KAILUA-KONA — For the first time in 25 years, Hawaii Island farmers are exporting avocado to the mainland in earnest.
The burgeoning arm of the industry opened with weekly shipments of roughly 3,000 pounds of Sharwil avocado to two Seattle-based wholesale produce companies beginning in early December. Shipments of that size, which all but max out the capacity of the state’s only avocado packing house facility, will continue through the end of March.
But everyone involved in the avocado industry, from farmers to packers to United States Department of Agriculture officials, believe a strong enough mainland market exists for Sharwil that shipments and their resulting profits could expand exponentially in years to come.
“The potential is unreal,” said Billy Wakefield, a long-time avocado farmer in West Hawaii who serves on the board of the Hawaii Avocado Association. “Ultimately, hundreds of acres could be sent to the mainland very easily.”
Depending on the health of the trees as well as the skills and attentiveness of the farmer, each acre could produce roughly 5,000 pounds of avocado annually, he added.
Get with the program
Shipping Sharwil to the mainland has long been regarded as a possibility bursting with promise, and Hawaii’s avocado purveyors first sought to capitalize on it in the 1980s.
Mike Scharf, officer in charge for USDA in West Hawaii, said the first Hawaii avocados were shipped to Alaska in 1987. By 1989, a proposal to allow import to the contiguous 48 states was adopted and in the following September, Sharwil’s began rolling into the mainland absent range restrictions.
But less than two years later, in February of 1992, the program was suspended indefinitely due to concerns involving fruit flies permanently relocating to host material on the mainland, with Sharwil avocados serving as their vessels.
It’s taken decades of research in the interim to develop what Scharf describes as a “systems approach” that has set nerves at ease. Farmers wanting to partake in the program map out their operations, reduce fruit fly host material in several ways including picking up and discarding fruit that’s fallen on the ground, set up fly traps, monitor them weekly and administer treatment if a certain number of flies are detected.
Fruit is harvested directly off the tree, it must be firm with the stem attached and nothing shipped can have fallen on the ground. USDA inspectors vet all farms before certification, monitor their processes to ensure compliance and also check fruit at packing facilities before it’s exported.
By 2013, a final rule was published in the federal register allowing the import of Sharwil avocados to 32 states and the District of Columbia. Most are northern tier states where the risk posed by fruit flies is largely mitigated by the lack of host material available during the November-March window for avocado import. Due to the cold, none of the trees in these areas are bearing fruit while that window is open.
Several southern states, California and any state bordering California are off limits — for now. But Scharf is optimistic that with time, circumstances may change.
“With a systems approach … we hope to see very safe product leaving and we hope to see this thing eventually going into other states including California and Florida,” he said.
Up and running
Regulations, proof of the process and overcoming fear of fruit flies are all barriers to opening the entirety of the U.S. market to Sharwil avocados, widely considered superior to the Hass variety, which dominates America’s produce sections, in both oil content and seed-to-flesh ratio.
The demand for Hawaii’s Sharwil, Scharf said, is never going to be an issue. The supply, however, is a different matter.
“They can’t get enough fruit in the air to these markets,” he explained. “It’s just going to take a while for it to gear up again.”
Small trial runs in 2015-16 and 2016-17 saw around 1,000 pounds and 12,500 pounds of Sharwil shipped to the mainland, respectively. They were run through what Scharf described as an austere packing house facility just to test feasibility.
The program now in place is intended to operate on a commercial scale and will require commercial facilities, none of which currently exist. Scharf expects those conditions will soon change, as multiple parties have expressed interest in developing commercial packing houses and one near Milolii is likely to come online next year.
As for this season, the only game in town is Kane Plantation in South Kona, run by David Cox. Though he plans to expand next year, Cox said the 3,000 pounds packed and shipped via Alaska Air to Seattle is about all his operation can handle.
Beyond packing capacity, which is likely to increase substantially next season, another barrier is getting farmers on board.
Wakefield said in-state sales tend to fetch between $0.70-$1.10 per pound, with $0.80-$0.90 per pound comprising the typical range. Cox is paying farmers a fixed price of $1.40 per pound this season and said the price may go up next year, creating a boon for large scale operators.
But there isn’t a vast number of those on the island, Scharf explained, and the USDA isn’t going to certify farms with only a handful of trees. However, small farmers won’t be exempt from the program if they prove they can produce, and Wakefield said he believes there are many older and wild varieties of avocado on farms all over West Hawaii that could take a Sharwil graft.
Cox believes some of the local apprehension is connected to past dashed hopes and disappointments.
“For so many years this has been talked about, and each year … people have been disappointed,” Cox said. “A lot of the old-time farmers don’t really want to be out in front of everybody else. They want to sit back and see what happens.”
Other sticking points are worry over working with the government and concerns over the necessities of compliance, for instance only picking fruit during the week because the USDA has to inspect, making it difficult for farmers with day jobs to participate in the program.
“Some of it is misconception of the protocol the farmer has to go through to get a certified orchard,” Wakefield said. “It’s a lot easier than people think.”
By Scharf’s count, only 12 farms have either been certified or are prepping for a USDA site visit. Even that has stretched current packing capacity to the edge of its limits.
But Wakefield said there are signs that the Hawaii Avocado Association’s newsletters and question answering campaigns spreading the word about the profits to be had are making significant inroads.
“The nursery … on the other side of the island can’t keep up with Sharwil graft orders,” he said. “They’re getting bombarded, so it looks like people will be getting on board once their trees mature and they start harvesting.”