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New rule would boost avocados


Tribune-Herald staff writer

Shipping Sharwil avocados from Hawaii to the mainland may get easier if new rules regarding fruit flies take effect. The U.S. Department of Agriculture would allow Sharwil avocados to be exported from Hawaii to parts of the mainland with relaxed restrictions under a recent proposal.

Sharwil avocados, an “exceptional” variety of the healthful green fruit, have not been shipped from Hawaii to the mainland since 1992, when a fruit fly was discovered among avocados being processed for shipment in Hawaii and fear of spreading the fruit fly to mainland fruit-growing regions led to closing the lucrative markets to the Hawaii fruit.

But new research has shown Hawaii avocados to be an unlikely host for the fruit fly and renewed shipments to the mainland could be a boon for the Big Island, since it’s where most of Hawaii’s commercial avocados are grown. Sharwil, the most desirable variety, dominates due to its buttery taste, smooth texture and small seeds.

Mark Wright, chair of the graduate program in entomology at University of Hawaii at Manoa, said, “the research demonstrates that under normal fruit harvest and packing circumstances, Sharwil fruit are not a host for this fruit fly.”

“Combined with the proposed systems approach for Sharwil fruit harvesting and intent to ship the fruit from Hawaii only to certain northern states, the risk of introducing fruit flies by this route is negligible,” Wright said.

Under the proposed new rules, farmers would no longer be required to fumigate or treat avocados to kill fruit fly larvae as long as other procedures are maintained, said the USDA.

The agency expects Hawaii to export up to 390,000 pounds of Sharwil avocados if the rules are relaxed. The industry produced about 700,000 pounds in 2011. Production peaked at 1.2. million pounds in 2007. Annual sales have ranged from $500,000 to $800,000 a year over the past decade.

Distribution of Sharwil avocados would be limited to fruit harvested between Nov. 1 and March 1 that are being exported to 32 northern States and the District of Columbia to ensure that if any fruit flies are shipped, the climate where they’re going will not allow them to reproduce. The allowed destinations would be Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

“Avocados are much, much easier to grow than coffee,” said Brooks Wakefield, secretary for the Hawaii Avocado Association. She and her husband Bill have farmed avocados in Kona for 34 years.

Wakefield said some Kona coffee growers plagued by the destructive coffee berry borer insect are starting to grow avocados instead, and that the new, relaxed rules will be beneficial. Avocados grow on the same “ag belt” as coffee, she said. “At least there will be something, an alternative, for those giving up. It will make a difference to the whole state.”

Hawaii Avocado Association President Thomas Benton also testified in favor of the rules change. “Hawaii’s current limited production will ensure a slow controlled introduction to the mainland market,” Benton said, which will allow the industry to “observe the process as our production increases and markets are developed on the mainland.”

“The risk that an Oriental Fruit Fly colony getting established in a fruit-growing area on the mainland is mathematically infinitesimal and practically speaking zero,” he said. “With the proposed new rules, the benefit to the Hawaii Farmer, the American consumer and economy far outweigh the risk.

“Over time we believe there will be a benefit to the American shipping economy as Hawaii Sharwils begin to fill some of the empty containers returning to the mainland,” Benton said.

“It has taken us 22 years to get back to where we are now, and for the most part it will be a new generation of farmers and agricultural businessmen who will benefit from this. We believe this system is very safe and will enable the Hawaii farmer to build a good, dependable market for the Hawaii Sharwil and to able to expand our production for the benefit of everyone concerned.”

No significant objections to the proposed rules were submitted during the recently ended comment period; however, there is no timetable for the USDA’s final decision on the proposed new rules.

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