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Big Isle farms burned by vog


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POSTED: Monday, March 09, 2009

PAHALA, Hawaii » Nursery owner Ted Seaman proudly boasts of the hibiscus trees he once grew on the Big Island, remembering how landscapers snapped them up for their gardens.

But today, leafless monkeypod and browning Norfolk pine trees litter his 3.5-acre nursery in the small town of Pahala on the southern edge of the Big Island. Noxious fumes that have been pouring out of Kilauea volcano in unprecedented volumes since last spring have suffocated his plants.

"You can only go so far before you say, 'Forget it,'" said Seaman, who has since taken a job trimming trees. The 53-year-old is currently focused on saving enough money to file for bankruptcy.

Sulfur dioxide from the volcano has wiped out multiple small farms and nurseries in the nearby largely rural district of Kau. The gas, which creates vog, or volcanic smog, when mixed with sunlight and air, threatens the viability of some flower and vegetable crops in the area.

Roses, sunflowers, protea, lettuce, tomatoes and even medical marijuana are hurt by vog. (Hawaii is one of 13 states where medical marijuana is legal.)

Many farmers are desperately hoping government grants or other financial help will save their farms. But the recession has depressed state tax revenues, and Hawaii has little money to help farmers. The governor has already slashed budgets for schools, mental health treatment and other vital programs.

Sulfur dioxide is not new on the Big Island, where Kilauea has been erupting continuously from a vent called Puu Oo since 1983. But last March, the volcano began releasing two to four times the sulfur dioxide as before when a second, simultaneous eruption began at the summit's Halemaumau Crater.

Sulfur dioxide volumes reached levels unseen since scientists began keeping data in 1979.

Claudia McCall's farm, which is tucked into a valley north of Pahala, has slashed production by 75 percent and lost $1 million since vog started enveloping her plants last spring.

The McCall Flower Farm now only plants limited varieties, like Peruvian lilies, that have withstood the vog. It has also started planting coffee—which seems to grow OK even amid vog—but these trees will not produce their first crop for three years.

McCall's husband now drives more than 100 miles round trip to a job in Hilo to support the family.

The federal and state governments have offered farmers low-interest loans, but many are not interested in taking on more debt, especially with the vog still blowing in.

Seaman said the federal Farm Service Agency offered last summer to lend him more than $65,000 if he built "vog-proof" greenhouses equipped with air filters.

But Seaman said the funds would not have covered all his equipment costs.

"I just couldn't bring myself to do it. I don't want to put good money after bad," Seaman said. "It didn't make sense."

Farms that purchased federal crop insurance before the disaster have received payments. Many farmers, however, did not have policies. The federal government is allowing these farmers to retroactively buy insurance, but this program is new and will not come to fruition until late this year.

The state Legislature is currently considering several bills to help, including a resolution asking the federal government to give grants to vog-damaged farms.

This is too late for those who have already had to abandon their farms, like protea farmers Frank and Jackie Zumwalt.

Frank Zumwalt has moved to Louisiana to work on a supply ship serving offshore oil rigs, falling back on his prior career as an engineer. His wife is attending culinary school in Alabama so she can become a cook on board one of the vessels.

They left behind a 6-acre farm in Ocean View that once grew 3,000 protea plants.

"The vog came down and settled," said Jackie Zumwalt. "It was almost like a Stephen King movie, 'The Mist,' because you couldn't see; you could hardly see your driveway."

Their former neighbor Connie Stanton is deserting Hawaii for Alaska this month to reclaim her old job running a weather station 800 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Other farmers say they might have to give up, too.

"People have gone—they've just abandoned their farms," said Tony Bayaoa. "If I don't get help, our farm is gone."

Not all growers are suffering, however.

Some native plants, especially ohia trees, appear to have evolved to resist the harmful effects of sulfur dioxide over millions of years of growing next to Hawaii's volcanoes.

Zoe Thorne, who has a native plant nursery amid a rain forest in the town of Volcano just east of Kilauea, has been inundated by heavy vog several times. One of her few non-native plants, a gunnera, looks like someone sprinkled acid on its leaves.

But her ohia trees show off bright red and yellow blossoms and host several loudly singing apapane birds. Her mamane, a plant favored by the endangered palila bird on Mauna Kea, have a healthy green hue. Same with her koa, the tree that grows Hawaii's favorite wood.

"They seem to have evolved with it," Thorne said. "They've show no sign at all."

A 1980 study by Stanford University biologists showed ohia are able to close their stomata—the part of the plant that takes in air and releases moisture—when enveloped by heavy sulfur dioxide.

The same report, which appeared in the journal Science, said aalii, another native plant, quickly grows new leaves after a sulfur dioxide attack.

But not all native plants have these talents.

Kelvin Sewake, an extension agent with the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture, has documented cases of koa, naio and uki—all native species—that have suffered heavy vog damage.