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Mayor: Department of Agriculture layoffs will be felt county-wide

By Staff | Nov 19, 2009

“We encourage everyone from school children to senior citizens to write to the governor, letting her know that losing our insect and plant specialists will hurt tourism and residents,” said Mayor Charmaine Tavares.

LAHAINA — Mayor Charmaine Tavares recently hosted an informational meeting in Lahaina to discuss the impact of planned layoffs in the Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s Plant Pest Control Branch and furloughs for agricultural inspectors.

The mayor announced that three specialists on Maui will lose their jobs this month: the entomologist, plant pest control specialist and commodities inspector. All three specialists also go to Molokai and Lanai to conduct inspections.

Tavares asked the public to send letters or e-mails to Gov. Linda Lingle to reinstate these positions.

If Maui loses Entomologist Mach Fukada, she argued, the impacts will be felt county-wide. Everyone, from small farmers to airport and harbor inspectors, relies on Fukada to identify invasive insects that harm food and flower production, she explained.

John Frostad, the commodities inspector, checks all of the seed corn fields and certifies the seeds before they are shipped to other states or countries. He also inspects animal feed that comes into Maui and produce that goes to grocery stores and supermarkets, said Anna Mae Shishido, Maui County supervisor for the Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s Plant Quarantine Branch.

“Not having a commodities inspector will cripple the coffee industry,” said Hawaii Coffee Association President Tom Greenwell. “Delays in inspecting green coffee beans could add a month to an already slow process.”

Plant Pest Control Specialist Bob Yonaha’s expertise will be missed by officials in agriculture and watershed management. The ivy gourd and pampas grass have invaded the West Maui Watershed, said Lissa Fox, education specialist for the Maui Invasive Species Committee. Without a plant pest control specialist, new infestations may go unnoticed, she said.

 Maui’s latest concern is the spread of the little fire ant recently found in Waiehu. The ant is 1/16th of an inch long, the size of a pencil point. The sting of this ant burns and itches and may cause blindness in cats and dogs, Fox explained.

A little fire ant infestation must be disclosed in property sales, according to the Department of Agriculture brochure.

“Can you imagine if the little fire ant spreads to Kaanapali or Wailea; we will lose our tourists,” remarked Zeke Kalua, executive director of the West Maui Taxpayers Association.

The furlough plan started Oct. 15 and requires 22 Maui agricultural inspectors at Kahului Airport and Kahului Harbor to not work two days a month. This will backlog the inspection of shipments of 50,000 parcels a month, stated Shishido.

Momi Kaikala, director of purchasing for VIP Foodservice, expressed concerns over the lack of inspectors for the perishable, fresh food that comes into Maui. Delays in inspections will add to the time that fruit, vegetables, meat and seafood sit in containers, causing food to spoil.

With the arrival of Christmas trees, wreaths and poinsettias from the Northwest, there will be fewer inspectors to check for incoming pests. According to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s Annual Report in 2008, Christmas trees are hosts for wasps, garter snakes, shrews, frogs, lizards, salamanders, snails and slugs.