‘Agricultural disaster’ aid available for Maui County – The Maui News

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‘Agricultural disaster’ aid available for Maui County

By CHRIS HAMILTON, Staff Writer

POSTED: December 11, 2009

WAILUKU – For the second straight year, Maui County farmers and ranchers could receive federal aid after the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared the county an "agricultural disaster zone" Thursday.

U.S. Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka announced the disaster zone, which also includes Hawaii County and Kalaupapa on Molokai. The drought is headed toward a fourth year, although rainfall has increased this fall and winter.

The Agriculture Department’s Weekly Crop Report for Hawaii noted that the state’s crops overall were in fair to good condition with pasture fields slowly improving and orchards doing fine. But Molokai remains under a mandatory 20 percent water reduction for all water consumers, except those on homesteads. The county also still asks residents in Central and South Maui to conserve water consumption voluntarily by 10 percent.

Warren Watanabe, executive director of the Maui Farm Bureau, said he was sure the designation would help farmers and particularly those who raise livestock, an industry hit especially hard by the drought.

"A lot of the economic impact has been the inability of ranchers to raise more cattle," said Maui County Council Water Resources Committee Chairman Mike Victorino. "They have fewer grazing areas, which means smaller, consolidated herds and lower yields. Not as many fields are being planted either."

Gov. Linda Lingle spokesman Russell Pang said Lingle requested the USDA designation Oct. 14 from U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The state still awaits word whether Honolulu and Kauai counties qualify for the natural disaster designation, which entitles farmers and ranchers to federal Farm Service Agency emergency loans as well as the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments Program.

Eligible agricultural producers can borrow up to 100 percent of actual production or physical losses, not to exceed a total of $500,000, according to information provided by the senators’ offices last July. The interest rate was not available Thursday.

For more details, Maui County agricultural producers can contact the local Farm Service Agency representative at (808) 871-5500, ext. 353.

"This request is made to you based on preliminary reports that the agriculture community has been adversely affected," Lingle wrote in her letter to Vilsack. "We anticipate undue financial hardship without your assistance."

County Department of Water Supply Director Jeff Eng said that with recent rainfall, Maui is in better shape than in recent years, but still not out of the woods. He noted that the Upcountry reservoirs are near capacity with more than 100 million gallons.

Maui County’s largest agricultural employer, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., does not appear to qualify for the loans and other payments, said HC&S General Manager Chris Benjamin.

"But it is welcome assistance to small farmers and ranchers across the state that have suffered the same drought conditions as HC&S," Benjamin said in an e-mail Thursday to The Maui News.

The sugar plantation employs 739 people full time, not including 55 employees at Kahului Trucking & Storage and 17 at East Maui Irrigation Co., both HC&S subsidiaries that support plantation operations. The company lost $13 million last year, and, due to the drought, its sugar harvest was down this year to about 126,000 tons from an average of roughly 200,000 tons, company officials said.

The weekly U.S. Drought Monitor, released Thursday, showed all islands continue to have abnormally dry areas, with much of Maui, Molokai and Lanai in degrees of drought classified from moderate to severe. The conditions have improved significantly over last year, however.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, currently 31.1 percent of the state is not experiencing drought conditions. A year ago, only 1.5 percent was not under drought conditions.

Victorino said he hopes something much more permanent, such as federal dollars to find solutions to water shortages, eventually comes out of these designations instead of just loans to help farmers retain employees.

What the county really needs to do is fast-track lingering or unfunded plans and projects to find new underground water sources, reopen the two Hamakuapoko wells in Upcountry, build more reservoirs and finish the Upcountry waterline to the Kula Agricultural Park, Victorino said.

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