W. Maui fires take toll on farmers

They seek information, help from state, federal ag officials at meeting

Kaipo Kekona (center), farm manager of the Ku‘ia Agricultural Education Center, speaks to Kahana Stone (right), acting U.S. Department of Agriculture district conservationist, alongside other West Maui farmers and residents Tuesday evening at Lahaina Intermediate School. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photos

LAHAINA — West Maui farmers still are hurting from last month’s strong winds and raging fires that destroyed crops and hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment.

About a dozen farmers and other agricultural businesses sought help from federal and state officials Tuesday evening during an informational outreach meeting at Lahaina Intermediate School. Many had lost most of their crops and infrastructure to the Aug. 24 fires that burned more than 2,000 acres in multiple fires from Maalaea to Kaanapali.

“The fire came in at the center of the farm and burned all of our equipment,” said Gunars Valkirs, owner of Maui Ku’ia Estate Chocolate, at the meeting. “Two trucks, a tractor, an expensive ride-on mower, two greenhouses, two containers full of equipment — and I mean full with weed whackers, hedgers, bone saws. All melted down.

“Every tool we had we literally lost in this fire.”

Officials with the state Agriculture Department, U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies answered questions and tried assisting farmers through various loan programs during the meeting hosted by West and South Maui Sen. Roz Baker and West Maui Rep. Angus McKelvey. The programs follow Gov. David Ige’s requests for presidential disaster declarations for Hurricanes Lane and Olivia, which were both granted by President Donald Trump.

State Agriculture Department Chairman Scott Enright listens to Lahaina resident Michele Lincoln during an informational outreach meeting for farmers and other agriculture businesses impacted by recent West Maui fires Tuesday evening at Lahaina Intermediate School.

State Agriculture Department Chairman Scott Enright told farmers that his department, historically, does not provide disaster relief. However, Ige has asked his department to put together programs to help recovery efforts.

“The governor is giving us authority to do disaster loans,” Enright said. “We give emphasis and priority to individuals who just went through a disaster, and the governor is considering this fire a disaster.”

Enright said there is $1.5 million left for disaster loans at 3 percent interest. He said farmers would not have to pay the state back until they’re fully operational.

Some farmers were not overly optimistic about the state or federal governments helping their operations.

Valkirs said he spent about $20,000 to replace much of his irrigation system within a week after the fire and already had spoken to the USDA about reimbursement. He said he does not know if he will be able to recoup the money.

Valkirs’ 54-acre cacao farm suffered fire damage, but none of it was to his crops due to perimeter windbreaks. Winds of 70 mph, however, stripped the cacao of their leaves.

“Many of the trees were completely defoliated, like not a single leaf left,” he said.

The farm has two, 10-acre plots: one with 3-year-old plants and the other with year-old plants. Although the more mature plants should recover completely, about half the younger plants were lost — up to 2,000 trees.

Valkirs lost $100,000 in equipment to the fire, but he may have lost even more to the winds because of the amount of time it takes to grow the delicate plant.

“It’s a matter of time,” he said. “To get to this point, it took us two years. We’re basically back to square zero. It’s hard to calculate that cost.”

Despite the setback, Valkirs hopes to build his first chocolate factory by the end of the year. The factory expects to produce 44,000 pounds of chocolate in its first year using his own cacao beans and foreign imported beans.

The factory is designed to produce 110,000 pounds of chocolate every year and will be located across the street of Star Noodle. Valkirs said he plans to return 100 percent of net profits to Maui nonprofits.

Another farm damaged in the fire, located next to Valkirs’, was Simpli-Fresh Farm. The 20-acre farm sells produce to local hotels and restaurants.

Janell Simpliciano said she teaches and assists her husband, James, with the farm that had more than 70 percent of its irrigation system burned. She said the lost equipment filled three large dumpsters.

“A lot of our tools are all gone. Our sheds with irrigation equipment are gone,” Simpliciano said. “We’re taking it one day at a time. We’ll get back to where we need to be.”

Simpliciano said she and her husband lost hundreds of coconut trees and other small crops, such as citrus, papaya and eggplant. She said they were hoping to start farm tours in the next couple months and planned to start producing tomatoes at a thousand pounds a week.

She was thankful, though, to friends, family and others for helping to clean up their farm.

“We’re very, very grateful for the support of the community, and they’ve just made us feel so loved,” she said.

Kaipo Kekona, farm manager of Ku’ia Agricultural Education Center, said its 12.6-acre farm lost at least 60 percent of its crops and 40 percent of its infrastructure. The center offers programs for students statewide and is re-establishing canoe crops on the island like ulu, coconuts and sweet potato.

The program welcomed about 700 students last year, Kekona said. He said the fire has affected the program, but program participants were able to rebuild their irrigation system two weeks after the fire.

“It just slowed it down,” he said. “If anything it created more awareness for us. I try to stay as positive as I can. Now we talk about what preventions we could do.”

Some people at Tuesday’s meeting questioned what could be done about private landowners with properties that have gone fallow that may have helped fuel the fire in West Maui.

Lahaina resident Michele Lincoln said Ige’s proclamation may give the state leverage in addressing the issue. She asked why owners of agricultural lands are allowed to keep their properties unmaintained.

“This proclamation might be our only window of opportunity to get stuff growing on the west side and for legislators to work with the ag people and all the landowners who aren’t growing crops,” Lincoln said. “There’s thousands of acres that are ag designated, and they’re being neglected and this might be a way to take advantage of that.”

Enright acknowledged that large landowners at one point leased land to Amfac and Pioneer Mill to grow sugar. They have taken the land back since the end of sugar and are not interested in agriculture. He said he does not know what the intent is for individual owners, but they have made a business decision to forgo agriculture.

“The public sees fallow lands that at one point were prolific agriculture lands and say why not,” he said. “It’s because they couldn’t make economic sense of doing an agricultural venture. I believe that changes over the course of time.

“The scarcest resource on the planet is not oil. It’s fresh water. These islands have rich water resources. We need to use them judiciously, but we do have them. Over the course of time, we’ll see more agriculture than we have today, but it will always be about whether there’s a return on investment.”

Enright said the department cannot force landowners to actively farm.

“At the end of the day, whether those enterprises are profitable, it’s a business decision,” he said. “Quite obviously that capital hasn’t shown up to do it. The DOA is often asked about doubling local food production, and we can always do that but my question always is, ‘Who’s money are we using?’ ”

Farmers and other agricultural businesses seeking assistance may call Kahana Stone, acting USDA district conservationist, at 871-5500, ext.1748, or contact James Robello of the USDA Farm Service Agency by phone at 871-5500, ext.1740, or email at james.robello@ hi.usda.gov.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

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