A long journey that began with abundant aloha is coming to an end. The last standard carnation farm in the state is going out of business due to nonsensical bureaucratic regulations and a farmer's body that needs rest after more than 36 years of backbreaking labor.
The farmer is Stu Nicholls, a Vietnam vet who earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture. At the time, Nicholls wanted to help Vietnamese farmers when and if he was able to return to the country.
With a young family, Nicholas went to work for a landscaping firm. The company transferred him to Maui before shutting down operations. He ran into Jack Vockrodt. "He was looking for someone to run his carnation farm," Nicholls said. "I knew nothing about growing or selling carnations." The Vockrodt farm had 60,000 plants on 2 acres in the upper reaches of Kula.
"I asked him if I could make any money growing carnations," Nicholls said. "He paused and then said, 'You're not going to make money, but you'll have a good life.'" Nicholls signed a six-month lease with an option to buy. On April 15, 1978, the last day before the farm would be sold to an attorney, Nicholls came up with the money.
"Jack said he and his wife would work for free for a year, teaching me what I needed to know."
Nicholls soon learned just how hard it was to grow standard carnations. A storm in January 1980 nearly wiped him out. "It took months to repair the fields and replant the flowers." The competition was fierce. There were 30 other growers of standard carnations. "Everyone was fighting for markets," Nicholls said. "We couldn't pay the mortgage."
Willy Koja came to the rescue. He gave Nicholls 2 acres to use, along with a tractor, equipment, chemicals and the know-how to raise tomatoes. Nicholls said Koja refused any pay for his help. As Nicholls remembered it, Koja said, "If I help you because I like something back, I wrong already."
At one point, Nicholls had four farms going at the same time - 24 acres spread across Kula. In 1987, he returned to Vietnam as a tourist, leaving the farming to his wife and two young sons. It was too much. In 1991 his marriage broke under the strain. He gave up his lot in the Kula Ag Park in 1993, the same year he married for the last time - a Vietnamese woman named Hang, who suffered a fatal stroke two years ago.
"We gave everything we had to the farm. It was beautiful," Nicholls said. With Hang at his side, the carnation farm was replanted. Despite working seven days a week, "It was heaven."
The economic realities were harsh. "Business makes money," Nicholls said. "Farming is a hobby. If you can break even farming, you're doing well."
For more than 100 years, carnations have been a favorite for making lei in Hawaii. Each lei requires something like 100 blossoms. In the early 1990s, the number of carnation farmers on Maui shrank to just one. Even so, "the only time you make money is one month a year, graduation time."
Carnation plants live and produce for just about two years. When they die, they must be replaced with cuttings. The last place to have cuttings on the Mainland has gone out of business. Labor costs, restrictions on the use of chemicals and cheap land have shifted carnation farming to Latin America. "It's cheaper to fly in the flowers than it is to grow 'em here," Nicholls said.
In Hawaii, Nicholls is "the last man standing."
He could get cuttings from any number of foreign growers, but federal requirements make it impossible. "I'd have to put them in an completely enclosed greenhouse for two years before I could use them." And, of course, two years is about the lifespan of a carnation.
"It's ridiculous," he said. "The bureaucrats have 100,000 reasons for not allowing carnations to be grown here." If Nicholls sounds angry, he is. He has appealed to every official he can think of, but no go.
In the meantime, Nicholls says "I pray and I spray" to keep his existing plants alive and producing blossoms. He expects his plants to live for not much than a year. When they're gone, the farm is gone, and "it's the end of an industry in Hawaii."
Stu Nicholls is a burly fighter, but there is only so much more he can do. His 67-year-old body will no longer cooperate. "I hate the pain and the bureaucracy. It's going to hurt like hell to give up farming. I loved doing this. It's been heaven, and it's been hell."
The interview ended. Nicholls walked outside. It was the time of day to check the irrigation system for the last field of standard carnations on Maui.
* Ron Youngblood is a retired editor and staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is email@example.com.