"D" recently contacted me asking questions about starting a farm on the Big Island. As with most people who ask me about this subject, he wanted to know where was the best spot to look for land and how to find it. Hubby and I went through this process many years ago and I can say from our own experience, there is no simple one-size-fits-all answer. But "D" looks like he's been doing since research already because he asked about the Hamakua coast.
Hubby and I also looked closely at several land parcels along the Hamakua coast. What we found for sale was either too pricey for our budget, or it failed the soil test for arsenic contamination. There's beautiful properties in Hamakua, for sure! It just wasn't going to happen for us.
Finding land to farm isn't difficult. What's difficult is finding it to fit your requirements. The more stringent your requirements, the difficult it will be. Not only the purchase price needs to be considered, but also any land restrictions. We discovered that Hawaii has areas of conservation land, making using the land difficult or impossibe. Another discovery we made-- CPR land, which is a land condominium. Farming CPR land may cause problems with your CPR neighbors. Hawaii also has something called a hui, which is land owned by multiple owners, sometimes related, sometimes not. A hui parcel is shared ownership according the county rules, but hui owners sometimes have their own written agreements among themselves as to who uses what and who's responsible for what. Buying into a hui can be quite a risk. One other discovery we made is that some of the land that looks so appealing and affordable have damaged titles. It's not uncommon to find an ownership break of some sort. While this can be addressed via the legal system, it can be expensive, nerve wrecking, and no guarantee.
Much rural land does not have county or state water access. Some beautiful farming land has difficult 4 wheel drive access, especially during rain periods . Some lands that look so lush and green during rain years turn arid, brown, dry, non-farmable during drought years. Much is out of range of the electricity grid and telephone service. Some has chemical contamination due to prior use for sugar cane plantations. (The land can be used for grazing or forestry but shouldn't be plowed or deeply tilled.) Some land has soil but it's between lots of rocks. Some areas with good soil still come with rocks that will break farming equipment unless the rocks are removed. I've seen plenty of farmers work for weeks or months removing rocks before planting their first crop on new land. And of course, there's also lots of land for sale that has very little soil.
One element that we hadn't had experience with before was elevation. We didn't realize how that affected farming ability. Elevation has a bearing on day and night temperature, plus dictates which crops you can grow. Some crops do better in lower elevations, others better in the higher.
Annual rainfall varies considerable around the island. The state has charts that show general rainfall averages, but rain years are cyclic here. Some years are very wet, others are drought.
Wind is another consideration when looking for farm land. Location is important and even a couple of miles can make a difference. My homestead farm is sheltered. 5 miles away my seed farm gets unobstructed trade winds.
A factor that wasn't a factor when we purchased our land was the volcano. While Kilauea was erupting when we were looking, we didn't realize that it could effect us down through the years. Farmers in my area now deal with acid rain and vog due to the volcano. Farmers in Puna district have potential lava to deal with, and the problems that come with it. The current eruption is making that perfectly clear. Noxious gases damage crops and lava covers farm land. Plus on top of it, Mauna Loa is inflating and could possibly erupt. While a long term eruption is not expected, the short term flow of lava could be devastating for anyone in its path.
From our experience, the best way to buy land is to live in the area (such as renting a house), research the parameters (whether, land use, etc), and talk with the locals. Talk at the farmers markets, chat with business owners, go to religious services and talk with the people, go talk to members of various groups. They can give you local information the real estate agents never can. And of course check with the county officials before purchasing. After surveying the locals, choose a real estate agent. Some are far more helpful and successful than others. Plus check the MLS listings online at www.hawaiiinformation.com or www.alohaliving.com . By connecting with locals one can often find out about property that may very well be for sale but isn't on the official market yet. I see sales being consummated where the property never officially was on the market. (In fact, we sold our Volcano Village land by just mentioning it to one of the neighbors.) And considering renting farm land is another option to look at. Again, locals often know if "Uncle George" might be willing to rent or lease his land.