Beyond Organic

Richard Ha writes:

At Hamakua Springs Country Farms we agree with the intentions of, and almost everything else about, organic farming.

But instead of organics, we have chosen to grow our produce hydroponically. That’s a technique that uses soil-less culture to grow plants instead of dirt–it’s a “clean and green” growing method many people don’t know too much about.

Let me tell you a little bit about it, and about how we made this careful decision to grow our vegetables hydroponically.

Though we have some of the same philosophies as organic farmers, we take them a little further. And we think we are actually more sustainable than organic farms. For instance, we have food safety certification, which is not a requirement in organic farming. It’s not a requirement in what we do either, it’s a voluntary effort, and it’s an important part of our sustainability efforts. It’s a benefit in marketing our products. But its most important benefit is in allowing our people to work in a safe and sanitary environment. Taking care of our employees is part of our sustainable farming philosophy, and we take sustainability very seriously.

Part of our farming philosophy is to sustain the community we live in. To this end, we donate a lot of our produce in this community. We take care of the environment (as, of course, do organic farmers). And we try to work with our workers as a team. We deliberately try not to follow the sugar plantation model where management and workers were often working at cross purposes. To us, management and workers cooperating and working together as a team is logical and sustainable.

Another point organic food proponents make is that organic foods taste better. But there’s really no way to quantify that. And, interestingly, as an organic farmer you’re constantly looking for seeds that are disease-resistant, so you will be able to fight off disease with the limited tools available to you. So you’re always in a quandary—are you going for the best-tasting produce? No, you’re going for the ones most pest-resistant.

At Hamakua Springs, we constantly focus on taste. Our first priority is always to find the tastiest product possible, and then we figure out what it’s going to take for us to grow that crop.

When you farm organically, there are, of course, a lot of restrictions, such as on the kind of chemicals you can use. For instance, organic farmers frequently have to control weeds manually. It’s very labor intensive.

To look at the bigger picture, if we were all to go organic, our population would have to spend a lot more time at farming. Many more people would have to be growing food in order to feed everybody, which wouldn’t allow as many people to be productive and creative in other ways—like trying to go to the moon, going up on the mountain and looking at the stars, teaching in the university; that sort of thing.

Using hydroponics, we have a little more leeway than organic farmers in what chemicals we can use. But we are very cautious, and conscious, about chemicals. We always use the least toxic ones first. After all, we eat this produce, too, and we feed it to our children and grandchildren.

As an example of our caution: we don’t use organophosphates. Those are a group of chemicals that have been in the news over the last five years or so. The USDA and EPA were trying to determine if they are safe, and they came to the conclusion that it depended on the dose. They didn’t ban organophosphates. But because they are controversial, we made a commitment not to use them.

The other reason we don’t use them is because they harm some of the beneficial insects, the ones that help control pests on our crops. We would much rather figure out how to get the beneficial insects to help us with pest-control, so that’s what we do.

On its website, the Hawai‘i Organic Farmers Association lists 10 reasons (as provided by the Organic Trade Association) to buy certified organic products. I’ve listed those 10 items, and added some reasons to go a step further and BUY HYDROPONIC:

1. Organic Products Meet Stringent Standards. Hamakua Springs Country Farms follows stringent safety and hygiene procedures and goes even further by voluntarily being “Food Safety Certified” by the third-party Davis Fresh Technologies.

2. Organic Food Tastes Great! At Hamakua Springs, we select varieties solely for taste, not just because of their disease-resistance qualities.

3. Organic Production Reduces Health Risks. We are Food Safety Certified.

4. Organic Farms Respect Our Water Resources. This is something we are very serious about at Hamakua Springs. Because we grow our vegetable crops hydroponically, we meter the water and fertilizer we use very precisely. This conserves our water resources and also helps us avoid over-fertilizing, which lessens the risk of run-off into streams.
5. Organic Farmers Build Soil. We plant our tomatoes using coconut fiber, a renewable resource approved for use in organic farming.
6. Organic Farmers Work in Harmony With Nature. As do hydroponic farmers. We believe in sustainable farming and have won national and international awards for our sustainable farming methods. For instance, Hamakua Springs was one of six finalists in the country for the Patrick Madden award. Tomatoes and cucumbers normally don’t do well at Pepe‘ekeo due to the area’s high rainfall and disease pressure. But we have been successful here because we developed ways to protect plants from the rain.

7. Organic Growers Are Leaders in Innovative Research. We are innovative farmers who always look beyond the status quo. We seek to keep plant pests and their predators in balance, and our success at this helps us avoid chemical usage. We do not use organophosphate-type chemicals. Instead we rely on soaps, oils and insect growth regulators to control insects, as well as other techniques such as physical barriers, crop rotation, strategic mowing, temperature control, oxygenation, etc.

8. Organic Producers Strive to Preserve Diversity. Diversity is good. We work on supporting beneficial insects at our farm as well growing a diverse mix of vegetables. One of our goals is to repopulate our farm with native species, especially around the stream banks and other unfarmable areas.

9. Organic Farming Keeps Rural Communities Healthy. We strongly believe in sustainability, which, in our book, includes the health of our communities. This is one reason we donate a lot of our product to charitable organizations.

10. Organic Abundance? Foods and Non-Foods Alike! We think of abundance in these terms, too. For instance, growing our hydroponic food locally is sustainable in more ways than immediately meet the eye. The fuel that it takes to import organic produce from distant countries overrides the benefits of growing them organically. Growing crops sustainably in Hawai‘i also protects our food supply from shipping interruptions in the future.

Buying organic lettuce that was grown on the mainland and beyond, for instance, does not contribute to a sustainable society for us living here in Hawaii. The money spent to buy that product goes out of the state, instead of staying here to support the infrastructure that could help Hawai‘i become self-sustaining in terms of food production.

Buying Hamakua Springs Country Farms products always contributes to sustainability.

These are some of the many reasons we have chosen, and prefer, hydroponic over organic techniques in growing our tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers.

If you have any questions or comments about our farm or our philosophies, please let us know. We’d love to hear from you.