Rain more burden
than benefit on Big Isle

KAILUA-KONA >> For years, farmers wanted the drought to end, but last week's rains didn't provide welcome relief in some parts of the Big Island.

"I prayed for the rain, but I didn't expect so much," Arlene Wakefield said. "I love the rain, but it's really causing big problems."

Not since 1996 has the state seen a wet season with more rain, forecasters said. And a tropical depression that hit the islands last week is casting some doubt on hopes that the summer will offer a respite for farmers from damaging downpours.

But Troy Kindred, Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency administrator, said that despite the rain, the Big Island as a whole remains under a drought proclamation and authorities are concerned a hot, dry late summer might mean a greater wildfire threat.

Many areas, however, remain more soggy than scorched. Mountain View, for example, topped 100 inches of rain in the first six months of the year; its annual average is 125 inches. Keahole Airport has recorded more than 16 inches of rain, or three times its norm, according to the National Weather Service.

"One thing about farming is, it's an ongoing challenge with Mother Nature," said Alan Takemoto, executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation. "There's not much you can plan for. ... You just pull through."

Many Hawaii farmers, like Wakefield, are just now assessing the damage that the winter's heavy storms levied on their crops.

Wakefield says it's too early to make predictions on her coffee yield. But some of the tropical flowers on her 10-acre Wakefield Gardens in Honaunau have suffered.

Takemoto estimated that the winter rains cost Hawaii farmers millions of dollars in lost produce. "It came down really hard in such a short time span of time," he said. "The ground wasn't able to soak up the water."

Lee Kunitake, executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Big Island office, said farmers, ranchers and flower growers across the state are still struggling to recover from damaging storms in early spring. He said his office has gotten at least 150 telephone calls seeking aid.

More help could be on the way in the form of emergency low interest loans from the federal government, said Rueben Flores, executive director of the Farm Service Agency.

Hawaii, Honolulu and Maui counties have been designated for federal disaster aid, although the money won't be available to farmers and ranchers until next year.

USDA state agricultural statistician Don Martin also cautioned that much of the information so far is anecdotal and the overall picture won't be clear until the whole crop comes in, he said.

"It's a mixed bag," he said, "but that's how it always is." Some vegetable crops, such as tomatoes, onions and melons, may be suffering, while orchard crops and pastures are benefiting, Martin said.

Star-Bulletin reporter Mary Vorsino contributed to this report.

County of Hawaii



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