The state’s ag industry mobilized to provide aid and the state bought feed, but ranchers need rain to grow grass soon.

The toll of Maui’s wildfires on ranchers and farmers is coming into focus three weeks later – thousands of acres of pasture, a significant chunk of orchardists’ harvest and the nursery industry’s output of flowers.

The winds and wildfires of Aug. 8 have left Maui’s agricultural sector with a complicated web of immediate and longterm issues, from destroyed infrastructure to lost markets.

Hawaii’s agricultural industry has mobilized to help Maui’s producers in the aftermath, though many are predicting more complications will arise in coming weeks, as concerns over water, water infrastructure and the longterm health of harvests become clearer.

Vast tracts of land across Kula were burned by wildfires in early August, leaving thousands of acres of land unavailable for grazing by cattle. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s initial estimates show the fire scorched more than 6,300 acres of agricultural land. About 20 miles of fencing was destroyed and tens of thousands of feet of key water infrastructure were melted or broken, according to on-the-ground estimates, Hawaii Farm Bureau executive director Brian Miyamoto says.

But fire is just one facet of the damage. The winds tore through Upcountry Maui’s soon-to-be harvested produce too.

The overall cost to agriculture is still unclear.

The most obvious impacts are being felt on Maui’s ranches, predominantly Haleakala Ranch, given the majority of land scorched was on pasture and rangelands.

In the immediate aftermath, more than 70 bails of hay — about 80 tons — were shipped to Maui, arriving on Aug. 18.

More feed shipments are currently being coordinated. It remains unclear how much will be enough to tide the cattle over as ranchers regrow grass, according to Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council Managing Director Nicole Galase.

Haleakala ranch is one of the largest on Maui and perhaps the worst damaged from the Aug. 8 wildfires. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture paid for the imported feed, but Galase says ranchers would be unable to shoulder those costs, which underscores the need to regrow the scorched earth.

Neither DOA or the cattlemen’s council have received reports of cattle being killed in the fires.

But if ranchers do not get rain to help regrow their pastures they may need to slaughter cattle early because there will not be enough grass to feed the herds.

The prevalence of axis deer, a longstanding issue, will also complicate matters because they may encroach on ranches and eat back the new growth, according to Galase.

“We have to go with what nature provides us,” Galase said.

Toppled By Winds

In the 80 mph-winds, between 60% and 70% of the persimmon harvest at Hashimoto’s Kula Persimmon & Cherimoya was lost when branches were torn down, ripping fruit off trees and leaving many without leaves.

Noel Hashimoto’s trees, planted by his father and grandfather, have been decimated by the winds that stoked Maui fires. (Courtesy: Noel Hashimoto)

The persimmon harvest was due to start in about four weeks and owner Noel Hashimoto was hoping for a bumper crop.

Hashimoto, a retired USDA inspector, does not rely on the crop to make a living and says he is just thankful his home and family are OK.

“It will be bad … It’s hard work and hard to see all our hard work go all down the drain,” Hashimoto said.

The question of whether or not his trees will survive — they were planted in the 1920s — won’t be answered until next season, he said.

The winds that toppled Hashimoto’s harvest also affected the area’s protea farmers, whose plants take up to six years to flower, and other nurseries in the Upcountry region.

Like those protea growers, Hashimoto had several customers in Lahaina.

Finding Help

In the immediate aftermath, food producers on Maui and across the state began chipping in support for those displaced in the Lahaina fire.

Ranchers from Maui and across the state have been donating cattle and beef to help feed the community displaced in the Aug. 8 fires.

Hawaii Sustainable Beef, on the Big Island, pledged 20,000 pounds of ground beef to Chef Hui, a volunteer group of chefs that has churned out 10,000 meals per day following the fires. Other farms provided produce.

But farmers and ranchers on Maui will soon have to find a place to sell their own produce given Lahaina was a key market for flowers, food for the hospitality industry and demand from local residents.

New buyers will need to be found across the state to replace demand from tourism, according to Hawaii Farm Bureau executive director Brian Miyamoto.

“They can’t continue to donate their products. It’s just not sustainable as a farm business,” Miyamoto said.

A helicopter from Maui Fire Department carries a bucket of water up to the gulches surrounding the town of Kula to quell a number of hot spots still smoldering in the eucalyptus trees. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

A survey being conducted by Hawaii Farmers Union United found that more than half of 50 respondents so far had lost between 76% and 100% of their buyers. Most of the respondents were orchard or nursery operators in search of grants and funding relief, not equipment or infrastructure.

HFUU has been working with Maui Department of Agriculture and several other nonprofit groups to find those new markets, according to HFUU Government Relations Representative Hunter Heaivilin.

Affected farmers and ranchers will also need to leverage grants from organizations such as the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, which typically provides relief to producers post-disaster.

  • ‘Hawaii Grown’ Special Series

“We want our farmers to use that as much as they can because it’s federal money that’s there to be used,” Heaivilin said. 

In the next month, federal, state and county agencies are slated to host events in Lahaina and Kula to provide a one-stop location for affected farmers to seek relief and psychological support. Those events will likely be held in Kula and Lahaina.

“There’s a lot more that needs to be done,” Miyamoto said. “Everyday we get a bigger picture on how bad things are.”

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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