When I chatted with Richard’s mom, Florence Ha—who still works on the farm at age 82—I realized that her family’s history tells some of Hawai‘i’s story.
Florence’s mother, Kamado Kina, came to the Islands from Okinawa as a picture bride.
“She was supposed to marry somebody else,” Florence told me. “But when she got off the boat and saw the person she was supposed to marry, she didn’t like him. And, you know, it was a disgrace to go back.”
It worked out. She met Matsuzo Higa, who had come from Okinawa to work on a sugar plantation. They married and had nine children.
Florence was their third child. She grew up in Honolulu and then lived for several years on Moloka‘i, where her father farmed, raising watermelons he sent to market in Honolulu by barge.
After the family returned to Honolulu, Florence worked at a cousin’s café. A young man who lived upstairs came down for breakfast every morning. That was Richard Ha, Sr., and they were married in 1944.
Florence and Richard had six children, and Richard, Jr.—our Richard—was the firstborn.
“Of all my children, he got into most of the trouble. Oooooh,” she said, remembering. Still, she said, she knew he was very smart.
“I didn’t think he was going to be a farmer. At first I thought he might be a lawyer. But when he came back from the service and saw us struggling, that’s when he came and helped us on the poultry farm.”
And then he started another farm. “I helped him. This and that—I helped him box the bananas and grade the bananas. Whatever needed to be done.”
She’s modest about her help, but Richard stresses how hard she worked.
“She’s been working with us from day one,” he said, “all the way to now. And she is the person most responsible for us being where we are today.
“Mom was the person in the early days who, when we needed help, she was there. Not only eight hours, but 12, 15, 20 hours. Whatever it took. Back when we started up it was seven days a week, for years.”
He told me that in those early years, she would work at their Waiakea Uka farm during the day. When that work day was done at 6:00, he’d bring a trailer load of bananas from his new farm in Kapoho and she would stay for hours, packing those bananas so the trailer was empty and ready to go back to Kapoho early in the morning.
“When I think about it now, I don’t know when she slept,” he said.
“She was always the hardest worker of all of us,” he said. “She was an example. Some of us were marketers and talkers, and she was a doer.”
Though she’ll be 83 next month, she still works from 7 a.m. to 11 in the mornings, “every day that I feel like going. Richard told me, ‘I don’t want you to retire.’ I’m working in the nursery and I feel kind of bad, because I hardly do anything now. I don’t feel I’m doing enough. But he says he doesn’t want me to retire because he wants me to get exercise instead of just sitting home and doing nothing.”
“People would tell me, Don’t work so hard. I said, I’m not working, I’m exercising.”
She talked about all the exercise equipment her son has bought her over the years, which she uses. “Exercise machines, weight-lifting machines, bicycles. One day one of the bishops came to my house, and said, where did you get all this equipment? I told him my son got it for me, and he said that’s the best thing he could do.”
Richard joked that he gives her the equipment because it keeps her able to work. “Cheap labor. But of course it’s not that. Mainly it’s for health.”
He said he wants her to exercise for her health, and to keep coming to work to keep active. “Even if she just comes to work for one hour a day,” he said. “Whatever it takes to keep on going. It keeps her young.”
He talked about a time when she decided to retire and stopped working at the farm.
“It was maybe more than ten years ago,” he said. “She started getting fat, really sluggish, not happy. When she started coming again, she slimmed down. I was able to pick her up and talk story with her, tell her where the farm was going, this is what we’re doing. She’s like a sounding board.”
They both told me that that’s the part of the day they enjoy the most—the mornings, when he picks her up at her Waiakea Uka home and they talk on the way to the farm in Pepe‘ekeo.
“He tells me what he’s thinking of doing (at the farm),” she said, “things like that. That’s what I really enjoy.”
Richard said he gets his sense of humor from her and sometimes they share a good laugh.
“She loves to laugh,” he said. “We have a good time. Every once in awhile I’ll crack a joke and crack her up.”
She’s at home right now, recovering from foot surgery, but said she’s going back to work this week.
“I know Richard’s trying so hard,” she said, “so it makes me feel good.” Her hard work at the farm, she said, has always been “a real labor of love.”