CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Mangoes from Guatemala are for sale at Kekaulike Market in Chinatown. This winter's heavy rains have stymied local harvests of the tropical fruit, as well as lychee and rambutan.
Hawaii rains prove
to be too much of a
good thing for crops
After a decade-long drought, last winter's heavy rains appeared to be a blessing for Hawaii's tropical fruit farmers.
But sometimes, too much rain isn't better than too little.
Growers of the state's top three tropical fruits -- mango, rambutan and lychee -- say this year's yields were stymied by heavier-than-usual rainstorms in November, December and January, when most tropical produce is supposed to be blooming.
Some farmers report sustaining heavy hits to their crops. And grocers say the decreased supply has driven up prices for tropical fruits, which are usually plentiful during the summer months.
"Right now, it's kind of hard to get local mango," said Lance Payanal, a produce manager at Marukai Market Place. "This year is kind of hard."
Mel Matsuda, who owns Kahuku Farmers Inc., has only 10 percent of his anticipated mango yield so far this summer.
He is holding out hope that more trees will fruit later in the season.
"The only thing is to wait and see," he said. "(Last winter) was one of the wetter years I've experienced in the last 10 years. ... We have to see how nature runs its course."
Matsuda has been farming mango for three years in a 25-acre orchard on Oahu's North Shore. He said this year's losses will likely affect his overall operation, which also produces banana and papaya.
"If it rains, we better not complain. We need the water," he said. "But this is a slight curve to our business. ... The heavy rains aborted the fruits."
Federal statistics show that 80 mango farms in the islands harvested about 200 acres in 2002, when mango sales reached $348,000 statewide.
Officials could not estimate what total mango production and sales would look like this year as the season is not yet completed, but several said there is certain to be a downturn from previous seasons.
In Chinatown this weekend, Hawaii-grown mangoes were hard to find.
One market had none; another was down to single digits of local varieties.
"We have no (local) mangoes," said Nui Soulatha, owner of Hong Fa Market. "Only from Mexico."
On the Big Island's Hamakua coast, some farmers said they had lost their entire yield of rambutan -- lychee's hairy cousin -- because of the rains. The fruit is one of the state's most popular specialty tropical produce, and its most expensive.
In 2002, Hawaii's rambutan sales grossed about $773,000, more than any other tropical fruit in the islands and twice as much as the total for mango sales, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"The rains have substantially impacted the rambutan crop," said Richard Johnson, a Big Island farmer and president of the Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers Association.
Johnson, who grows about 27 acres of tropical fruit, said he has lost more than half of his rambutan harvest. The fruit constitutes his farm's largest revenue stream.
Bob Hamilton, owner of Hula Brothers Inc., said almost of all of his rambutan trees have not yielded fruit. There is still hope for Hawaii to see some rambutan in late January (during the fruit's second season), he said, if the state gets a dry spell during the summer.
Hamilton, who grows about 80 acres of rambutan in Puna, said the fruit needs a period of little rain "to stress them to flower."
"They haven't gotten it," he said. "It will be a very bleak season."
Though lychee did not escape the effects of heavy winter's rains, the fruit's crops were near normal this year, Johnson said. The biggest difference was that the fruit matured across the state almost a month early, he said.
"Lychees do what they want to do," Johnson said. "We haven't figured out a way to trick them. You're just always glad for what you get."
Suppliers for Hawaii's grocers say they have also been affected by the decrease in the numbers of tropical fruits this year.
"Usually in the summer, people will expect that we have more of the local items," said Tish Uyehara, marketing director for Armstrong Produce. "It has made a difference."
Armstrong serves Foodland Super Market and Safeway Food & Drug stores across the state, Uyehara said. She could not disclose whether the company has lost any money because of the decrease in tropical fruits, but said the smaller numbers have been noticed.
"The weather did have some impact on the tropical fruits," she said. "The lychee season is over, and it seems the supplies weren't all that abundant."
Despite this year's spotty production, most farmers say their losses will not cripple them. And in Puna, Johnson is sticking by his rambutan.
"If you can't stand that sort of a hit every once in a while," he said, "then you shouldn't be in the business."
He also said he hopes the weather will be better this winter, when he plans to plant more acres of the fruit.