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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, March 6, 2010

Big Isle ranchers already knew how bad drought has become

By Erin Miller
West Hawaii Today

The current drought conditions aren't necessarily the most severe ever, rancher Freddy Rice says. But this is the driest winter he has seen, he said.

"This is the worst weather at this time of year," said Rice, who owns FR Cattle Co. in Waimea. "It's the first time with no Kona rains November through now. This winter we've had weeks of wind and no rain."

The National Weather Service this week said portions of South Kohala and leeward North Kohala reached the most intense drought classification, D4. It is the first time since the service created the drought monitor in 1999 that any part of the state has received the D4 designation.

The weather service attributed the dry weather to ongoing El Nino conditions that are producing dry and stable weather conditions through the heart of Hawaii's normal wet season.

"Several gauges -indicated the lowest February rainfall totals since 2000, and most were lower than the January 2010 totals," weather service senior hydrologist Kevin Kodama said.

Extreme drought, or D3, conditions persist over the southern sections of the Big Island. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, Hawaii County received 9.3 inches of rain; the monthly average rainfall for the county is 49.8 inches. Waimea typically records about 6 inches of rain in February. This year, the area recorded seven-tenths of an inch. All Big Island districts are recording less rain than usual.

Ranchers don't need to see the weather service's numbers to know how bad the drought has become.

"It looks like summer has arrived," Rice said, adding that some windward areas where he ranches have received trade winds and rain, something that's also unusual for this time of year.

The effect on Rice's cattle -- about 550 head are in the areas worst affected by the drought -- is easy to see, he said. This year's calves will be underweight.

"It's slim pickings," Rice said, adding that usually the calves benefit from the increased grass growth during typical winter rains.

Next year's calf crop will be smaller, because the cows may not get enough feed to be ready to breed, he said.

A state of emergency declaration might help ranchers, Duke Kapuniai said, if it means financial assistance.

"The animals are having a hard time," said Kapuniai, of Kapuniai Ranch in Waimea. "You have to buy feed. That was costly."

Pono vonHolt of Ponoholo Ranch bought USDA Farm Service Agency crop insurance,through the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program. That helped cover the costs of moving cattle to other areas, as well as to purchase feed. The drought, now in its sixth year, is getting worse, he said.

Two inches of rain, vonHolt said, is what the ranch needs. That, he joked, would be a million dollar rain.

"We destocked the ranch to about 65 percent of normal," he said. "There's a 3 percent to 5 percent drop in conception rates."

Though the worst of the drought is in Kohala, other areas in West Hawaii are reporting problems, said Lester Ueda, Hawaii County Farm Service Agency executive director.

"They're concerned about their trees dying -- coffee trees, fruit trees, avocado trees, pretty much everything," he said.

Ueda encouraged farmers and ranchers to enroll in the crop insurance programs, which then can qualify farmers for another program, the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payment Program, or SURE. SURE looks at a farmer's expected revenues and actual revenues; when the difference is 10 percent or greater, the farmer may qualify for payments from the USDA. The Livestock Forage Program works similarly for ranchers.

Forecasters are predicting below normal rainfall for Hawaii through spring.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.