FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Local-grown lychees alongside imported Taiwanese lychees, on the right, are for sale in a stall at the Maunakea Marketplace in Chinatown.
Late seasonal start stymies lychee growers
For local lychee growers, it's too much, too late.
Months of heavy rain earlier this year delayed the crop by several weeks by pushing back the flowering of the trees. Then the fruit was plentiful.
The state Department of Agriculture reports that lychee production in 2003 totaled 88,000 pounds and was valued at $250,000 in sales, according to research statistician Arthur Osaki.
In 2004, 94,000 pounds of lychees were picked and totaled $230,000 in sales. Statistics were not yet available for 2005 or this year, he said.
Meanwhile, many markets are selling imported fruit from Taiwan or China instead -- drawing buyers with lower prices. That has left growers with leftover lychees.
"We're in a quandary," said Jamie Runnells, sales manager for one of the largest Big Island tropical fruit growers, Hula Brothers Inc. "We have tons of fruit on the Big Island (where most of the growers are) looking for a home."
Another grower, the Wailea Agricultural Group in Hamakua, is in the same situation.
Owner Lesley Hill said, "We've had the biggest crop we've ever had. We were so excited when we had a buyer for the whole crop" until that buyer pulled out to bring in lychees from Taiwan.
"Buy fresh; buy local" doesn't seem to mean much to marketers. When "push comes to shove, cheaper sells. ... You can't control the weather, but it's difficult as farmers to learn how easy it is to flood the market with an inferior product," Hill said.
Hill has 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of lychees that she is thinking of freezing -- "at least we'll be eating lychee the rest of the year" -- or sending to the mainland.
Runnells said Hula Brothers only started harvesting at the end of June, which is more than a month late due to the rain, which delayed the flowering of trees.
"Now we're in full swing," but the markets are glutted from fruit from Taiwan, which depressed prices "very dramatically," she said. "We have 2,500 to 3,000 pounds of Grade A fruit" they cannot sell, and lychee season lasts only three to four weeks.
Runnells said this is the first time there has been such a large influx of Taiwanese lychees into Hawaii, and "the quality is not very good." This fruit is cold-treated to kill insects, and when the skin turns brown, they bleach it, then dye it red, she said.
Tish Uyehara of wholesaler Armstrong Produce, which supplies Foodland, Safeway and other market chains, said her company buys only local lychees.
Sales of local fruit have slowed down because wholesalers have brought in the less expensive Taiwan lychees, which have "glutted the market." And the existing inventory has to sell before more local fruit can be purchased, she added.
"I feel really badly, too, for the Hawaii growers. They finally have a good year" but are edged out at the market by a cheaper product, Uyehara said.
Floyd Mikasa, production director of Times Super Market, said his chain brought in some Chinese lychees, which are not dyed, when Big Island supplies were scarce.
"We like to sell local stuff as much as possible," he said. As soon as the Chinese inventory is depleted, "we will be switching over to local."
Growers have been "calling us directly (instead of the wholesaler), which is an indication they're stuck" with a lot of fruit, he said.
Matt Otani of D. Otani Produce, wholesaler for Star Super Markets, said he has no Big Island lychees because they were selling for $4.50 a pound. But a couple of growers have called him since and indicated their price might drop next week. As soon as he sells out of the Chinese lychees he brought in at $2 a pound, he might buy the local product, Otani said.
A random survey of Chinatown merchants showed what was advertised as "Hilo lychee" was available for an average of $4.99 a pound. In a few places, Taiwanese lychees were sold in plastic bags for $2.99.
Glenn Nakamura, an owner of Ace Market on North King Street, sold Taiwanese lychees for $2.99 a pound and local lychees for $5.50 a pound.
But if the wholesale price of local lychees drops to $3.50 next week when more fruit is available, Nakamura said he would buy some. The air freight to bring in the lychees from Hilo is high, and he has to mark up the price by $1 to cover it. "I'm not making much money," he said.