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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, March 27, 2001

Woman grows weary of gardenia ban

By Hugh Clark
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HOLUALOA, Hawai'i — A year after Carol Christianson thought her gardenia-growing business would finally blossom, her dream has withered.

Carol Christianson shows one of her 12 varieties of gardenias.

Advertiser library photo • February 2000

A 53-year ban on imports of the fragrant white flower to the Mainland remains, and Christianson has decided to sell her 3.2-acre farm in North Kona.

Christianson, 55, was full of hope when it appeared federal agricultural quarantine officials were poised last year to lift the restriction, meant to prevent the spread of a tiny pest known as the green coffee scale, which can damage citrus crops.

Through a combined effort by the USDA Agriculture Research Service, the state Department of Agriculture and the University of Hawai'i-Manoa Agriculture Department, researchers had found a way to clean gardenias of the pest through a combination of insecticide sprays.

Successful test imports were done and a request was put in to lift the ban.

Christianson pegged the future of her farm on being able to export the flowers to the Mainland, specifically to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Oregon. She estimated that during the spring, she could ship about 36,000 gardenias a month.

"This means that for once in my life I will have a job that I want to do," she told The Advertiser a year ago. "It's going to mean a whole bunch of new opportunities in farming, a dream that I just held on to for so long."

Now, hope has been replaced by frustration.

"This is just hopeless," Christianson said.

She grows 12 different varieties of gardenia, selling them at hotels and restaurants in West Hawai'i.

But that's not enough to stay in business, said Christianson, who took a second job as a senior recreation specialist to stay financially afloat. She even tried to squeeze oil from the flowers to sell as a fragrance or to make perfume.

Robert Hollingsworth of the Pacific Basin Agriculture Research Center in Hilo said he thinks Christianson may be giving up too soon. He said the Agricultural Plant Health Inspection Service is reviewing the ban. However, requests to change existing controls are stacked up at the Riverdale, Md., headquarters where plant control decisions are made.

"This is not uncommon," he said, because the federal agency is "overloaded."

The flower grower said she does not see a point in investing more time and money in her gardenia farm.

"I feel I have been riding a dead horse," said Christianson.

Former state lawmaker Virginia Isbell of Kona shares Christianson's view that it's very difficult for small crops to overcome federal barriers. She worked closely in the 1990s with avocado farmer Kerry Watson, who felt he was on the verge of a promising export market at a time his Ataraxia Farms were producing 70 percent of the state's commercial crop.

The local avocado industry failed as a commercial crop when a single fruit fly was found in a shipment to the Mainland in 1992. Once shipments to California were barred, Japan also refused to allow the fruit to come in.

Watson's attempts to fight the restrictions were blunted time and again. He eventually gave up and moved to the Mainland, Isbell said.

She often has wondered about the fairness of the system and the strong opposition from corporate farmers in California who helped block Hawai'i avocados from reaching West Coast markets.

Watson would have sold his Sharwil variety during the off-season for California producers. The Sharwil weighs about 2.6 times an average-sized California avocado.

"They did not want any competition from Hawai'i," said Isbell, who represented Kona for 16 years in the state House of Representatives.