Image: Vog-resistant coffee seedlings checked.
Chris Stewart  /  AP
Jeff McCall checks the health of vog-resistant coffee seedlings at the McCall Flower Farm in Wood Valley near Pahala, Hawaii, on Sunday.
updated 3/9/2009 11:26:04 AM ET 2009-03-09T15:26:04

Leafless monkey pod and browning Norfolk pine trees litter Ted Seaman's 3.5 acre nursery in the small town of Pahala on the southern edge of Hawaii's largest island.

His skill as a grower isn't to blame. It's the noxious fumes that have been pouring out of the Kilauea volcano in unprecedented volumes since last spring.

"You can only go so far before you say forget it," said Seaman, who has since taken a job trimming trees. The 53-year-old is currently focused on saving enough money to file for bankruptcy.

Sulfur dioxide from the volcano has wiped out multiple small farms and nurseries in the nearby largely rural district of Kau. The gas, which creates volcanic smog when mixed with sunlight and air, threatens the viability of some area flower and vegetable crops.

Roses, sunflowers, protea, lettuce, tomatoes, and even medical marijuana are hurt by the smog.

Many farmers are desperately hoping government grants or other financial help will save their farms. But the recession has depressed state tax revenues, and Hawaii has little money to help farmers.

Sulfur dioxide is not new on the Big Island, where Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983. But last March, the volcano began releasing two to four times more sulfur dioxide, and a second, simultaneous eruption began at the summit's Halemaumau crater.

Sulfur dioxide volumes have reached levels unseen since scientists began keeping data in 1979.

Loans and 'vog-proof' greenhouses
Claudia McCall's farm, which is tucked into a valley north of Pahala, has slashed production by 75 percent and lost $1 million since the volcanic smog — or vog — started enveloping her plants last spring.

The McCall Flower Farm now only plants limited varieties, like Peruvian lilies, that have withstood the vog. Workers also started planting coffee — which seems to grow OK even amid vog — but those trees won't produce their first crop for three years.

Federal and state governments have offered farmers low-interest loans. But many aren't interested in taking on more debt, especially with the vog still blowing in.

Seaman said the federal Farm Service Agency last summer offered to lend him more than $65,000 if he built "vog-proof" greenhouses equipped with air filters. But Seaman said the funds wouldn't have covered all his equipment costs.

"I just couldn't bring myself to do it. I don't want to put good money after bad," Seaman said. "It didn't make sense."

Farms that purchased federal crop insurance before the disaster have received payments. Many farmers, however, didn't have policies. The federal government is allowing these farmers to retroactively buy insurance, but the program is new and won't come to fruition until late this year.

The state Legislature is currently considering several bills to help, including a resolution asking the federal government to give grants to vog-damaged farms.

Deserting Hawaii for jobs elsewhere
That would come too late for those who have already had to abandon their farms, like protea farmers Frank and Jackie Zumwalt.

Frank Zumwalt has moved to Louisiana to work on a supply ship serving offshore oil rigs. His wife is attending culinary school in Alabama so she can become a cook on board one of the vessels.

They left behind a six-acre farm in Ocean View that once grew 3,000 protea plants.

"The vog came down and settled," said Jackie Zumwalt. "It was almost like a Stephen King movie, 'The Mist,' because you couldn't see, you could hardly see your driveway."

Their former neighbor, Connie Stanton, is deserting Hawaii for Alaska in March to reclaim her old job running a weather station 800 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Other farmers say they may have to give up, too.

"People have gone, they've just abandoned their farms," said Tony Bayaoa. "If I don't get help, our farm is gone."

Not all growers are suffering, however.

Some native plants resist effects
Some native plants, especially ohia trees, appear to have evolved to resist the effects of sulfur dioxide.

Zoe Thorne, who has a native plant nursery just east of Kilauea, has been inundated by heavy vog several times. One of her few nonnative plants, a gunnera, looks like someone sprinkled acid on its leaves.

But her ohia trees show off brightly red and yellow blossoms and host several loudly singing birds. Her mamane, a plant favored by the endangered palila bird, have a healthy green hue. Same with her koa, the tree that grows Hawaii's favorite wood.

"They seem to have evolved with it," Thorne said. "They've show no sign at all."

But not all native plants have these talents.

Kelvin Sewake, an extension agent with the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture, has documented cases of koa, naio, and uki — all native species — that have suffered heavy vog damage.

More on: Hawaii | Vog

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