‘Our Fish Are Dying’: This Hawaii Couple’s Experience With State Ag Land Management Has Been Terrible

When Simeon and Katherine Rojas secured a 15-year lease for three acres at the state-owned Kahuku Agricultural Park in December 2016, it seemed like a dream come true.

Simeon Rojas had learned aquaponics farming at the University of Hawaii’s GoFarm program in Waimanalo, and the lease would allow the couple to realize their vision: a small, sustainable operation growing lettuce, tilapia and catfish. They called it Hooah Farms.

Less than five years later, the couple’s plans have run into serious trouble. Their landlord, Thomas Narvaez, has been trying to get rid of the Rojases. For the couple, leaving would mean losing the aquaponics system in which they say they’ve invested $200,000 in cash and tens of thousands more in labor.

Now, the issue is playing out in court. The Rojases have sued Narvaez; his company, Alii Kawa LLC; the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, and the department employee in charge of managing the park, Roy Hasegawa. But they say their problems point to a broader issue: whether the Department of Agriculture is adequately managing its farm lands to help Hawaii grow more of its own food.

According to the couple and court records, first Narvaez tried to evict the Rojases. Later, he shut off their water, even though the couple’s lease requires him to provide access to water. For months, neither the Department of Agriculture, which leases the land to Narvaez, nor Narvaez heeded the couple’s pleas for water. Only after the couple asked a court to step in did Narvaez agree to restore the couple’s water. In the meantime, without an adequate supply of water, the couple’s production has faltered.

Simeon and Katherine Rojas of Hooah Farms
Simeon and Katherine Rojas of Hooah Farm in the state’s Kahuku Agriculture Park say negligence by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and the official in charge of the park has forced them to scale back their lettuce-growing operation. The couple had to quit using some lettuce-growing beds after their landlord shut off their water. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2022

Although Narvaez’s lease envisions he will farm the land, there’s little indication that he’s doing any farming himself. Instead, according to the Rojases and their lawyer, he leases land from the state and subleases the land to people like the Rojases.

“The bigger societal issue is, ‘What is the Department of Agriculture doing to support farmers?’” asked Bosko Petricevic, the Rojas’ lawyer. “This is your tax money.”

The Rojases say the Department of Agriculture’s poor management practices explain why Hawaii still imports some 90% of the food it consumes, despite an abundance of underused farm land.

“If the ag park was being managed by Roy Hasegawa according to protocol,” Simeon Rojas said, “we wouldn’t be struggling with sustainability and food security.”

Narvaez declined an interview request. Hasegawa also declined to comment and referred calls to the Attorney General’s Office, which provided documents it has filed asking the court to dismiss the Rojas’ lawsuit.

The Rojas’ complaint includes numerous allegations against Hasegawa and the Department of Agriculture, but the crux of the complaint is that the department and Hasegawa have been negligent in managing the agriculture park, to the couple’s detriment.

In response, the AG’s lawyers argue, among other things, that most of the allegations don’t apply given the facts, that a statute of limitations bars the Rojases from bringing claims for torts like negligence, and that Hasegawa as an individual owes no duty to the couple, despite being the ag park’s manager. The state has asked a judge to dismiss the suit.

Regardless of the outcome, the dispute provides a case study on how the department manages the Kahuku Agricultural Park and difficulties farmers like the Rojases can face. According to Dexter Kishida, the food security and sustainability program manager for the Honolulu Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency, the couple’s farm is a model for Oahu.

Alii Kawa Farm, Kahuku Ag Park
Aside from Simeon and Katherine Rojas’ aquaponics operation and a relatively small banana patch, there appears to be little farming on Lot 10 of the Kahuku Agricultural Park. The property controlled by Alii Kawa LLC instead is home to a house under construction, an abandoned passenger bus and equipment like this truck being swallowed by vegetation. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2022

“The City needs farmers like Simeon and Katherine Rojas, who are innovative, educated, and willing to help Hawaii achieve its sustainability goals,” Kishida wrote in a court declaration trying to help get the couple’s water restored.

He said the Rojas’ operation plays an important role in helping Hawaii promote food sustainability.

“Their farm and their aquaponics systems are a model that the City of Honolulu is looking to promote,” he wrote.

Farmer Couple Thought Their Lease Was Legitimate

Hawaii’s agricultural parks date to 1986, when the Legislature passed a law establishing the parks for reasons still relevant: to preserve agricultural lands for productive purposes; to expand diverse agriculture and aquaculture for export and local markets; and to provide lands for new farmers like Katherine and Simeon Rojas.

To meet the goals, lawmakers said the state should provide productive lands with adequate water at reasonable costs and long-term tenure. The Department of Agriculture would manage the parks, according to the law. The department now manages 10 parks spread out among Oahu, the Big Island, Kauai and Molokai. At 225 acres, the Kahuku Ag Park is the largest on Oahu.

In 1999, the department leased a 5.2-acre parcel at the Kahuku park, known as Lot 10, to Paul’a Manupule. The parcel included 3.1 acres of arable land and about 2.1 acres of nonarable land. The base rent was $375.26 per year, subject to amendment in 15 years, with an additional 3% to be paid annually based on sales of commodities and any subleases. By statute and lease terms, subleases are required to be approved in advance by the Board of Agriculture.

Two years later, Manupule assigned the lease to Alii Kawa Corp., a company controlled by Manupule’s wife, Barbara, and Narvaez, who was president. In March 2016, Narvaez assigned the lease to a different company, Alii Kawa LLC, of which Narvaez is the president and sole member.

It was around that time that Simeon Rojas was looking for a place to start an aquaponics venture, he said in an interview. A retired military veteran, Simeon Rojas had joined the University of Hawaii’s GoFarm Hawaii program in part to use farming as a form of therapy to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The City needs farmers like Simeon and Katherine Rojas, who are innovative, educated, and willing to help Hawaii achieve its sustainability goals.” — Dexter Kishida, Honolulu Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency

Simeon Rojas said he approached Hasegawa, who managed the Kahuku ag park, about leasing a site in the park different from where he is now. Hasegawa steered Rojas to Narvaez as someone who could help Rojas clear some land, Rojas says. Instead, Rojas says, Narvaez persuaded the Rojases to lease land from Narvaez.

Hasegawa’s role throughout the process is important, Simeon Rojas says, because it shows the farm manager was aware as far back as 2016 that the Rojases planned to sublease land in the park.

Simeon Rojas’ vocabulary is full of quasi-military phrases, like “protocol,” “chain of command,” and “by the book,” which is how Rojas says he tried to behave when dealing with the department and doing business with the landlord Hasegawa referred him to. So the Rojases felt good when they entered the lease with Narvaez in December 2016. The deal gave them a 15-year lease for three acres at $3,000 per year. Having submitted paperwork like tax clearance information to Hasegawa in advance, Simeon Rojas says, he thought he had done everything “according to protocol.”

Still, certain things didn’t sit well with the Rojases from the beginning, they say. At one point before they signed the lease, for example, they say Hasegawa asked them to design and build an aquaponics system for his home. In addition, they say, after signing the lease, Narvaez was continually asking for a stake in the aquaponics business, which the couple refused.

Landlord Seeks Eviction

Still, none of this prepared them for what happened in August 2020. Narvaez filed a complaint to evict the couple and take possession of the aquaponics system.

Narvaez’s sole rationale, which Honolulu District Court Judge Karin Holma noted when finally rejecting Narvaez’s request more than a year later, was that Narvaez hadn’t gotten prior approval from the state Board of Agriculture before entering the lease with the Rojases. Although state law and Narvaez’s lease with the state require prior approval before he enters a sublease, the judge didn’t buy Narvaez’s argument that he could use his own failure to get the approval to kick the Narvaez’s off the land and take over their farm.

“This is a specious argument,” the judge wrote in her order. “Landlord does not provide any authority for his argument that the Sublease is void because Landlord breached his own lease with the State of Hawai’i by not obtaining prior approval of the Sublease. If this was the case, the Sublease would be voidable at the election of the Tenant, not at the election of the Landlord.”

While the Rojases prevailed, they say they were in limbo for more than a year. With the eviction hanging over their heads, they quit investing more money into the farm. That meant giving up plans for a shrimp hatchery, for example, even though the hatchery was well on its way to completion.

Things got worse for the couple in November, when they lost water. About a month later, in December, the couple filed their lawsuit. They also emailed the Board of Agriculture’s chair, Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser, pleading for help. In the email, the Rojases accused Narvaez of using a broken pipe as a pretext to shut off their water.

Simeon Rojas, Hooah Farm
Simeon Rojas, founder of Hooah Farm, an aquaponic operation in Kahuku, said he gave up plans for a shrimp hatchery after his landlord sued to evict him and cut off his water. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2022

“Our fish are dying and our crops are suffering because they are not getting enough water,” they wrote in the email to the agriculture chair. “We are trying to carry water in garbage cans to Lot 10, but that is simply not enough.”

The system cycles water from huge fish tanks through lettuce beds where plants absorb nutrients and filter the water before it goes back to the fish tanks. But the system still loses some water due to evaporation. To survive, the couple say they would drive across the island to bring water back in tanks. Nonetheless, they say, they had to shut down about half of their production.

Dexter Kishida, Honolulu’s food security and sustainability manager, quantified the damage in his court filing.

“Since each grow bed has approximately 700 plants, and each head of lettuce is $5.00 per head, each bed therefore equals $3,500 of revenue,” he wrote. “With three (3) beds not in production due to lack of water access, revenue loss every six (6) weeks is $7,000.”

A Thriving Farm

On a recent afternoon, the Rojases showed off their farm. There were signs of a thriving farm: rows of lettuce growing on long, table-like beds; catfish and tilapia in tanks like above-ground swimming pools.

But there were signs that things weren’t right. Three growing tables were completely empty. Lines inside the tanks showed that water had receded. The shrimp hatchery was outfitted with pumps, tanks, barrels, pipes and hoses, but there was no water and no shrimp.

Aside from the Rojas’ lettuce and fish and a patch of bananas being grown by what they said was another tenant down the way, there wasn’t much agriculture to be seen. Petricevic, the attorney, did show off a house under construction, some shipping containers, and a truck and passenger bus being engulfed by vegetation.

For his part, Narvaez was on the site, repairing a water pipe, which he agreed to do in exchange for the Rojases dropping their request for a court order forcing him to do so.

Asked what his farm, Alii Kawa, grows, Narvaez said he grows bananas. Asked where they were, he said he didn’t have many growing at the time, although there was one bunch on a lone banana tree rising from vegetation behind him. Narvaez nodded in the direction of the banana patch the Rojases say is being farmed by other tenants and said he had some more bananas “down there.”

Asked how much annual revenue Alii Kawa generates from its banana venture, Narvaez said, “I’m not going to do an interview.”

The Department of Agriculture has given Narvaez the chance to submit the Rojas’ lease to the board for approval after the fact, to no avail. For their part, the Rojases aren’t eager to keep doing business with Narvaez. Their lawyer, Petricevic, says he has asked the department for options but has gotten nowhere.

“What is their path forward?” Petricevic asked. “They can’t just leave. They can’t keep investing money in this. And they can’t keep doing business with this guy.”

Added Katherine Rojas, “We just want to farm lettuce.”

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.