Sunday | July 05, 2015
About Us | Contact | Subscribe

Coffee farmers jittery over sale of land

Updated: 
March 9, 2014 - 12:05am

The pending sale of 5,880 acres of land in Ka‘u is leaving coffee farmers anxious.

The property, acquired by Lehman Brothers last year through foreclosure, includes the Moaula coffee lands, known for producing some of the best coffee in the state.

The coffee farms cover 300 acres, according to Kennedy Wilson, which is handling the sale.

Once part of the Ka‘u Sugar Company, the coffee lands were leased to farmers, including former plantation workers.

But now, they think their years of hard work is in jeopardy.

“To be honest with you, I have no idea what’s going to happen to the land,” said Lorie Obra, owner of Rusty’s Hawaiian.

Obra started the coffee farm about 15 years ago on 12 acres of leased land with her late husband, Rusty. In 2012, the farm made the Roasters Guild’s top 10 list in a global competition.

Like other farmers, Obra said the uncertainty about who will own the land has her worried.

“My lease is up next month,” she said.

Francis and Trinidad Marques said they are not taking any chances.

The former plantation workers started Alii Hawaiian Hula Hands coffee in 1996 after the last sugar harvest.

Trinidad Marques said the area is prime coffee growing land, but they started to look elsewhere to farm because of the level of uncertainty.

“We took out another 10 acres some place else to be proactive,” she said. “I know the quality of the coffee isn’t going to be as great in that other area.”

Joel LaPinta, Kennedy Wilson vice president, told Stephens Media Hawaii last year the coffee farms “create a lot of value,” but it would be up to the buyer to decide whether to continue leasing the land.

Its previous owner, WWK Hawaii Holdings, planned to use the properties now for sale for high-end homes on large lots, but it’s not clear if they planned to continue the leases.

Lehman Brothers loaned the project $105 million, according to Pacific Business News. WWK Hawaii Holdings ran into trouble during the recession, and the lender acquired the properties at a foreclosure auction in June.

The deadline for offers was Feb. 14.

LaPinta last week declined to say how many bids were submitted or when a decision might be made.

“We got a number of offers,” he said. “We’re going back and forth with some right now.”

Lehman Brothers wants to sell the entire 5,880 acres together, according to LaPinta, and it rejected an offer by Hawaii County to disconnect the coffee lands from the bulk sale.

Mayor Billy Kenoi said the county made the request on behalf of the farmers.

But he said the county wasn’t ready to make an offer to buy the leased lots.

“It was more a general conversation,” Kenoi said.

“They said, ‘We want one sale,’” he added.

Kenoi said he attended two community meetings about the issue.

He also submitted a letter to Kennedy Wilson in September that said the county’s main concern is the “welfare and future of the coffee farmers.”

“Our Ka‘u coffee farms have done a wonderful job through shear hard work creating a world-class coffee,” Kenoi told Stephens Media Hawaii. “Ka‘u coffee results speak for themselves.”

He said he also plans to speak with whomever buys the property.

“Whoever the buyer is, we look forward to sitting down with them and look to how we can protect our coffee farmers,” Kenoi said.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.