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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 25, 2010

Farmers, ranchers live under financial fallout

 •  Vog smothering Big Isle

By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Garrison McCall, a grower in the Wood Valley area of Pδhala, shows the vog damage to podocarpus. The high levels of sulfur dioxide turn the leaf tips brown.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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PĀHALA — Lani Petrie is up early on what was supposed to be a rare Saturday off.

Some cattle are arriving from another ranch on the Big Island and they are showing symptoms of a copper deficiency — one of the effects seen in cattle exposed to vog high in sulfur dioxide, which leeches copper (a needed nutrient) from their bodies. She needs to oversee work to give them supplements and get a good look at what other problems they have. She says, resignedly, that they also look a little underweight.

Since March 2008, when thousands of metric tons of sulfur dioxide started spewing from Kīlauea's Halema'uma'u Crater daily and wafting to rural communities downwind, Petrie has been living a ranch manager's nightmare — one that is threatening the very existence of the 150-year-old ranch she has worked on for much of her life. "It's not business as usual," said Petrie simply, as she sat on her porch at Kapapala Ranch on a recent morning, before heading out on her zippy all-terrain vehicle to check the new cattle.

Petrie is one of a host of ranchers and growers — from Volcano to Kona — grappling with a natural disaster that has taken a big (though as yet unquantified) toll on their industries and whose end is nowhere in sight. In places downwind of the vog, ranchers are trying to stem the effects of the emissions on their cattle and replacing mile after mile of fencing corroded by heavy vog, while growers have struggled to put in crops less susceptible to the haze. Flower farms, especially, have been hit hard and many have closed.

There are also other effects: Vog is quickly corroding state highway signs and road barriers. Its components are getting into water catchment systems, as acid rain, potentially causing problems for humans and definitely spurring issues for plumbing. And there are concerns it could be affecting tourism, though there is no evidence of that and, officials say, any effects are far outweighed by the tourism slump.

In short, the state doesn't have a handle on the costs of vog.

A September 2008 survey of 27 horticulture and nursery operations in the Ka'ū district put their self-reported losses alone at $1.3 million. "Since the vog continues on, what it is today is anybody's guess," said Mark Hudson, a statistician at the state Department of Agriculture. "There are so many variables."

State Rep. Bob Herkes, D-5th (Ka'ū, S.Kona), is pushing for more aid for ranchers and growers.

And, he said, he wants a better accounting of the scope of problems — and their costs.

"The lost protea alone is in the millions," he said.

At Kapapala Ranch, above Pāhala, the damage from the vog is still unknown — and still adding up.

It's showing up as copper deficiencies in her cattle, in lower birth weights, in teeth problems (from fluoride ingestion in grazing land affected by acid rain). Thankfully, Petrie stressed, the issues have been dealt with — so they haven't shown up in the meat from her cattle. But tackling the problems costs a lot.

(She couldn't put a figure to her extra expenses — or future losses).

With little hope of much in the way of federal or state grants, those higher costs of doing business are worrisome. And they're not the only headache: Hundreds of miles of fence line at the 30,000-acre ranch are quickly being eaten away by vog — corroded at an incredible rate by the highly acidic volcanic emissions.

"In the face of this kind of disaster," Petrie said, "I feel just a bigger challenge ... to find the answers."

Just up the road from Kapapala Ranch, in Wood Valley, the situation is just as bleak or bleaker for countless farms. Dozens of exotic flower growers in Wood Valley and Ocean View saw effects from the emissions almost overnight. Within days of the heavier vog starting, they were suffering hefty crop losses.

The state doesn't have a tally on how much the vog has cost growers. Estimates vary on how many operations have shut down, but it's believed as many as 46 protea growers in Ocean View have had to close.

Now, there are a half-dozen left.

Dan Wegner, of Aloha Protea Farms and president of the Hawai'i State Protea Growers, is one of the holdouts in Ocean View. He said business isn't near as profitable as it used to be, but he's scraping by and is determined to stay. "This is my home. I'm 64 years old. I'm too old to start a new game," he said, laughing. "My wife and I started this farm. We broke it out of raw land. I'm going to hang on like a dang pit bull."

Wegner said he now produces about 10 percent of what he used to.

He added that he's afraid to add up how much money he's lost.

In 2008, authorities declared a state and federal agricultural disaster to open the door to grants for farmers, federal insurance payments and low-interest loans. Farmer and ranchers say that help, though, has been slow in coming and not nearly enough to get them back on their feet. Insurance payments cover a small percentage of what was lost and many are hesitant to get disaster loans with the vog still going.

Diane Ley, executive director of the Hawai'i office of the U.S. Farm Service Agency, said the natural disaster now being felt largely on the Big Island presents an "anomaly for producers and U.S. Department of Agriculture (relief) programs that were designed for more traditional events such as drought or floods."

She said documenting damage from the vog has been "difficult at best."

That frustration is felt by farmers and ranchers, too, who are now seeing that the vog not only had short-term effects on their crops and animals, but is having new effects, from killing off century-old trees to affecting a crop yield. (Bees don't fly in the heavy vog, so they are not pollinating as many flowers).

In Wood Valley, the small farming community above Pāhala, McCall Flower Farms is hanging on, but barely. The farm grossed about $250,000 last year, after making some quick changes to crops and deciding not to plant in some areas. By comparison, the farm brought in $850,000 in 2007, before the heavier vog. Meanwhile, the farm estimates it has had up to $1 million in direct losses.

"We were fortunate to be diversified," said owner Jeffrey McCall.

McCall is also staying afloat with some quick thinking. When things got bad, he restructured his state agriculture loan and took a nursery management position in Hilo, while his son stayed in Wood Valley to keep the farm running.

"We actually have the farm on the market, but I don't have a whole lot of hope to be able to sell it," he said. "We've put everything into our farm. At the same time, I don't want to go bankrupt."

He added that everybody in Wood Valley hopes the vog moves out soon.

"That's not a real great bet," he said. "Halema'uma'u could go on for another 100 years."

McCall's son, Garrison, was working at Wood Valley on a recent day, checking out leaf damage to a stand of trees near the property line. He said the vog has disrupted life in this place, ending livelihoods and dreams, uprooting longtime residents.

"It's pretty much changed everything," he said. "We're struggling."