New agricultural leases
worry Kona farmers

Bishop Estate says terms are
set high only for nonproductive lands

By Rod Thompson

KAILUA-KONA -- Bishop Estate officials are trying to reassure Kona farmers that new agricultural leases are designed to protect Bishop lands from nonagricultural uses.

But farmers meeting with the officials last night repeatedly expressed fear that new lease rates will be so high they will destroy farming.

"Your policies will kill agriculture and destroy the mauka (rural Kona) community," one person commented in a written statement to the officials.

Bishop official Robert Lindsey countered, "My priority at my level is that these lands are being farmed."

Another official, Rick Robinson, said lease rents have been deliberately set high for agriculturally nonproductive properties.

"No more gentleman farms -- that's the intent," he said.

While the officials tried to bring clarity to the picture, they admitted it is complex.

Existing leases made at varying times in the past had numerous different features, the officials said. "Each lease is different," said Robinson.

Of some 600 leases in Kona, 45 were up for renegotiation in 1997 and 75 in 1998, he said.

A typical complaint was that the renegotiated rates will skyrocket, going from $900 per year to $10,000 per year in one example.

For people facing such a jump, Robinson urged lessees to give up their old lease and take a new one.

Those have a minimum rent of $165 per acre per year for the first five years of the 19-1/2-year term. That works out to $825 for a typical 5-acre farm.

Most people in the audience of about 75 people agreed that was fair, but the big question is what happens after the first five years.

Leases rates then become 0.5 percent of the "raw fee value" of farms determined by Bishop to be productive, but 9 percent for nonproductive farms.

At current land values, that works out to about $225 per acre for productive farms and $3,600 per acre for nonproductive ones, said Larry Baird of the Kona Farmers Alliance.

Farmers say the problem is that Bishop has the sole discretion in determining what is productive.

By one calculation, the Bishop numbers work out to a requirement of production of 8,000 pounds of nuts per acre per year for a macadamia farm, Baird said.

Yet 5,000 pounds is considered good production and 7,000 is the best that any farm can produce, he said.

Lindsey said Bishop trustees have signaled a willingness to be flexible on the terms of the new leases. "The trustees have said this is a start. It's not set in concrete."

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