KONA, Hawaii — Historic, torrential April rains on the island of Kauai wiped out much of Hawaii’s taro crops — the main ingredient in poi and a staple carb of the island diet.
The next month, one of the state’s most active volcanoes spewed ash and lava throughout the eastern end of the Big Island, decimating more than 50 percent of the state’s papaya production and tropical flower industry.
Then came Hurricane Lane.
As Hawaii begins to recover from the tropical cyclone that dumped more than three feet of rain onto the Big Island last week, farmers here are just starting to assess the damage to their crops. Lane landed yet another blow to Hawaii’s agriculture industry after an already difficult year of reckoning with Mother Nature. Flooding, excess moisture and pounding rains could hurt macadamia nut, coffee and flower harvests for farmers on the east side of the island, which bore the brunt of the storm.
“It’s been a tough year for agriculture in Hawaii with this and the volcano,” said Nicholas Comerford, dean of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Dan Springer, president of the Hawaii Macadamia Nut Association, said nonstop rains could have washed away macadamia nuts that are now dropping off the trees for harvest. Any significant damage to macadamia orchards could take a toll on the state’s iconic industry, which already has fallen behind that of Australia in production.
Kau Ocean Vista Coffee Estate was in the middle of a harvest when Lane struck. The rains kept workers from collecting fruit for five days, said John Ahsan, the farm’s owner. Too much rain can cause coffee cherries to split open, and unusually humid conditions can leave the fruit — from which the beans are harvested — susceptible to fungus.
“We got a lot of cherry on the tree and we got to get in there as fast as possible,” Ahsan said Sunday while out in the fields.
Lane also impacted small farms on the island of Maui, where the storm’s winds fanned and spread wildfires across hundreds of acres in Lahaina.
In the days leading up to the hurricane, beekeeper Eldon Dorsett prepared his bee hives for the coming weather, putting heavy weights on the top of the boxes to keep them from blowing away.
“Fire did not cross my mind,” he said.
At about 2 a.m. Friday, Dorsett got a call from James Simpliciano, the farmer whose land he uses for 19 of his 51 beehives.
“He called me in a panic. The reception was so bad, I don’t know exactly what he said . . . but it was something like, ‘Oh my God, there’s fire everywhere. We are going to lose everything,’” Dorsett said. “He said it looked like the seventh gate of hell.”
Dorsett arrived at the farm Saturday morning and found 15 of his hives burned to a crisp — the only evidence of their existence was a few nails and screws on the still-smoldering ground.
“It was a rough day,” Dorsett said. “The farm was like the day after Armageddon.”
Simpliciano, who owns Simpli-Fresh Produce, said he lost acres of turmeric and Moringa, along with an orchard full of mango, citrus, banana and breadfruit trees, as well as a host of nursery starter plants. It’s a crushing setback for the chef and farmer, who has spent the past five years nursing his crops.
“It took us years to set up irrigation, to plant the trees and get them to fruit, and now they’ve been decimated,” he said. “This is my fifth year and I felt like I was finally getting over the hump. So it’s just this huge loss of time. You can’t just rebuild it in a year.”
Comerford said it’s too early to get a full assessment of how Lane has impacted agriculture, but it certainly kicked the industry while it was down.
Lava from the Kilauea volcanic eruption smothered papaya farms or blocked access to properties where the fruit grows, Comerford said. Lava also destroyed orchid greenhouses while ash and sulfur contaminated hives that produce queen bees, a notable export for the state.
“To lose not just 50 percent of our papaya production but the land itself is significant,” Comerford said.
Diane Ley, head of economic development for Hawaii County, said Hurricane Lane could have hurt the orchid industry while it was working toward recovery.
“A lot of our greenhouses are not fully enclosed but more operations with a mesh to provide more shade,” Ley said. “Those will go down in heavy rain.”
Troy Keolanui had yet to fully survey the damage to his macadamia nut harvest at OK Farms. The property sits on more than 1,000 acres in Hilo, which experienced a record rainfall of more than 36 inches in four days as the hurricane passed by. He was waiting for the area to dry out this week.
“This is pretty high up there, either the number one or two in the most rain I’ve ever seen in 40 years,” Keolanui said. “The damage has yet to be seen.”
Keolanui told a local newspaper earlier this year that a bout of intense rainfall had, at that time, reduced the OK Farms macadamia nut production by 25 percent.
While rain saturated his property, Keolanui said he’s thankful Hurricane Lane’s winds, which probably would have uprooted trees, didn’t lash the island.
“We were in a position to get whacked,” Keolanui said. “We dodged a bullet here, but another storm could be two weeks away.”
Not all farms took a beating. Kona coffee, macadamia nut and other farm operations on the west side of the Big Island sit in a drier climate buffered by the mountains.
MacFarms, where Springer is the orchard manager, had actually been suffering from drought in the past few months, and the extra rain was welcome.
Macadamia nuts are harvested after they’ve fallen from the trees, and the water weight from the rain helped pull the crops to the ground for an easier harvest, Springer said. On Sunday, workers squatting under trees rapidly plucked what looked like little green marbles off the ground and placed them into buckets.
“We got two-and-a-half inches of rain and we got just what we needed,” said Springer, who oversees one of the world’s biggest macadamia orchards, an operation that produces nearly 10 million pounds of macadamias a year. “It knocked a lot of nuts off and helped us out.”
For those who weren’t as lucky as MacFarms, the road to recovery could be long.
Lyndsey Haraguchi-Nakayama said the rain and flash floods in April on Kauai wrought the worst devastation her family’s 55-acre taro farm has seen in six generations. Floodwaters washed away newly planted fields, and the deluge felled trees and submerged tractors. It could take two to three years to recover, she said.
“No matter what happens, we need to keep moving forward,” said Haraguchi-Nakayama, whose family operates Hanalei Taro. “People in Hawaii are resilient by coming together as a community during times of crisis. Farmers are vulnerable to so many things beyond our control. Farmers need to be resilient in order to continue farming.”
Kerr reported from Maui.