HILO, Hawaii Island — Kilauea volcano’s ongoing eruption is destroying or damaging farms through the air, on the ground and from beneath the Earth’s surface.
Farmers left untouched by rivers of molten lava say they’ve had plants burned by toxic gases, irrigation tanks filled with acidic rainwater and essential infrastructure crippled by the month-old disaster.
“We’ve pretty much lost our entire farm, but not to lava, to the acid rain,” said Beverly Tuaolo, who along with her husband, Afa, owns Kamaili Nursery, a 12-acre orchid farm in Opihikao.
Hydrogen sulfide emissions that forced their evacuation have since mixed with rainwater. The resulting mixture has polluted the couple’s catchment tanks and left their 70,000 orchids unsalable just when the “flush period” for sales is about to start, she said.
The gas is heavier than air, allowing it to cling low to the ground where most plants grow.
Noting she doesn’t want to complain when others have lost homes, Tuaolo said her crop insurance will cover only a small portion of the $300,000 in losses she estimates will happen if the volcanic activity continues through December.
“We’re just decimated,” she said. “We lost 30 years of work.”
And it’s not the couple’s first loss to lava. Tuaolo said a previous flow from Kilauea volcano destroyed her former Royal Gardens home that was among the hundreds burned near the historic Kalapana coastline in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“We’re just doing things day by day,” Tuaolo said of the couple’s latest experience with the world’s most-active volcano.
They are not the only ones suffering deja vu.
“It was 28 years ago yesterday that we lost our house in Royal Gardens,” orchid farmer Mindi Clark said Thursday of the home she had shared with husband John.
Lava spared their farm, but the couple, which owns Kalapana Tropicals, moved upslope to Kurtistown, where she said they added a 6-acre nursery as a “secret weapon” against future eruptions.
But now their Kalapana operation containing more than 100,000 potted plants is again being threatened, Clark said.
“We had quite a bit of damage from the 6.9 earthquake,” she said of the largest temblor to rock the Big Island in 40 years.
It snapped the farm’s irrigation system and collapsed about half of the cinder-block benches holding the potted plants, she said. Five days of hard work fixed that damage, but continued seismic activity may leave the only remaining access road unusable, she added.
“I’m very nervous about Highway 130 being closed,” said Clark, who has responded by selling bare-rooted plants to her mainland and international customers, thus avoiding the work of replanting them after the quake damage, and moving as many young plants, along with elderly workers susceptible to the volcanic emissions, to her Kurtistown site.
The relocated plants will mature in 18 months, creating a future cash flow, she said.
“We don’t insure our crops,” Clark said. “You don’t get hardly anything back for your premium.”
Cracks in Highway 130 have been patched using metal plates, allowing passenger vehicles to pass safely over the gaps. But the repairs cannot hold large trucks like the ones that Ti and Ti Hawaii nursery owner Thomas Higgins said deliver cinder needed for the potted plants he grows on Hawaiian Paradise Park property.
With the Kalapana quarry closed due to the road condition and a Kapoho quarry only able to supply red cinder, which can’t be used for the ti plants, Higgins said he’s choosing to stop operations rather than switch to a more expensive synthetic potting material.
“Until this event is over and things somewhat go back to normal, that’s when I’ll fire it back up,” Higgins said, adding that he recently retired and will rely on his pension to pay bills.
Rachel Leyva, owner of Big Island Daylily Co., said vog, another form of volcanic pollution that’s formed when sulfur dioxide mixes with oxygen and moisture, has damaged some of the hybrid daylilies growing on her 3-acre nursery in Kurtistown.
“I count myself lucky,” Leyva said. A shift in the wind could bring the same destruction lower Puna farmers have experienced, she said.
“Pretty much everyone downwind from the eruption has suffered … and over time it doesn’t improve,” Leyva said. “It’s just going to get worse.”
Hoping that doesn’t happen is Pele’s Island Plants owner Bob Zeller, who grows orchids, cactus and succulents in Hawaiian Ocean View Estates.
He said a ridgeline is protecting the Kau subdivision from the higher concentrations of volcanic emissions and ash affecting the nearby windward communities of Pahala and Naalehu.
“We’re getting some in Ocean View, but it’s very little,” Zeller said of vog and sulfur dioxide. Still, he said it bothers his wife, who has asthma and is staying inside.
The area of greatest impact continues to be makai of Pahoa.
“Guys down in Lower Puna are struggling big time,” said Bill Walter, president of W.H. Shipman, a company that leases more than 4,000 acres of agricultural land in Keaau. “We’re not aware of any damage that’s occurred to our crops due to the volcano.”
That has made Shipman’s properties more appealing.
“We’re seeing some increased demand for land to lease, particularly for papaya, and there’s some cattle and so on,” Walter said of affected farmers seeking alternative sites located outside of the impact area.
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Jason Armstrong has reported extensively for both of Hawaii Island’s daily newspapers. He was a public information officer/grant writer for the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation from 2012 to 2016 and has lived in Hilo since 1987. Email Jason at email@example.com