Farmers with destroyed livelihoods seek options and answers

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Administrative Rules Officer Ted Shiraishi of Hawaii Department of Taxation speaks Friday during a disaster emergency resource meeting at the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Robert Masuda, first deputy director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, stands to speak Friday during a disaster emergency resource meeting at the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Nearly all of the chairs are filled Friday during a disaster emergency resource meeting held by the Hawaii Floriculture and Nursery Association at the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo.
  • Workers roll out purchased plants for a customer Thursday during a plant sale for Jan Anderson at Rozett’s Nursery in Hawaiian Paradise Park.

  • Jan Anderson of Kapoho Kai Nursery stands amongst a group of licuala grandis Thursday during her plant sale at Rozett’s Nursery in Hawaiian Paradise Park. (Photos by HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)

HILO — The ongoing eruption on Kilauea’s lower East Rift Zone has displaced a few thousand people and altered the landscape.

For farmers and ranchers in the area, it’s also taken away their livelihood.

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Jan Anderson said lava buried her palm nursery and her husband’s orchid nursery in Kapoho, along with their vacation rental. Their home is still standing but inaccessible.

With an uncertain future, she’s now faced with selling the last of the palms she relocated to a friend’s nursery in Hawaiian Paradise Park when volcanic fissures started disrupting water supply to the area.

At the time, she didn’t think lava was going to make it to Kapoho, at least not so quickly.

“We thought at the very least long term, maybe it would be coming,” Anderson said, of the lava. “Nothing like what just happened. I don’t think anybody expected that.”

Eric Tanouye, president of the Hawaii Floriculture and Nursery Association, said at least a dozen nurseries are “seriously impacted,” whether by lava inundation or from sulfur dioxide emissions.

“A lot of orchids down here have such unique growing conditions,” he said. “A lot of the lower elevation orchids are being grown there.”

Tanouye said growers had been recovering from Tropical Storm Iselle in 2014 and the lava flow that threatened Pahoa that same year.

“We’re definitely going to be feeling the impact for the immediate or intermediate few years,” he said.

Much of the state’s papaya also is grown in the area.

Ross Sibucao, a papaya farmer and former Hawaii Papaya Industry Association president, estimated half of Hawaii Island’s papaya crop is in lower Puna, which he called the “Napa Valley of papaya.” He expects most farmers will want to continue farming if they can.

“A lot of these farmers are pretty tenacious when it comes to treating any kind of hardship,” he said.

Lori Farrell, administrator with Hawaii Farmers and Ranchers United, said as many as two-thirds of papaya farmers on the island could be impacted. While government programs offer low-interest loans and some grants to farmers affected by natural disasters, they also need land to stay in business, she said.

Unlike with other natural disasters, no one knows when the eruption will end and farmers can’t just return to their land once the damage is done.

Farrell said that’s something with which the state and county can help.

“If we do not open up more land, we got nowhere to put these guys,” she said.

Land was an issue that was discussed Friday at a forum for displaced farmers organized by the nursery association. But there appeared to be limited options for use of public land at the moment.

Gordon Heit, Hawaii Island district land manager for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said there is not much state land available in the area out of harm’s way above the rift zone.

Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser, deputy director for the state Department of Agriculture, said agricultural parks on the island are mostly full with tenants.

Money for a feasibility study to develop an ag park between Hawaiian Beaches and Hawaiian Paradise Park was released last year, but that she said that could take a couple years to complete.

Tanouye told those in attendance it’s important to stay positive.

“If you don’t have hope, you will lose your farm and ranch,” he said. “Hope allows you to jump back in, and this is how we are going to save agriculture in lower Puna and East Hawaii.”

Representatives of state and federal agencies discussed low-interest loans that are available as well as some grants. Farmers can also receive relief on their state taxes.

There are limits to how much a farmer can receive. For instance, a federal grant for those without crop insurance is capped at $125,000 per producer, said Allen Frenzel, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s farm services agency director for Hawaii.

“None of them are designed for lava,” he said, regarding the programs. “This is the test case.”

Frenzel noted that cap has been lifted in the past by Congress in response to other disasters. He said he has seen payouts from the federal government three years after a disaster.

An insurance representative said that most farms affected by the eruption don’t have crop insurance.

For properties inundated by lava, the county is giving them a market value of zero, meaning they won’t owe any property tax for the next fiscal year.

Lisa Miura, acting property tax division administrator for the county, said that will also apply to the mauka portion of Leilani Estates that’s been affected by evacuations, though spared inundation.

She said the county is losing about “$5 million and counting” in annual property tax revenue because of the disaster.

Anderson said they had lived in Kapoho for more than 40 years and she is not sure what she will do next. She said she will continue selling the last of her palms at Rozett’s Nursery near 28th Avenue and Kaloli Drive in HPP from Thursday through Saturday.

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“I feel lucky in one sense that we have insurance and eventually we can find something somewhere,” she said. “But we haven’t found that somewhere yet.”

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.