Hawaii Island farmers still recovering from past storms hit again with lava

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It’s been a challenging few years for farmers on the Big Island. They’ve been hit with natural disasters from tropical storms, hurricanes, and now lava.

But they say this time is much different, and it will take even longer to recover. 

A number of farmers say they were still dealing with debt they racked up after Hurricane Iselle in 2014.

The difference with that natural disaster was that they were able to rebuild on their land.

Now lava has completely covered thousands of acres of farm land, so they explain that it’s a total loss.

They’ll have to start completely from scratch. 

Fresh Hawaiian orchids in lei or plant form are a staple in the state.

They normally bring joy. Now the farmers that supply them are devastated.

Lava claimed nearly a dozen orchid farms in the Puna area. The orchid farms represent decades of hard work, passed down from generation to generation.

They’re someone’s livelihood, someone’s way of paying the bills.

“It took me 25 years to get it to where it is, or was… I don’t know,” Elton Mow, owner of Orchid Plantation Inc., said.

It takes 4 to 6 years to grow a single orchid plant. Mow says it will take that long to recover and rebuild his business. 

“I have 3 kids, middle school and high school. I need to think about college and paying the mortgage,” Mow said.

The orchid farmer says the state will likely experience a shortage in certain types of orchids just like the papaya due to the eruption.

“A farmer independent came to me. He was growing near Highway 127. His 27 acres are completely covered in lava. He came to me asking for help,” Eric Weinart, general manager of Calavo Growers, said.

Weinart manages the largest exporter of papayas from the Big Island. He says lava claimed thousands of acres of papaya farms, impacting at least 150 farmers. 

“For him personally, it’s devastating. And it’s family, many brothers and cousins. That’s their only source of income. It takes a year to get your first fruit, so you don’t have any income. You have to spend money and work and all that’s gone,” Weinart explains. 

What’s also troubling is the impacted farmers have no way to access their land. The area is completely cut off. The only way they know they lost their farms is from watching aerial footage. 

Farmers are now scrambling to figure out their next steps.

The Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce is helping, but they acknowledge it’s a long road ahead of papaya and orchid shortages, and millions of dollars of lost revenue. 

“Take papaya. Where would we be without papayas for our morning breakfast? And we export papayas, so that brings foreign dollars. The orchids. we use a lot here for our flower leis, and a tremendous amount is shipped out, so that’s money brought back into the state,” Bill Walter, president of Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce, said. “It’s something we need here to have a vibrant economy. You can’t have an economy based on tourism and government. Agriculture needs to carry a big part of that load, and they have.“

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