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Hawaii’s Papaya Growers Struggle in Hurricane Aftermath

August 14, 2014
Iselle2Hurricane Iselle’s assault on Hawaii garnered national coverage as the storm approached, but little has been reported on the storm’s aftermath and the damage suffered by Hawaii’s papaya growers and other agricultural operations.

John Burnett writes for West Hawaii Today that Iselle’s damage to Big Island ag crops is estimated at $53 million. KITV's video news clip illustrates the devastation on the Island’s ag community.

As officials assess the damage inflicted by Iselle, it’s evident the Big Island’s agriculture industry has sustained a severe blow.

Richard Ha, president of Hamakua Springs Country Farms, said Tuesday representatives of the U.S. and state Departments of Agriculture and state Board of Agriculture Chairman Scott Enright met Monday with farmers.
It was pretty clear to us that the papaya farmers took the highest amount of damage. Estimation of the sales lost, plus the start-up, the bulldozing costs and growing up to that first year, when they’re ready to harvest again … is about $53 million."

"People have been flying overhead to look over the damage with helicopters," Ha said "The damage is devastating. Some folks have about 80 percent damage. Some folks’ farms had less, of course, but the damage is extremely high.

“It takes about a year from the time you plant to the time you start to harvest. … The farmers went through a tough spot about a year ago, fighting disease. They got their crops to where they were ready to pick. … The plants are snapped off, not too high off the ground, but right to where the fruit column started to bear, because they’re heavy.”

Many of the papaya fields are on leasehold land in or near Kapoho, which was hit especially hard.

Ha said a real problem that will hinder papaya farmers in their recovery is most don’t have credit.
From the clearing, to the fertilizer — they don’t have an account at the fertilizer company, they have to pay cash. So everything comes out of their pocket, and they’re banking everything on two years of harvest. And everything looked good until the wind came through.”

Ha said the banana crop was not as significantly impacted because it is grown at a higher elevation than the papaya crop.

Ross Sibucao, president of Hawaii Papaya Industry Association, said early Tuesday afternoon the association’s board was about to hold an emergency meeting. Efforts to reach him by phone later in the day were unsuccessful.

And it’s not just Puna farmers who sustained damage from Iselle’s winds and rain. Ka‘u coffee and macadamia nut growers have been impacted, as well.

“We had a USDA (Farm Service Agency) meeting (Tuesday) morning down here with some of the farmers. There’s definitely been an impact down here on macadamia nut and coffee,” said Randy Stevens, with Ka‘u Farms Management and manager of Ka‘u Coffee Mill.

Stevens said early estimates for his company are about 1,000 coffee trees damaged.

“We have 100 acres of coffee. … It’s probably less than 10 percent of our overall field, but … it is significant. A thousand trees producing 100 to 200 pounds of bean a season at $2 a pound is a lot of money,” he said. “Some of these trees, we have upwards of seven years of herbicide and pesticide and maintenance, caring and fertilizing of these trees. There’s some serious cost in there. It cost us right around $4,500 an acre.”

Stevens said, “To some of the smaller farmers, 100 to 200 trees is huge damage, when you consider that they’ve put … years worth of effort into these things.

“There was probably a dozen people at the meeting we had at the facility, which we hosted for the smaller farmers,” he said. “We probably don’t qualify for any type of aid, although we have hired four new employees on and have invested well over $20,000 in materials to start revitalizing our fields already.”

John Cross, land manager for the Ed Olson Trust, which owns Ka‘u Farms Management and Ka‘u Coffee Mill, said the wind and the rain also damaged the company’s macadamia nut crop.
We’ve lost just over 2,000 trees,” he said. “That’s 1,200 trees from our newest planting, the most beautiful trees Hawaii has ever seen."

"That means I lost more 22 percent of my trees in that orchard. That was the youngest, newest orchard in the state of Hawaii, and Ed Olson’s effort at revitalizing the macadamia nut industry for the future by planting new orchards.”

“In our older orchard, which cover about 425 acres, we lost about 800 trees,” Cross added. “They’re older trees; they hold themselves up better. The windbreaks are taller. I only lost about 3 to 4 percent in those older orchards.”

Anthurium and ornamental flower growers in East Hawaii are also feeling Iselle’s effects, said Eric Tanouye, vice president and general manager of Green Point Nurseries. He said three of his four 5-acre greenhouses in Panaewa sustained roof damage which will ultimately have an effect on his crops.

Tanouye said much of East Hawaii’s agricultural sector is feeling the effect of the powerful storm.

“We’re reaching out to USDA, DOA and the county,” he said. “We’re trying to call a meeting where all the farmers and ranchers can get accurate information on the process we can use to follow to get some help for our farmers and ranchers.”