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Siamese Orchids

Asia is helping Hawaii's orchid industry, but has the potential to hurt it

A lab in Thailand has been key to a Palolo orchid grower's success. About five years ago, Kawamoto Orchid Nursery owner Les Kawamoto found Asian clone labs gave him a competitive edge. "It's much more economical," says Kawamoto. "We're saving dollars and we're saving time."

Holding up a small orchid plant, Kawamoto explains, "If we were to send this out to be cloned here in Hawaii and we order 10,000 of this, it'll cost about a dollar. If we sent it to Thailand, it would cost about 20 cents."

According to Kawamoto, sales have been increasing gradually over the years since he turned to Asian cloning for his orchid production. "The quality became much better and sales went up." Other Hawaii orchid growers have found Asian cloning has helped to boost their industry.

BLOOMING BUSINESS: Kawamoto Orchid Nursery worker Jane Nishigaya of Honolulu displays one of the hundreds of varieties of orchids that the nursery houses in Palolo Valley.

Many commercial growers in Hawaii no longer use labs in Hawaii for cloning services. Some growers simply take the tissue they want to clone to a Southeast Asian lab, in Bangkok, for example. "The labs there play a big role in orchid propagation for Hawaii producers," says Ken Leonhardt, professor of tropical agriculture at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. "They have the same kind of business, but their labor is cheaper."

The commercial orchid industry in Hawaii has recently experienced an upswing. According to the Hawaii Agricultural Statistics Service, in 2002, Hawaii orchid sales increased to $22.4 million from $20.6 million in 2001, with "Other potted orchids" and "Potted dendrobiums" leading the way. Professional growers increased their production efficiency by using techniques, such as sterile propagation, automated irrigation, pest management and improved nutrition. There are more growers and production acres than there were in past years, and orchid hybrids have improved in both quality and quantity. Asian cloning labs have been key to some of these advances.

The same region also holds a potential threat for growers in Hawaii. The worldwide orchid industry is a competitive one. Countries such as Thailand and Taiwan are major players, fighting Hawaii for the big customer: the U.S. mainland.

The rules favor Hawaii, for now. The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates the introduction of plants along with other items from foreign countries into the United States. Quarantine 37 is a federal rule that prohibits the importation of foreign plants with soil attached, because soil is a medium where pests and diseases often hide or hitchhike.

This is where Hawaii growers have the upper hand. Foreign orchids shipped to the United States must be taken out of the pot, have their roots washed off and are placed under quarantine for at least 60 days. Hawaii growers, such as Kawamoto Orchid Nursery, can simply place the potted orchid in a box and ship it to their Mainland customers without any restrictions to slow down the shipment. "We ship out about 25,000 potted orchids annually to all over the Mainland," says Kawamoto.

A lobbying group representing Taiwan and other foreign producers is asking the United States Department of Agriculture to relax and remove the quarantine restrictions. Hawaii growers are of course against this request, because their industry in all likelihood is at stake. "If outside influences take over, maybe there won't be room for local growers like us," says Kawamoto.

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