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Maui County drought conditions worst in state

Upcountry farmers take financial hits amid lower yields

Kula Elementary School first grader Cami Wong, 6, bends but does not break under the weight of her pumpkin selection Tuesday afternoon at the Kula Country Farms Pumpkin Patch. She held on until other young family members rushed in to help. Kula Country Farms staffer Tori Olaitiman said the farm planted 22,000 pumpkins, but due to dry conditions harvested about half that number. She said that left enough for the annual patch, but not enough to sell to stores this year. Those wishing to attend the popular event are encouraged to reserve a time online at kulacountryfarmsmaui.com. Olaitiman said walk-ins are also being accommodated. Food, drinks and other items are available to purchase. The patch is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day in October. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Despite the start of the rainy season this month, Maui County is again stuck in the worst drought conditions in the state and Upcountry farmers and ranchers are suffering significant losses as a result.

This year’s drought on Maui is worse than last year’s dry conditions, said Kevin Kodama, senior service hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Honolulu.

“I think overall in Maui County, 2021 drought is worse than 2020, though it can be argued that the bad drought conditions on west Molokai early in 2021 was a carryover from 2020,” Kodama said Thursday. “On the island of Maui, I think this year is worse than last year.”

Joel Gil Coca, owner and head farmer of Coca Farms in Pulehu, said this year’s drought is harder than any other. Production rates are about one fourth of what they were last year, leading to decreased sales and livelihood.

“This drought has been the worst year our farm business has experienced,” he said via email Thursday. “In other years we have experienced manageable droughts where we can get through but this year has been extra challenging.”

Haiku mom Sofia Dawes snaps a selfie with children Jack, 5, Mia, 3, and Reed, 1 month, (in stroller) while shopping for pumpkins Tuesday afternoon at the Kula Country Farms Pumpkin Patch. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

His organic vegetable and fruit farm relies on natural weather conditions for crops to grow. With the sun heating up the soil and drying it out, the soil can no longer retain water like it does during a normal season.

“The water evaporates and our produce isn’t able to grow properly,” Coca said.

His daughter and farm secretary, Genesis Gil, said fields of kale are small and stunted because of the harsh conditions. 

“We thought we would have kale for our customers, but we don’t have it because it’s just not growing,” she said.

Now, the farm will have to invest more labor and money to transition to a new water system, changing from overhead irrigation to drip tape. 

Farther up the mountain, Kula Country Farms said it planted 22,000 pumpkins but due to dry conditions, it harvested about half that number this season.

There are enough pumpkins for the annual patch, but not enough to sell to stores this year, according to staffer Tori Olaitiman. 

Recent cattle losses due to drought in Kaupo have been reported, Kodama said during a weather briefing Friday.

Last year’s Maui County drought, which left western Molokai particularly hard hit, was the most severe in the state and sparked a federal disaster declaration.

Now, extreme drought on Maui has entered its fourth month along lower leeward slopes of Haleakala, leaving pasture and general vegetation health “very poor,” especially in Omaopio and Pulehu areas, according to Kodama’s Drought Information Statement released Wednesday.

Producers in Omaopio and Pulehu areas of Upcountry said their operations have not only been hampered by dryness, but also by axis deer encroachments due to poor forage outside of farmlands.

West Molokai was also reported to be very dry, and the little rainfall that has occurred has not produced significant regrowth of vegetation. 

Maui County Department of Water Supply in July declared a Stage 1 Water Shortage for Upcountry, which prohibits consumers from using water for irrigation, watering lawns, washing vehicles and other nonessential activities.

Severe drought or worse conditions are now in all four counties in the state, the report said. The worst drought continues to be in Maui County where extreme drought, or the D3 category, has spread into the leeward areas of Molokai and Lanai.

“Even with the onset of the October 2021 through April 2022 wet season, the strength of the existing drought is such that multiple rain events will be needed to fully recover, especially in Maui County,” Kodama said in the report. “Windward areas should have sufficient rainfall to mitigate the development of significant drought conditions.”

Staff Writer Matthew Thayer contributed to this report.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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