Avocado industry officials say the financial impact of exporting Big Island-grown Sharwil avocados to the mainland could rival coffee and macadamia nuts.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday announced it would allow the export to 32 states and Washington, D.C., starting later this year. The rule lifting an export ban, in place since the early 1990s, will go into effect in a month, but export may only take place between November and March.
That’s fine, Hawaii Avocado Association President Tom Benton, who also grows avocados on his Captain Cook farm, said. That export season coincides with Sharwil harvest season.
“It’s going to be building a new industry from scratch,” Benton said. “It’s all doable.”
Allowing the exports is a great opportunity for farmers, he added.
“We’ve had a closed market for so long now,” Benton said, adding that farmers already sell the avocados in-state. The anticipated increased demand from mainland buyers will likely drive up the price, including for local buyers, at least for now. “In time, it will balance out.”
Rancho Aloha owner Bruce Corker, who sits on the Hawaii Avocado Association board, said he expects to see the price for Sharwil double once exports begin.
“For agriculture, it’s going to be a tremendous boost,” Corker said. “I would predict Sharwil avocados will rival coffee in terms of revenue.”
About half of his farm is dedicated to avocados, the other half is coffee. Corker said he expects to see more farmers begin planting avocados, which take about five years to go from planting to harvest. Farmers could get Sharwil avocados sooner, though, if they grafted material from a Sharwil tree onto another avocado variety.
The USDA, in the early 1990s, prohibited shipping avocados from Hawaii to the mainland to prevent the spread of pests, particularly a fruit fly species. The regulations did allow Sharwil avocados if the fruit underwent fumigation or a combination of fumigation and cold treatment, which officials said can have “unacceptable adverse effects” on quality.
The USDA, in announcing the rule approval, said Hawaii grows about 13 percent of U.S. avocados. California grows 76 percent of the avocados, mostly the Hass variety.
Florida grows the remaining 11 percent. USDA officials said they expected the Sharwil exports to make up about 0.5 percent of all avocados that are not Hass avocados sold in the U.S., and about 0.2 percent of all avocados sold within the country.
“While the rule should benefit Hawaii’s avocado producers by allowing them to use a systems approach to mitigate pest risk, making the sale of Sharwil avocados to the continental United States more economically feasible, the quantity that is expected to be shipped would not significantly affect the mainland avocado market overall or the more limited market for non-Hass varieties,” the rule report said.
Benton said the USDA’s decision to lift the ban was another “feather in the cap” for the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who championed the cause for decades. After Inouye’s death, avocado farmers contacted U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, who collaborated with the state’s three other congressional delegates to support lifting the export ban.
“This USDA ruling will directly benefit Hawaii farmers and our economy,” Hirono said in an email Wednesday morning. “Advancing local food has long been a cornerstone of my push to make our state and economy more sustainable, and I’m very appreciative the USDA has made this critical ruling.”
The states where the avocados may be shipped are: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming, as well as the District of Columbia.