Agriculture

Agriculture

Proposed layoffs may bury an industry

Agriculture / A meeting at the State Capitol last Thursday drew testimony from dozens of people concerned about how planned layoffs of more than 50 state agricultural inspectors will impact Hawaii’s export industry.

A few testimonies came from specialists and elected officials–Hilo Mayor Billy Kenoi called the move a “serious mistake.” Most comments came from small-business owners from the neighbor islands who, in language ranging from anger to desperation, expressed alarm about what the cuts will do to their livelihoods.

“I’ve done this for 23 years and I don’t have anything else to fall back on,” said Jeff Marcus, an exporter of exotic palm trees on the Big Island in a telephone interview. Marcus, who was among those who submitted testimony to the House Agriculture Committee, said the layoffs would prevent his company from selling palm trees to the mainland because required biannual nursery inspections would be severely delayed. Marcus says this would force businesses like his Floribunda Palms and Exotics to close.

“I don’t want to be political about this but it seems like a violation of my act of doing business, of commerce,” Marcus said. “That doesn’t sit well with a lot of us. It scares us.”

Jeffrey Parker, president of Tropical Orchid Farm Inc. on the Big Island, was even more defiant.

“To have spent 30 years learning skills and developing my unique business, and surviving one of the worst economic downturns of our lifetimes, and then have a single blind ideologue, who refuses to examine the economic and environmental impacts of her cuts and refuses to look at other options, unilaterally say ‘You are out of business,’ is outrageous,” Parker stated in his testimony. “[Gov. Linda Lingle’s] management of this issue is so irresponsible, she should probably be removed from office.”

Rep. Clift Tsuji, who chairs the committee, said the layoffs of Hawaii Department of Agriculture inspectors, scheduled to take place on Nov. 13, will only exacerbate an already sorely understaffed department that received a mere three percent of the states general fund budget. The layoffs are part of an effort by the Lingle administration to close an $884 million budget gap. However Tsuji, along with many small businesses, fears the economic repercussions could far outweigh the benefits.

“It will be an economic cycle that devastates the whole state economy,” Tsuji said in a telephone interview. “I’m not trying to be melodramatic, but these are testimonies that are coming out.”

With the proposed 54 percent reduction in inspectors, Hawaii, which imports more than 85 percent of its food supply, would become highly susceptible to invasive species, such as tree snakes and fire ants from California. Peter Berg, owner of Quindembo Bamboo Nursery is frightened by the thought, particularly because he knows first-hand how much of a nuisance invasive species can be.

“The fire ants and the coqui frog were creatures that were not caught by the agriculture department because they were already understaffed. So, if this becomes even worse, what’s going to arrive here next?” Berg said.

The cuts would also mean highly perishable imports would be docked for longer periods of time, resulting, some say, in spoilage and an eventual food shortage. “The supermarket shelves will be empty,” Tsuji said, likening the layoffs to a shipping strike. “As I’ve said before, man cannot live on Spam alone.”

Already, the California Department of Food and Agriculture has threatened to shut down all exports from Hawaii if pest interceptions on Hawaiian goods aren’t reduced. During the first six months of 2009, 135 shipments of cut flowers were intercepted due to pests.

Delays would also occur on shipments to the mainland, meaning perishables, like cut flowers and papayas, won’t be as fresh and might even spoil during transit. Hawaii’s agricultural export industry is worth $125 million.

Last week’s meeting was part of an ongoing discussion between the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, the Agriculture Committee, local agricultural businesses and the general public that Tsuji described as an “educational process to help prepare all of us.” Possible temporary solutions–from obtaining outside funding to cross training of inspector personnel–were discussed.

“I think it shows the seriousness about what is taking place,” Tsuji said of the number of business owners who testified. “A lot of them came from small entrepreneurial farmers who have never testified before. They came from every island in the state and…they’ve never written a testimony before.

They say ‘we don’t know what all of this stuff means but we can tell you what it means when the checking account hits zero: business closes.’”