KEAAU, Hawaii >> Within a matter of days, Elton Mow lost the 12 acres in Kapoho where he had cultivated numerous varieties of orchids for 26 years.
Suddenly, Mow, owner of Orchid Plantation Inc., one of the largest orchid growers on Hawaii island, had to downsize dramatically. With his nursery in Kapoho wiped out, he has only about a half-acre left in Keaau to grow cut and potted orchids.
“It’s like losing a family member,” he said of the loss.
What used to be his orchid farm, located between “Green Mountain” (the crater surrounding Green Lake) and Highway 137 in Kapoho, is now gone, covered by lava that streamed down from fissure 8, which continues to remain active with a full channel flowing into the ocean at 15 to 20 miles per hour.
It all happened so quickly.
Mow remembered the days prior to evacuating June 1 as beautiful and sunny. The lava seemed to be heading south toward Kalapana but took a turn and headed instead for Kapoho Bay, threatening Highway 132. By the next evening a quarter of his nursery was gone. By Monday, June 4, all of it was gone.
At Orchid Plantation he grew dendrobiums, oncidiums, cattleyas and some more unusual varieties. He had about a dozen full- and part-time employees, but only a handful are working now.
Eric Tanouye, president of the Hawaii Floriculture & Nursery Association, said there were up to a dozen orchid nurseries growing potted and cut orchid flowers in the Kapoho and Vacationland area. He estimated 70 percent of orchids from Hawaii island were grown in the area, considered a “small mecca” for the plants because of its sunny microclimate.
At the moment, HFNA is surveying its members to get a better assessment of the losses, but long-term impacts on businesses that use cut orchids for lei, decorations and wedding bouquets, as well as the export of the plants, are expected.
“It was a shock to us that it was so extensive — the damage — and so quick,” said Tanouye. “We didn’t think it would go this quickly. We thought we had more time. People underestimate how fast the lava can move.”
That lesson hit home for Mow, who had only two days to transport valuable items from his nursery, scrambling to save what he could. He saved some Aranthera Kapoho Fire, with deep red blooms, and some Dendrobium Uniwai Mist, which has white flowers that are popular with customers.
Fortunately, Mow, 53, vice president of Orchid Growers of Hawaii, had invested in a 20,000-square-foot lot across from his home in Keaau a few years ago where he could grow his orchids, in addition to the 7,000-square-foot greenhouse in his backyard, in case such a disaster happened.
Hawaii County is home to about 78 percent of Hawaii’s floriculture square footage, with cut flowers valued at nearly $16 million, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. Hawaii island has the majority of the state’s cut-flower farms.
On the border of Kalapana, Elizabeth Kekedi of Alohilani Orchids Inc. continues to grow orchids and tropical fruits on Railroad Avenue, even though the lava is within walking distance, three-quarters of a mile from her 21-acre farm.
As long as the wind blows the other way, her orchids are fine. Otherwise, sulfur dioxide could burn the leaves and flowers.
She decided to move some livestock, including a few horses and pigs, off property for safety. Other than some inconvenience due to cut-off roads which require her to use back roads, she said the farm has been fine.
“We’re lucky or just blessed,” she said. “Either way, we’re grateful. We had a couple of days when the winds shifted our way, but it looks like the plants didn’t really get affected.”
She plans to keep conducting business as usual, as she has for the past 26 years, she said, because moving several hundred thousand plants to a new location while running the nursery would be overwhelming. Besides, she has no new location to move to.
“If God wants to have it (the nursery), then there’s nothing I can do,” she said. “I’ll surrender to Pele and she can have it.”
Mow, meanwhile, is searching for another property to grow his orchids on, ideally a property with infrastructure such as electricity, water and greenhouses already in place, he said.
The second-generation orchid grower is willing to start over, given his passion and love for growing orchids, but it will be a long road ahead. The cycle for growing a seedling to potted orchid is two to three years, so it will take time to reach the same production levels.
“It’s a big loss, a big adjustment,” he said. “But we’re starting anew.”