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USDA declares disaster over Iselle’s damage to Big Isle agriculture

The U.S. Department of Agriculture designated Hawaii County on Wednesday as a primary natural disaster area because of damage and losses caused by Tropical Storm Iselle.

The USDA reviewed the county’s loss assessment reports and determined that “there were sufficient production losses to warrant” the designation, according to Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack.

“A Secretarial disaster designation makes farm operators in primary counties and those counties contiguous to such primary counties eligible to be considered for certain assistance from the FSA (Farm Service Agency), provided eligibility requirements are met. This assistance includes FSA emergency loans,” he wrote in the declaration announcement.

In a phone interview Thursday, Hawaii FSA Executive Director Diane Ley said she couldn’t provide figures to show just how badly Hawaii’s farmers were hit because releasing such information could possibly add to the negative impacts on their businesses.

“It’s a little bit awkward, but we cannot share exact numbers or estimates,” she said. “What the USDA doesn’t want in a disaster situation is to impact future markets by saying something like ‘90 percent of the floriculture industry was destroyed.’ That might impact prices, or might scare away buyers.”

Earlier this month, state Department of Agriculture officials said the damage to the papaya industry alone could be estimated at $53 million.

On Thursday, Ley said that while the Big Isle’s papaya farmers took the biggest blow, other producers of agricultural products also were severely impacted.

“The impacts vary from producer to producer, but we’ve certainly seen significant impacts in floriculture,” she said. “Particularly, folks that had greenhouses or shadehouses. … When the wind came through, the cloth acted like a bed sheet blowing in the wind and started ripping the houses down. We saw some farms where 4-inch pipes were snapped. Then, the shadecloth drops down on anthuriums and flowers, and damages them, or if they’re exposed to the sun they get sunburned. It can create fairly significant damage.”

Other industries impacted by Iselle include macadamia nut and coffee growing operations, she said. Meanwhile, a farmers collective in Ka‘u saw heavy damage to its irrigation system, which provides water for between 10 and 12 different farms.

According to Ley, the disaster declaration opens up access to low-interest loans for farmers who might not have qualified before, in addition to a variety of other programs offered by the FSA.

It is aid that is greatly needed by the papaya industry, which had already faced stiff competition and dwindling profit margins before the storm hit, said Peter Houle, a Hawaii Papaya Industry Association board member and owner of papaya processor Hawaiian Rainbow Produce.

“I think we may see some aftereffects from this where we’ll lose another round of farmers. These people are getting hit from all sides. And the papaya group is an aging group. We do have some young farmers, but it’s dwindling,” he said.

As for the impacts after Iselle, they varied widely between growers, with some losing nearly their entire crops.

“Some of these farmers out here lost anywhere from 90 percent to 95 percent of the trees in some of their fields,” Houle said. “It varied farm by farm. In some cases, one farm lost a whole bunch of trees, and a farm right next to it hardly lost anything. There was a lot of variation.”

Houle added his revenue has dipped as the volume of papaya needing processing has dropped, and the disaster declaration is likely to have a “trickle up” effect for him.

“When farmers’ revenues go down, our revenue goes down. And when their revenues go up, our revenues go up,” he said.

Farmers in eligible counties have eight months from the date of a secretarial disaster declaration to apply for emergency loans. FSA considers each emergency loan application on its own merits, taking into account the extent of production losses on the farm, and the security and repayment ability of the operator.

The Hawaii County Farm Service Agency in Hilo is located in the Federal Building at 154 Waianuenue Ave., Room 322. The agency asks drop-ins to call for an appointment before coming by the office because of the recent increase in visits, and to ensure that they bring the correct paperwork with them. The FSA can be reached at 933-8381, extention 2.

More information is available online at disaster.fsa.usda.gov.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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