Fac­ing a tough mar­ket


West Hawaii Today - - Front Page - BY JEFF HANSEL

HILO — In­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion and re­tire­ments are de­creas­ing the num­ber of com­mer­cial orchid grow­ers in Hawaii.

“I do have con­cerns for the com­mer­cial orchid grow­ers, not in the next few years, but in the next decade,” said El­ton Mow, pres­i­dent of the Orchid Grow­ers As­so­ci­a­tion of Hawaii and chair of the re­search and ed­u­ca­tion com­mit­tee of the Hawaii Flori­cul­ture and Nurs­ery As­so­ci­a­tion.

In­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion is tough and get­ting tougher, in­dus­try in­sid­ers say. Grow­ers say some of their peers are leav­ing, or in dan­ger of leav­ing, the mar­ket. Hawaii, they say, needs to rein­vent the orchid in­dus­try through hy­bridiza­tion of new or­chids — and mar­ket­ing — to keep it sus­tain­able.

In 2011, there were 225 grow­ers of var­i­ous orchid types in the state, in­clud­ing pot­ted plants and cut flow­ers, ac­cord­ing to data from the U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture.

By 2015, the lat­est year data is avail­able, just 190 grow­ers con­trib­uted sales to those same cat­e­gories.

“The in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion — it’s a big part of it,” Mow said.

Jef­frey New­man, owner of New­man’s Nurs­ery Inc., said the USDA’s ap­proval of ad­di­tional orchid im­ports to the U.S. in March 2016 has opened a flood of ship­ments from coun­tries like Tai­wan.

“It’s an is­sue,” he said. “They’re just ship­ping them in con­tain­ers to the main­land.”

Orig­i­nally, New­man said, only one type of orchid had ap­proval for im­port from Tai­wan. But he be­lieves many more ap­provals are on the hori­zon.

“I don’t know what the ram­i­fi­ca­tions will be down the line,” said New­man, whose Hawai­ian Par­adise Park nurs­ery em­ploys 30 peo­ple.

China, South Korea and Costa Rica are pre­par­ing to follow Tai­wan’s lead in the orchid mar­ket, cre­at­ing even more com­pe­ti­tion for Hawaii grow­ers, New­man said.

Now that Tai­wan has ap­proval to im­port a cer­tain va­ri­ety of pot­ted orchid, he said, “they’re just go­ing to keep go­ing down the line un­til they get them all.”

In­ter­na­tional orchid grow­ers, New­man said, have started set­ting up their own op­er­a­tions on the main­land. They ship in plant “plugs” (small “starts” that are ready to be grown to adult­hood) to New York, Cal­i­for­nia, Texas and Colorado, he said, and then fin­ish grow­ing the plants un­til they’re ready for mar­ket.

The starts can be grown cheaply in bulk in­ter­na­tion­ally and then shipped to the main­land.

“It’s not a good thing,” New­man said. “I don’t know how they can sell or­chids that cheap. They sell them dirt-cheap.”

At least two East Hawaii com­mer­cial orchid grow­ers have aban­doned or­chids al­to­gether re­cently.

One switched from orchid farm­ing to cat­tle ranch­ing. That grower did not re­ply to calls for com­ment. The other agreed to be quoted if his for­mer com­pany’s name is not men­tioned.

“As com­pe­ti­tion grows from the for­eign coun­try, Amer­ica al­ways loses,” the for­mer com­mer­cial orchid grower said.

Since the 1980s, the cost for sup­plies and ship­ping has in­creased, the grower said, but the price grow­ers could charge for the plants and cut­tings the mom-and­pop busi­ness pro­duced stayed es­sen­tially the same.

“We did em­ploy peo­ple. We did prop­a­gate a lot of plants. But it’s time to move on,” the for­mer grower said.

Mow said Tai­wan had to ship or­chids bare-root be­fore the USDA ap­proved open­ing the mar­ket to im­por­ta­tion. That was more dif­fi­cult be­cause the bare-root method leaves the plants open to in­jury. Pots and soil of pot­ted plants have more places for po­ten­tially in­va­sive in­sects to hide, Mow said.

A law­suit to block Tai­wan from im­port­ing pot­ted or­chids, he said, “prob­a­bly de­layed the ap­proval.” But, in the end, the law­suit, in 2005, failed to block the USDA’s ac­tion.

Hawaii orchid grow­ers can’t com­pete against in­ter­na­tional pro­duc­ers who can grow a mil­lion orchid plugs in one green­house, Mow said. In­stead, he said, key to Hawaii grow­ers’ suc­cess will be a com­bi­na­tion of plant hy­bridiza­tion to make new, avail­able-only-from-Hawaii plants and mar­ket­ing to make clear the high qual­ity and unique­ness of Hawai­igrown or­chids.

In­vest­ing in that ef­fort now has po­ten­tial to pay off in the fu­ture. But it’s also risky be­cause in­ter­na­tional grow­ers might out-com­pete Hawaii by do­ing the same things.

“It’s a type of gam­bling, like all farm­ing is,” Mow said.

Iden­ti­fy­ing or­chids as high qual­ity, Hawaii-grown plants will in­crease their pric­ing po­ten­tial, he said. And hy­bridiza­tion of new va­ri­eties of or­chids not avail­able else­where also has po­ten­tial to re­ward Hawaii grow­ers fi­nan­cially.

But, Mow said, “we need to work — now — to brighten our fu­ture.”


Jef­frey New­man of New­man’s Nurs­ery stands in one of his orchid green­houses Wed­nes­day at his nurs­ery in Hawai­ian Par­adise Park.


A lady slip­per orchid grows spi­ral ten­drils Wed­nes­day at New­man’s Nurs­ery in Hawai­ian Par­adise Park.

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