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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Farmers soak up losses from heavy rain season

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

The winter rains washed away $100,000 worth of Dean Okimoto's boutique salad greens, killed his seedlings and otherwise ground his Nalo Farms production to a soggy, muddy standstill.

Dean Okimoto of Nalo Farms will start to harvest this arugula crop tomorrow, but it won't make up for losses of more than $100,000 to rains in December and January.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Okimoto's losses during just four weeks in December and January included another $40,000 in salaries that he continued to pay despite having almost no greens and herbs to deliver from his Waimanalo farm.

It was a winter unlike any other for Okimoto and farmers all over Hawai'i. And like others who watched their crops wash away, Okimoto plans to absorb the financial losses with little hope of making it up later in the year.

No one has tracked the overall amount of damage that may have been inflicted on Hawai'i's 5,500 farmers, said Don Martin, state agricultural statistician with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2002, Hawai'i farmers produced a total of $535.9 million in produce, flowers and livestock.

"Overall, the major winter storms were good for agriculture," Martin said. "We need the rain. It replenished the soil ... and recharged some of the reservoirs. But there were problems. ... some farmers got hit pretty hard."

Wendell Koga of the Hawai'i Farm Bureau Federation called the storms the worst he has seen.

"It was all those rains in such a short period of time," Koga said. "And the winds didn't help. ... We needed the rain. But we don't need nine inches in a few hours."

The Hawai'i Farm Bureau Federation also has no idea of the extent of the damage. From anecdotal reports, especially from O'ahu farmers, Koga believes that farmers have few options other than to try again.

"Now they just have to plow everything under and plant another crop," Koga said. "They've basically lost one (growing) cycle."

Okimoto's $140,000 loss is just one small part of the unmeasured toll that farmers suffered.

Jeanne Vana believes the damage to her vine-ripened Waialua tomatoes actually will spread over two of her crops — the one she harvested amid biting rain and wind and the one in the ground that will be ready in March and April.

Both crops had tomato plants that were bent and broken and lost flowers that normally would bear fruit.

"The storms just tore the plants up," said Vana, the owner of North Shore Farms and its crop of Waialua Big Wave Tomatoes. "The constant rain saturated the ground and that affected the root system and the ability to take up available nutrients. The plants have been severely stunted."

Vana estimates the storm cost her 75 percent of her crop at a peak time for her business.

Normally, during the winter months, Vana floods the local market of restaurants and hotels with locally grown vine-ripened tomatoes. This year, much of the vine-ripened tomatoes sold in Hawai'i had to be shipped in.

Restaurants are seeking out alternative sources for local produce. Chef George Mavrothalassitis, of Chef Mavro Restaurant, said he usually buys tomatoes from Vana but has had to turn to a Big Island producer that wasn't hit as hard by the storms. A manager at Kaka'ako Kitchen said despite the damage to some farms, the restaurant still is serving Waimanalo greens.

Vana hopes that good weather will translate into a healthy crop for summer, but she's taking a hit from her winter losses.

"It just eats your profit," Vana said. "Your profit is just drained because the work still goes on and operating costs still have to be met."

Some farmers have learned from hard experience to try to buffer losses from a storm.

David Sumida has his employees at Sumida Farms in Pearl City harvest the lower, three-acre parcel of watercress closest to Kamehameha Highway every year as winter approaches.

The $15,000 crop, which represents one-third of the farms' operation, has been washed away by floods in the past, Sumida said.

The little grass shack that also sits near Kamehameha Highway was surrounded by water this winter and "truly looked like an island," Sumida said. "The lower field went completely under water."

Because of the quick harvest, though, "we did pretty good this year," Sumida said. "We didn't know that that storm was going to come, but we were fortunate."

Kurt and Pam Hirabara, who own Big Island Babies in Waimea on the Big Island, kept production going this winter despite crop damage by overplanting 25 percent to 30 percent, as usual.

Air temperatures dropped to 36 degrees and probably fell to freezing because of 50 mph winds, Kurt Hirabara said. The combination of wind and cold cost the farm $40,000 to $50,000 in lost gourmet lettuce, Hirabara said.

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8085.