Big Island papaya farmers on alert over fears of vandalism
Harvest time is nearing again on the Big Island, after two consecutive years of vandals chopping down thousands of papaya trees.
"I couldn’t say anything. I just cried. We’re still trying, even though it’s really hard on us," said Big Island papaya farmers Erlinda Bernardo.
"It was all cut down like this, as low as this," said Bernardo, pointing to a mangled tree about 2-feet-tall.
In 2011, vandals cut down half of her and her husband Jimmy's 10 acres of their genetically modified papaya trees, and those tall stalks and golden fruit meant money in the bank.
Because of the vandalism, the Bernardos said they lost well over $10,000 last year, and they said much of what’s growing back is just not good enough.
"Look at that, no more fruit," said Bernardo, pointing to new growth on the stunted trees. "We were hoping this farm would support the education of my two kids, who are in college."
It's been about a year since the vandals chopped down the Bernardo’s trees.
"We were just kind of worried what would happen to the other farmers," said Bernardo.
Elizabeth Julian joined the Bernardos to talk to KITV reporter Lara Yamada.
Last year, vandals chopped down more than 8,000 of her family’s trees.
Her husband Laureto died last month, not knowing who did this and why.
"It's just really sad, because it takes a lot of risk and a lot of labor to be a farmer, and we don't have any solutions," said Hawaii County's DayDay Hopkins, who works closely with farmers.
Hopkins said the few leads investigators had over damage done to the crop, which other industries rely on, have since fallen through.
"You can't find any other crop that can grow that quick and provide you with that volume," said Hopkins.
She said the fast-growing, high-volume papayas are needed to fill up cargo containers.
Without it, she said, it wouldn't be worth the fuel for shippers to come to Hawaii or cheap enough for companies to pay for it.
But with it, lighter, valuable loads, such as flowers, can go too.
"It has a strategic importance to the development of agriculture on this island," said Hopkins.
"We're getting close to July and everybody is panicking," said Bernardo.
But what's on the minds of Big Island farmers is what's left in their fields.
No one, not Hopkins, the Bernardos, or investigators know for sure if this was an anti-GMO hit, a disgruntled neighbor or someone else, but they all know it's a precious commodity they can't afford to lose again.
"Why, and what did we do wrong?" said Bernardo.
Hopkins said she is working with prosecutors to, hopefully, one day stiffen penalties for agricultural vandalism.
In the meantime, a $30,000 reward for critical information to solve these cases still stands.
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