The first tropical storm to hit Hawaii in 22 years could cause devastating losses to the state’s papaya trees.

Tropical Storm Iselle made landfall Aug. 8, bringing torrential rains and 60 mile-per-hour winds that knocked out power and caused flooding.

Up to 80% of the papaya trees in the Puna/Kapoho growing district on Hawaii’s Big Island, which makes up about 90% of Hawaii’s production, could be lost, said Michael Kohn, president of Kunia, Hawaii-based Paina Hawaii LLC.

“The losses are devastating,” Kohn said. “This could be similar to losses from ringspot virus.”

Losses from ringspot virus in the 1990s led to the introduction of genetically modified papayas in Hawaii.

Even if 20% of papaya trees haven’t been destroyed, Kohn said, some growers may not want to take the risk of harvesting in areas that are littered with fallen trees.

“Is it worth taking a truck to pick them up? It’s hard to get into the fields.”

With product already in the pipeline, the effects on the market may not be felt until later in August, Kohn said.

But after that, it could be 16 months before the industry can produce in any volume. New papaya trees typically don’t produce until 12 or 13 months after they’re planted, he said.

Kohn is confident, however, that the industry will recover.

“I think there are enough resilient farmers and shippers to wait it out.”

Hawaiian growers produced about 23 million pounds of fresh-market papayas in 2013 worth $8.3 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The storm hit just weeks after Hawaiian papaya growers announced they would fight a ban on open-air growing and testing of genetically modified crops imposed by the Hawaii County Council.

The ban exempts existing papaya crops and growers, but no new acres can be planted, according to a case filed June 9 in federal court.


Onions spared

Los Angeles-based World Variety Produce Inc., which markets product under the Melissa’s brand, reported minimal damage to the Maui onions it imports from Hawaii, said Robert Schueller, the company’s public relations director.

“Our farmers reacted in time,” Schueller said.

With only a few weeks left in the deal, growers dug their remaining onions before the storm hit, Schueller said.

“Basically the storm shortened the season by a month or so.”