When I used to go visit Uncle Sonny at Maku‘u, I was just starting to farm bananas. My goal was to capture a sizeable amount of market share. I was thinking hundreds of acres, while Uncle Sonny was farming just a few acres.
It was very interesting for me to see how he produced his exceptional-quality watermelons, which were consistently sweet. It took tender loving care, very close observation, quick appropriate reaction and good old common sense.
Although Uncle Sonny had a fresh water spring on his property, and 10 acres of deep soil, he chose to operate with the bare minimum of inputs. Instead of setting up an irrigation infrastructure around a water pump, he decided that if there was a drought he’d haul water for irrigation. I couldn’t disagree; after all, he was sending money back to the Philippines every month to support a family there. Operating at that scale worked for him.
If a farmer makes money, a farmer will farm. Uncle Sonny farmed at the scale appropriate for him and it worked.
His yard was immaculate. He kept it mowed a good distance down the beach. It wasn’t only work for him; a large part of it was quality of life.
What I took away from visiting Uncle Sonny was a keen respect for small farmers. It is not about the size of your farm—it’s about quality and performance. Uncle Sonny helped me develop a good eye for that.
Our farm, Kea‘au Bananas, went on to become the largest banana farm in the state at 300 acres. About 15 years ago, we moved to Pepe‘ekeo in order to diversify geographically and also to protect against a banana virus. To diversify our production, we transitioned into hydroponic farming.
It was because of water resources that we chose Pepe‘ekeo. There are three springs and three streams at our Pepe‘ekeo farm. We have so much water that we’re now developing a 100KW hydroelectric system.
In order to refocus our marketing, we changed our name and became Hamakua Springs Country Farms. We supply Chef Alan Wong with various hydroponic products. As a result, the Hamakua Springs brand has become known for its good-quality hydroponic vegetables.
In the last five years we have been noticing an escalation in farm input cost while at the same time there has been a squeeze on customers’ discretionary income. We anticipate a future of steadily declining oil supplies; consequently, input costs will escalate and discretionary income will further decline.
Last summer, when oil hit $147, I was convinced that the world had changed forever. Business as usual was not going to work in this new world. How would we adapt? How could we change and still produce significant tonnage to feed Hawai‘i’s people?
I kept asking myself – how could we put the skills and resources of the small farmer together with the resources we have, so that the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts? And in such a way that this organization will be relevant for the future? And could we make this fun, as well as productive?
(To be continued. Coming soon: “The Family of Farms.”)