A Puna farmer now says he lost 13,000 papaya trees valued at more than $120,000 in the largest instance of agricultural vandalism in Big Island history.
Two weeks ago Laureto Julian, 65, told Puna police that vandals using knives or machetes destroyed at least 8,500 trees during the late hours of June 29 on 17 acres he leases in Kapoho. He estimated the loss initially at $100,000.
All the papayas were left to rot on the damaged trees, which had ranged in height from 6 to 10 feet. Julian had spent 18 months cultivating them, and most were beginning to bear fruit.
Since then, Julian said he has re-surveyed the damage while waiting to be interviewed by Big Island police. The case has been turned over to the county police’s criminal investigation agency, a spokeswoman said. A conviction could mean a maximum prison term of 10 years.
Julian said he still believes the damage was caused by "a gang of up to five people" who knew what they were doing.
Some of the cut trees have sprouted new shoots, but he has not decided whether to let them grow out or just replant an entire new crop.
During a routine visit to the Big Island last week, state Agriculture Director Sandra Kunimoto inspected Julian’s farm and told him that there are low-interest agriculture loans that he could apply for.
Delan "Rusty" Perry, president of both the Hawaii Papaya Industry and the Big Island Farm Bureau, said there are efforts to start a fund to help Julian through difficult times.
Julian, who has been growing papayas for four decades, said he harvested his first batch of "Rainbow" and "Sun Up" papayas June 26 — just three days before the incident. His crew of one part-time and two full-time laborers had harvested at least 900 pounds. Both are genetically engineered varieties of the fruit.
Julian leases two parcels of land in the rural Kapoho area. The one that was attacked is about 17 acres, hilly and located two miles north of Highway 132 on Alohalani Street.
Another parcel is a quarter-mile away on 13 acres, where there are about 13,000 papaya trees that are 3 years old.
The vandalism was the second known case in two months at a papaya farm. In May, 397 of 500 papaya trees were chopped down at a Mililani farm operated by Jerry Punzal. A Honolulu police spokeswoman said that investigation is still open.
Julian and other supporters are offering a $3,000 reward leading to the arrests of the culprits.