. There was the older Filipino couple that lived and worked with them during the early days. Tadashi would hunt wild rabbits in the valley and they would make a delicious stew. Sometimes he would catch some Hawaiians taking his green onions by the fence. “Bad place to grow them,” he said.
And then there were the kids. Because the Araki brothers could only afford to pay the minimum wage, they had a constant flow of students from Nānākuli High that worked at the farm after school. “They were always reading or taking papayas,” he said. But he fondly remembers one teenager who stood out because of his voice. “Kumbaya, my Lord, Kumbaya,” Tadashi sang while swaying left and right, his hands raised and motioning in the air like a symphony conductor. “That kid. He was always singing, but I was always checking to see if the hands were moving,” he said with a laugh. That teenager would eventually trade in his shovel for a microphone and become a local entertainer by the name of Danny Couch.
YOU SHOULD’VE SEEN ‘EM. WE GREW THE BIGGEST AND SWEETEST ONIONS RIGHT OVER THERE.
Even though the winds from Pohakea pass would sometimes fell their vegetables and the rare flood would uproot their seedlings, the Araki brothers kept ‘Ainalani prosperous for 11 years. In fact, according to Tadashi, they were the biggest produce supplier to the O‘ahu farm co-op in addition to selling directly to markets like Tamura’s and Nakatani’s. They even had contracts with the Navy. But with farming, profit margins are slim. So in 1978, when the McCandless family not only increased the rent, but wanted 6 percent of the crop yield, the Arakis got stuck in a bind. They tried to borrow money from the state but were denied. There was no choice but to leave 11 years of investment – and their dreams – behind. “We wanted to make ‘Ainalani the best farm in the islands,” he said. “We would still be here if they didn’t ask for so much.”
After leaving ‘Ainalani, Tadashi remembers another family tried to lease the property, but they only lasted one year. McCandless ultimately sold the property to Kabushiki Kaisha Oban, a Japanese corporation that attempted to build a golf course. But the Wai‘anae coast community wouldn’t have it. The owners of Tropic Lands then bought the parcel in 2005 – and they’ve been slowly pushing through the governmental red tape ever since. If it all goes as planned, construction could begin by the end of 2011.
The developers’ biggest argument for rezoning is job creation. According to a City report released last year, between 2000 and 2035, jobs on the Wai‘anae coast are projected to decline by 11 percent. According to Yanagihara, many businesses along the Leeward Coast would be able to buy affordable office spaces, and he reiterates that no waste dumps or landfills are allowed under a light industrial designation. “This [light industrial] is meant to service the needs of the rural and suburban communities,” he said.
Many in the community support the development, including The Nānākuli Neighborhood board. “Keeping country, country isn’t working,” said board chair Patty Teruya in an article with the Hawaii Independent last year. “We need economic development so we can provide jobs for the people here.” One initiative that’s being touted is the business development incubator project. Owned and managed by either the state or a non-profit, the incubator would offer fledgling enterprises reduced rent as well as support services to help them grow. Joe Lapilio, executive director for the Wai’anae Coast Coalition, has been working on a digital incubator. “People are doing video and media work out of their homes and a lot of students are trying to get into this area,” he said. “People have been calling us.”
But there are some not so keen on having agricultural lands rezoned. The more vocal among them are the Concerned Elders of Wai‘anae, a group of cultural practitioners, environmentalists and residents of the area who believe the entire area will soon be industrialized. PVT Land Company and Pineridge, both waste-processing facilities, are a stone’s throw down the road. “You can’t eat concrete,” says Alice Greenwood, one of the Elders who supports agriculture.
“We bought this land as ag, and we should keep it ag,” said Harry Choy, who was a pig farmer in Lualualei since the early 1950s. “We shouldn’t sell out to the developers.”
While the Nānākuli community continues to grapple with the future of Tropic Land, all Tadashi could do that day was gaze at the parched fields he once called ‘Ainalani, with its rows of green, its mountainside of goats, and the vision of a young crooner chanting “Kumbaya.”
“When I told them it was a time in my life I’d like to forget,” he said, referring to the letter, “I was talking about the day I had to leave.”