Monday | June 27, 2016
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Farmers prepare to export avocados

If all goes as planned, Tom Benton will be shipping Sharwil avocados to the mainland come November.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture in September eased rules prohibiting the export of the avocados to the mainland, allowing farmers here to ship the Sharwils to 32 cold weather states each winter, from November through March. Officials last fall said they hoped to start the sale of the savory fruit last year, but the rule-making and implementation plan process took too long, said Tom Benton, president of the Hawaii Avocado Association.

Still, the ability to ship Sharwils is good news for Hawaii Island’s agriculture industry, where 40 to 50 farmers grow a “significant amount” of fruit.

U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service representatives will discuss the new rules and protocol for shipping the avocados at a 5 p.m. meeting Wednesday at the Ag Extension office in Kainaliu. The meeting is for growers with a commercially viable crop — not just people with a few trees in their yard, Benton said — and for commercial packers.

The proposed protocol is fairly lengthy and detailed, Benton said. Highlights include the farm getting certified by APHIS, following orchard sanitation rules and monitoring for certain fruit flies, the ones that prevented the avocados from being sent to the mainland for decades.

The monitoring provision was a big concession on the federal officials’ part, and its the key rule that allows Hawaii’s farmers to be able to ship at all, Benton said.

“Each grower has to put out a minimum of two fruit fly traps and monitor them every week,” he said, explaining the protocol. “If they exceed a certain number of flies, they have to spray. As long as you’re spraying, they can’t shut you down.”

That’s particularly important for Hawaii Island farmers, he said.

“In Kona, the farms are small and I can’t control my neighbors,” he said.

But the avocados are such poor hosts for the fruit fly that the pests will prefer fruit fly suppression bait over the avocados, Benton added.

Processing facilities will have to follow new rules, too. APHIS will need to certify that the facilities are fruit fly-proof, and the avocados will have to be shipped in fly-proof boxes. Benton said there’s a market opening for people in Hawaii looking to build and open such fly-proofed and certifiable packing facilities.

“There will be a lot of things to work out,” he said, referring to future challenges Hawaii’s avocado industry will face as growers try to ship their first season. “The big bottleneck will be shipping.”

Benton said federal officials have hinted that the regulations may not always stay so strict.

“We have been told that if we ship successfully for a few years, we can look at lessening a few regulations and maybe even get into more states,” he said.

In the early 1990s, Hawaii farmers were given a brief window in which they were able to ship avocados. Back then, Hawaii’s fruit sold for about $40 a case, compared with Hass avocados at $25 a case.

“Our orders exploded,” Benton said.

Farmers are hoping that happens again, he said.

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