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Hawaii News

Farmer hangs onto his home and business in Opihikao in spite of Kilauea eruptions

  • "It's just the uncertainty of it all that's difficult. You're not sure what's going to happen," said Garuda Johnson, who owns Johnson Family Farm in Opihikao, which for nearly 40 years grew organic fruits and vegetables for local markets.
    Video by George F. Lee / glee@staradvertiser.com
  • GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Garuda Johnson, who built Johnson Family Farm from scratch, hangs onto his home and business in Opihikao in spite of current and previous Kilauea eruptions.

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OPIHIKAO, Hawaii >> It’s like a waiting game, but it isn’t as if there’s much choice for Garuda and Mukunda Johnson.

The owners of the Johnson Family Farm in Opihikao, which for nearly 40 years grew organic fruits and vegetables for local markets, remain in limbo as they wait for the Kilauea eruption to subside.

While the 20-acre farm wasn’t covered over with lava, the high amounts of sulfur dioxide took a toll on the farm in early May. What was once a beautiful produce farm is now a barren landscape of browned trees without leaves, empty greenhouses and ground covered with filaments of Pele’s hair.

“Maybe a week after the flow started to come out of Leilani, the sulfur dioxide started to come down,” said Garuda Johnson during a trip to Opihikao to check on his farm. “Here is one of our start houses. Everything in there died pretty fast.”

How long the Kilauea eruption continues is anyone’s guess, with fissure 8 going strong for three months. U.S. Geological Survey scientists have said it could continue for months or years.

For Johnson, 67, it means uncertainty — he can’t return to his farm or grow anything, and yet he can’t claim it burned down or was covered by lava. The farm is currently unproductive, and it’s as if life is on hold, too.

The week after May 3, when the eruption began, the vegetable crops and fruit trees on the 20-acre farm began to wither and die. It happened quickly, and the Johnsons, their sons, extended family and about a dozen workers had to evacuate.

In a preliminary estimate, more than 100 producers reported damage in early June, according to Diane Ley of Hawaii County’s economic development office, whether by lava, sulfur dioxide, ash or cut-off access.

The state Department of Agriculture does not estimate damage caused by the Kilauea eruption to farms in Puna, according to spokeswoman Janelle Saneishi, a task left up to the federal government. The department’s board in late May approved an emergency disaster loan program, and loan officers are assisting farmers on a case-by-case basis.

Besides vine-ripened tomatoes, the farm grew dozens of kinds of lettuce greens, curly and dinosaur kale, collard greens, leeks, radishes and parsley, as well as avocados, mangoes, bananas, papayas, breadfruit and citrus fruits.

They were a regular vendor at the Makuu farmers markets, with a good following for their organic produce.

In a Facebook post the farm apologized to customers for being “MIA” but said all of its crops had died due to the sulfur dioxide.

The farm supplied several markets as well as Island Naturals, Down to Earth and restaurants, including Volcano House (which was also shuttered due to the eruption), Hilo Bay Cafe and various caterers.

For more than 10 years, Johnson Family Farm supplied Down to Earth with quality Sharwil avocados twice a week, said Lambert Lee, produce manager for the Honolulu store, as well as turmeric.

“It’s a disappointment,” he said of the farm’s hiatus. “It’s like a family member. Our customers really love their avocados.”

Any time the farm is up again, Lee said he would be happy to bring their produce back to the store again.

Johnson feels a sense of loss but at the same time is full of gratitude for having had the opportunity to make a living growing food on a farm.

Temporarily, the Johnsons are staying at a much smaller space at Hawaiian Paradise Park.

Originally from Southern California, Johnson came to the Aloha State with a football scholarship at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Radio personality Larry Price was one of his coaches.

But Johnson got sidetracked and ended up starting an organic farm on Kauai with his wife, Mukunda. One day the farm in Opihikao was for sale, and so he bought it and, eventually, the parcel next to it.

“It’s just a beautiful place, so green and with good drainage,” he said. “I was looking to grow trees, avocados and papayas, bananas and oranges, and it seemed like just the right spot.”

The farm proved to be a dream come true, and it was productive for decades. From the beginning the Johnsons were committed to being organic — a philosophy he adopted because of the harm caused by pesticides he had witnessed growing up.

Besides building a five-bedroom house on the property, along with the greenhouses, they planted every tree and crop. They raised five sons, all of whom grew up knowing a little about carpentry and farming, along with a bevy of dogs that all have their own story.

In the middle of an expansive field, Johnson installed a field goal, a nod to his earlier days as a football player. Gazing at it, he reminisced about how it was a gathering place for friends and family, including his four grandchildren.

Johnson also became sort of a fixture in the community for his Sunday “Rockin’ Rama” pizza parties, which he threw regularly, using his special starter dough, and fresh-baked creations in his own brick pizza oven on-site. For more than 20 years, friends and neighbors — sometimes perfect strangers — would show up for his pizza parties, which included a vegan version.

Today there are no more pizza parties.

Johnson is still holding out hope that he’ll be able to return to Opihikao once the eruption is done, and be able to farm it once again. When the air clears, he and his sons return to check on the farm, mow the lawn and do some maintenance.

Many of the trees remain leafless and brown, but some kale has returned to life. Reflecting on it, he has no regrets about having started the farm in Opihikao, a place full of memories and accomplishments. He’s holding onto faith that everything will work out.

“It’s just the uncertainty of it all that’s difficult,” he said. “You’re not sure what’s going to happen.”

Johnson remembers when lava erupted from Puu Oo in 1983, and seeing it from the front porch. The lava is nothing new, but what fissure 8, visible as a backdrop at the farm, will do is anyone’s guess as it continues to pump a high volume of lava into the lower East Rift Zone.

Really, it’s up to Madame Pele.

“Farming and growing things, especially organically, you feel connected with the weather, wind and changes in climate,” said Johnson. “Pele’s always been here since I’ve been here. She’s been here longer than I have. There’s always been a connection there, and respect, and realizing nature has its own control and we have no control over it.”

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