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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, March 4, 2006

Downpour damages many crops

 •  Wet weather puts damper on tourism

By Dan Nakaso and Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writers

Dean Okimoto estimates this week's storms have already cost him nearly $60,000 in lost baby greens on his Nalo Farms in Waimanalo, but the true tally of the overall damage on Hawai'i's agricultural industry won't be known for another few months.

Much of the total toll will depend on how much rain continues to fall on the Islands.

"Farms are getting hurt by this, that's for sure," said Steve Gunn, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's statistics service, which will gather data on the damage. "It's probably going to be worse. To what level, I can't say just yet."

When the assessment of the damage is finally complete, farmers may be eligible for low-interest state and federal loans. But they won't be able to pass along the cost of the losses to consumers because growers from around the world are certain to fill the void in Hawai'i, keeping consumer prices down, said Alan Takemoto, executive director of the Hawai'i Farm Bureau Federation, a non-profit trade organization of 1,600 Hawai'i farmers and ranchers.

"There are going to be shortages of some commodities like vegetables and produce in general," Takemoto said. "Prices won't really change because local farmers are going to have to compete with imports that are not affected."

But Jeanne Vana, the owner of North Shore Farms, said imported produce can't truly replace fresher, locally grown crops.

Vana estimated she has lost nearly $100,000 worth of her vine-ripened Waialua Big Wave Tomatoes this week and said, "That'll mean tasteless tomatoes will displace flavor and freshness."

Even famous Hawai'i crops like taro that are certain to be lost to the storms will be replaced by taro grown in places like Florida, Takemoto said.

Before this week's rains, showers on Kaua'i last week caused the Hanalei River to overflow its banks and "inundated several major taro-producing fields adjacent to the river," according to a summary of the damage of last week's rainfall by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "... Washout of soil and young plants, heavy silting and plants being submerged for up to an 18-hour period was anticipated to cause a setback in future harvest of Kaua'i crops."

"Everybody is going to be affected," said Chris Kobayashi, an organic taro farmer in Hanalei. "It's just going to result in poor quality taro and that means less poi."

Other crops, such as cucumbers, melons and tomatoes that are grown on vines are also certain to be lost, Gunn said, and perhaps even some root crops like onions.

"We just don't know yet how badly they were hurt," Gunn said.

But Okimoto knows that he has lost all 3 1/2 acres of baby greens that his workers planted over the last month.

"We just suck it up," Okimoto said, "because it is something that imports can make up."

Like other farmers, Okimoto said his baby greens seem to suffer damage from winter storms every two years or so.

"Two years ago, that was worse because we came back one time (to replant) and then we got another big rain," Okimoto said. "The size of the drops pound (the greens) into the ground and then it also floods. If it's one or the other, we're usually OK. But not with all of that together."

Gov. Linda Lingle's declaration of disaster areas for rain-soaked portions of Kaua'i, O'ahu and Maui means the state Board of Agriculture can begin setting up emergency, low-interest loans for farmers, said Sandra Lee Kunimoto, the board's chairwoman. The board will have to determine the amounts, interest rates and other terms of the loans, Kunimoto said.

The last time the state activated its emergency agriculture loan program was in 2000, she said.

Once the final damage assessment is complete in the next few months, Kunimoto said, Lingle may consider asking for a disaster declaration from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which could trigger similar, low-interest federal loans.

You Soukaseum, who owns five farms in Kahuku and Waimanalo, said all of the estimated 18 farms in the Kahuku Agriculture Park were under as much as 5 feet of water yesterday.

Even farmers on higher ground suffered damage as water poured through their land and swept away their crops, Soukaseum said.

Soukaseum estimated his losses at $50,000 and said other nearby farmers have seen total losses along with the prospect of no income in the near future.

"It's everybody," he said.

Like other farmers around the state, Soukaseum won't know the true cost of the damage until the water subsides.

"It's hard to get into the flooded areas," Takemoto said, "and we need to wait for the ground to firm up before we can assess the damages. Obviously, it is going to negatively impact a lot of farmers a lot of farmers."

David Sumida knows how they feel.

His family's Sumida Farm in Pearl City suffered $66,000 worth of watercress crop losses two winters ago, but so far has escaped any damage from this week's storms.

"You can't do anything while the weather is bad," Sumida said. "We didn't know how much damage was done until the water receded. I know exactly what they're going through right now. I have plenty of sympathy."

Staff writer Eloise Aguiar contributed to this report.

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com and Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com.