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Ag survey reports nearly $28M in damages caused by eruption

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Independent papaya grower Justin Manuel leans against a Komatsu dozer that he is using to clear new land to grow papayas Thursday in Nanawale Estates.

Less than 50 Big Island farmers reported nearly $28 million in total agricultural damages in a survey of farmers affected by the Kilauea eruption published last week.

Beginning in August, the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources conducted a survey of farmers affected by the Kilauea eruption. The 46 respondents reported that they had collectively lost approximately $27.9 million in destroyed property.

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Of the total damages reported, nearly two thirds — $17 million — were specifically damage to crops, while destroyed land, buildings and inventory accounted for $4.1 million, $3.3 million and $3 million in losses, respectively.

A statement by the Hawaii Floriculture and Nursery Association, which requested the University conduct the survey, advised that the data from the survey is not “all-inclusive” but provides a snapshot of how devastating the eruption was for the island’s agricultural industries.

The survey found that $13.3 million of the reported damages were from the floriculture industry, with another $6.5 from the papaya industry and $2.5 from the macadamia nut industry.

Eric Tanouye, president of the Hawaii Floriculture and Nursery Association, said the Kapoho region, now mostly buried in lava, had ideal conditions for orchid growers. After the eruption, Tanouye estimated that 10 percent of the Association’s roughly 300 statewide members had been affected.

Even though Tanouye said some new nurseries are beginning to see new growth, it can take up to two years to grow an orchid from seed to salable plant under ideal conditions, during which time farmers starting out will have no cash flow.

“It’s a big decision for anyone to choose to go back into debt,” Tanouye said. “Every farmer is going to have to make that ultimate decision themselves.”

Beyond the economic impact, the loss of equipment, land viability and inventory for the affected industries has left their future in doubt.

“It’s hard to put into dollars and cents,” said Eric Wienert, president of the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association.

Wienert said he estimated that around 30 to 40 percent of the Big Island’s papaya production has been destroyed or rendered inaccessible, resulting in immediate economic damage to the industry. However, he also estimated that approximately 700 acres of “the best growing area for papayas in maybe the world” have been buried by lava, raising long-term questions about the industry’s future.

Independent papaya grower Justin Manuel said two of his three fields have been compromised by the eruption.

One 13-acre field in Opihikao was downwind of the volcanic fissures, leaving hundreds of trees withered by exposure to sulfur dioxide; another field in Pohoiki was undamaged, but is inaccessible.

“It used to be our weekly average from the three fields was about 32 bins, at 700 pounds each,” Manuel said. “Now it’s two bins.”

“When you’ve been farming a long time, you accumulate so much stuff,” Manuel, who has been an independent farmer for 10 years, continued. “So you base your farm’s value on all of that and then it’s all gone at once.”

Wienert said the majority of the destroyed crop was destined for Oahu or Canada, while most of the Japanese and mainland export growing lands were largely unaffected. However, those farmers who lost growing land may not be able to find replacements, although the survey suggested that most inundated farmers would be willing to buy new land.

Some lands on the Big Island have appropriate conditions for papayas to grow, Wienert said, but the cost of clearing the land would not be economically feasible for most operations.

Meanwhile, like the orchids, papayas take time to grow — about a year — while unemployment insurance runs out after six months, Wienert said.

Wienert said the farming community has discussed legislation extending unemployment insurance long enough to cover growing periods, but was not optimistic.

“There’s an underlying tone of resignation [among farmers],” Wienert said. “Despite all the rhetoric, nothing seems to ever happen at the state level.”

Even so, Tanouye said he hopes the survey results can help farmers to obtain the funding they need.

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“We’re trying to instill hope,” Tanouye said. “As long as people still have hope, we can come back.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com