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Friday, March 31, 2000

Isle farms wither on parched earth

A statewide drought, now
in its third year, hits ranchers
and farmers the hardest

Task force will create relief plans

By Pat Gee


Cattle on Maui are breaking down fences to get to greener pastures. Big Island farmers are hauling water to irrigate their crops in Puna, while coffee and macadamia nut growers in Kona are thinking rain dances might help.

The scarcity of rainfall for the third consecutive year is taking a toll on farmers and ranchers, especially in parts of Maui and the Big Island recently declared disaster areas. Even on Kauai, the water shortage has farmers worried.

By Rod Thompson, Star-Bulletin
Big Island papaya grower William Julian stands near
some of his drought-damaged trees. The trees have
fruit now, but Julian predicts that in five months
they will produce 75 percent less fruit.

Developing a statewide drought emergency plan was the focus of a two-day workshop this week, sponsored by the state Department of Agriculture and the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

Without a plan, "drought assistance is haphazard; there is no specific legislation for drought," said Paul Matsuo, chief of the state Agricultural Resource Management Division. He noted that "insufficient rainfall is not justification to trigger a declaration" of emergency, unless it is related to another disaster.

That's little solace to ranchers watching their animals suffer.

Cattle on the 23,000-acre Ulupalakua Ranch on the southwest slopes of Haleakala on Maui "are starved for water and breaking into neighboring pastures" in search of nourishment, said manager Tony Durso.

"This, by far, has been the worst drought we've ever seen" since rainfall records were started in 1925, added ranch owner Sumner Erdman. "The effects will be felt for the next several years."

Durso said their cows are producing 40 percent to 50 percent fewer calves this year, and the calves are only half their normal expected weight, "which makes them essentially worthless."

"The cumulative effect has been quite brutal," said Durso, referring to the past two years of drought. Of the ranch's 2,300 head of breeding stock, "we have to drop at least 800, a staggering number" that represents "a huge economic loss, a straight $130,000."

Erdman said it will be the first time since his family took over the ranch in 1963 that they will have to get rid of cattle at cut-rate prices.

Already, Durso said they are spending $500 a day to feed only a small fraction of their animals, supplementing the "brown stubble" of pasture land.

Big Island Farm Bureau president Ellen Mehos, a former Kona coffee farmer, said even those who are lucky enough to have irrigation are "getting by."

The rainy season "has not happened yet in any way," Mehos said. "It usually starts now. But we're still praying and doing rain dances."

For Cathy Julian, co-owner of W and C Julian Farms in Puna, fruit production will be very low in two or three months, since the plants now in the flowering stage are suffering from lack of water.

She and her husband, who run a side-business hauling water, recently started bringing it to their own fields, the first time since 1997.

They carry water mainly to farmers in the Hawaiian Paradise Park area of Puna, where plants are "suffering badly, especially the seedlings -- they're taking a beating."

"Everybody is trying to hang on," said Corkey Bryan, vice president of livestock operations for the Big Island's Parker Ranch. "It's going to be ugly" if the drought continues, he predicted.

Parker Ranch was able to get through the past two years "in pretty good shape" with a couple of timely rains, but now will have to spend a lot more on feed purchases, he said.

The drought "has affected us dramatically," shortening the macadamia nut growing season by two months, said Rich Vidgen, president of Mac Farms of Hawaii in South Kona. The result: a lower quality of nuts and fewer workers.

In the past two years, the company has been down "about 20 percent from what we normally do ... a significant loss in profits," Vidgen said.

He has been working on getting a bill passed by the U.S. Senate that would give Hawaii coverage under the federal Bureau of Reclamation for long-term loans for drought mitigation.

Mac Farms now has two wells that are used to irrigate only a third of its 3,850 acres, Vidgen said.

On Maui, Warren Watanabe is fighting a one-man battle to keep his vegetable crops in Kula irrigated, saying the county water system is barely adequate. His net income has dropped because the quantity and quality of his crops have been reduced.

Watanabe, also president of the Maui County Farm Bureau, is working to get a bill passed by the state Legislature to help farmers build their own catchment tanks, because the county reservoirs are not large or numerous enough to satisfy Maui's needs.

Elsewhere in Kula, Linda Fujitani and her husband, Earl, grow Korean daikon on a small family farm. They and their "plants are going through stress" because they are dependent on a water system that is "financially draining," she said.

Fujitani, a board member of the USDA Farm Service county committee, said she's "frustrated because nothing is being done" to alleviate the water shortage, which is "becoming all too common every year ... yet we continue to have development."

Though conditions on Kauai are not as dire, Neal Norman, owner-manager of Kauai Organic Farms, said farmers there also are "dying for rain ... It's hot, it's dry, it's full-blown summer."

Crops in the ground are doing fine, thanks to an irrigation system, but 10 acres of new soil being prepared with compost for next year's crop are not breaking down due to the lack of moisture, he said.

Amfac Sugar Kauai is rationing its irrigation water supplied by the county water system for most of the plantation, said vice president Lyle Tabata. But some 5,000 acres dependent on water from the Waialeale Ditch are suffering because of low water levels.

"Growth has come to a crawl," Tabata said. But there is a plus side.

"From every bad thing, there's something good from it," he said, noting that dry weather provides ideal conditions for harvesting sugar cane, resulting in "an excellent burn (so that) there's nice, clean cane to send to the factory."

For Linda Fujitani on Maui, "Farming was our American dream -- being our own boss, being close to our family, working a job that was important and meaningful to our economy.

"But I'm in my late 40s and getting disillusioned. That's why there are fewer farmers. They've just given up, but we just hang on."

Task force will
create drought
relief plans

By Pat Gee


A few heavy rains won't cause the neighbor island drought to go away and that's why more than 60 government officials, farmers and ranchers met this past week to begin formulating a statewide drought plan.

Twice before, conferences were called to come up with a plan, but the timely occurrence of rain canceled the meetings.

"This time we're not going home," James Nakatani, chairman of the state Department of Agriculture, told participants at a two-day meeting at the Honolulu Airport Conference Center.

Already, parts of Maui and the Big Island have been declared drought disaster areas.

Gov. Ben Cayetano has asked the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to assist the state in planning for future droughts, as well as in mitigating the current crisis, Nakatani said.

A Hawaii Drought Task Force, made up of state and county representatives, will be selected in the coming weeks to draw up specifics of the plan. The consensus of participants in the conference was that the county should have a stronger leadership role in tackling the problem, said Bruce Flinn, of the Bureau of Reclamation.

By September, he expects the first phase of a draft plan to be completed, including a workable plan for the next few years that would identify other issues and funding needs.

"We're going after this aggressively," Flinn said about the planning process.

He said the effects of drought are long-term and complex, and include emotional as well as economic and environmental devastation. In the worse-case scenario, "you lose the farm; people get displaced," especially when a drought lasts more than two years and a community is dependent on agriculture or ranching.

The proposed plan would call for agencies to monitor "triggers" that would warn them of upcoming droughts, so that measures could be put into effect before it got to the point where the governor has to declare an emergency before help could start, said Paul Matsuo, administrator of the state Agricultural Resource Management Division.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka has introduced a bill that would make Hawaii the 18th state to receive technical and financial assistance under the Bureau of Reclamation, Matsuo said.

"Drought is like an amoeba, when you squeeze it, it reforms itself somewhere else," Flinn said. "Just because it rains doesn't mean the animals will get better or the crops or soil will improve right away."

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