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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, August 25, 2006

Hawai'i fruit farmers wary of Thai plan

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

Thailand is the leading exporter of rambutan in Asia. The fruit is also a top crop in Hawai'i.

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With its thin, brownish shell, the longan is a fruit that is often compared to the lychee.

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Hawai'i fruit growers said yesterday they were concerned their businesses would suffer if the U.S. Department of Agriculture approves a proposal to allow Thailand to begin exporting specialty fruits into the United States.

The growers said they feared they would not be able to compete with prices of Thailand's government-subsidized fruits, such as lychee, longan, mango, mangosteen, rambutan and pineapple.

Farm sales of such Hawai'i-grown tropical specialty fruits rose 40 percent to a record $2.7 million last year, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. More than half of the acreage is planted on the Big Island.

The growers voiced their concerns in a video conference that included representatives from the USDA, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the University of Hawai'i.

"I want to be sure that the USDA carefully considers the impact of any new trade regulations on these homegrown businesses," said U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, who hosted the videoconference. "The specialty fruit industry is one of Hawai'i's real success stories, exhibiting dramatic growth and amazing promise in just a few short years."

The USDA is accepting public comments on the proposed rules through Sept. 25.

Hawai'i farmers are only likely to face growing competition in a world where free trade efforts are creating an increasingly global marketplace, said Lyle Wong, administrator for the state agriculture department's plant industry division.

"It's going to happen," he said. "We need to figure out our advantages and disadvantages and get on with it."

Hawai'i farmers still have competitive advantages over their Thailand counterparts in terms of technology and proximity to the Mainland, Wong said.

Foreign competition could benefit consumers by lowering prices. But it also could result in lost jobs in Hawai'i's diversified agriculture sector, which has been a bright spot in an industry that has grappled with significant declines in pineapple and sugar cane.

Already Hawai'i orchid growers are facing added competition from imports of potted phalaenopsis orchids from Taiwan. In addition, local macadamia growers face greater competition from Australia, and papaya growers are already dealing with increased foreign imports.

Along with competitive concerns, Hawai'i's fruit growers are concerned that opening the market to Thailand fruit could result in the spread of plant pests and diseases in the United States. Hawai'i growers also have complained that the USDA hasn't acted quickly enough on their requests for permission to ship mangosteens, jackfruit and other products to the Mainland United States, Wong said.

Reach Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com.