Category Archives: Bananas

Sustainability: A Full Circle

I’m looking back at the long, sustainability story of our farm and I see that we have come full circle.

When we started out, the objective was to farm and then, with the proceeds, eventually own land. At the time, we didn’t have any money and there wasn’t any land available, it was before the sugar plantations closed down, but we just kept on going and that was always our objective: to own land.

It’s what made us adapt and make change happen, all along the way, so we’d always be in the position we needed to be in 10 years later. We have always been comfortable with change, and it’s easy for us now. We like it and it’s a part of who we are.

The main reason we shut down the farm is that we saw what was coming. We knew the cost of farming was rising, rising, rising, and that in order to survive, at some point we would have to start cutting our employees’ pay and benefits.

The rise in farming costs was happening for external reasons, not due to any fault of our own. We were doing the best we could for our workers, but as hard as we’d tried over the years, we knew that eventually we’d be looked at as the bad guy for having to make cuts. And we didn’t want that. It just wasn’t an option to let ourselves get into that situation. That had a lot to do with why we closed the farm.

While we were in the process of closing down, this medical marijuana option came up. One of the most important conditions I placed on getting involved in applying for a medical marijuana license was that my workers get first shot at the new jobs.

So now, 30 years later, here we are. We own land, and though we shut down the banana operation, we still have a lot going on. It’s not like one day we closed and rode off into the sunset. It’s not the end, but a transition.

I want to make sure we are using the soil and land in a sustainable way. We have already signed leases with farmers to do some crop rotation. What we want to do is run one crop, then follow it with another crop and then possibly a third, and keep that going.

Once you get into that rotation, it’s sustainable. You’re not decreasing your soil. You rarely see that in Hawai‘i, though, for many reasons. If your business scale isn’t big enough to rotate, and if your market is not large enough, you cannot rotate your crops. But I can do this because we own the land.

If you’re trying to squeeze every last penny out of a deal, it might not be the most efficient move. In the long run it is, though, because it’s sustainable farming.

We did something different for our last banana harvest. Instead of leaving all the tall banana bunches, we used cane knives during the last harvest and chopped them all down. So by the time we got to the very last one, they were all down. We just harvested our last bananas about two or three weeks ago, and we already have the sweet potato farmer in there preparing the land.

We didn’t have to cut down the banana bunches like that. We could have just left them, because the lease says, “as is.” But it allowed us to keep our people employed as long as possible. They wanted to work until the last day, instead of leaving and getting unemployment. Shoot, you want to work? I’ll pay you.

It turns out we did a lot of work we could have left for, and passed onto, the next company, but I did that deliberately. I did it both to employ my workers as long as possible and also because now it’s easier for the new farmers to come in and start their rotation. There’s less material that needs to deteriorate.  It’s about getting to a point so when we transition to the rotating crops, it’s continuous.

Full circle, but not the end.

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Free ‘Thank You’ Bananas This Friday

This Friday, we’re giving away 300 boxes of bananas from our final Hamakua Springs banana harvest. We’ll be at the Hilo soccer fields from 10 a.m.

It’s our way of saying thanks for all your support over these past 35 years, which we truly appreciate.

We’ll be at Kumu Street by the soccer fields. Turn off Kamehameha Avenue onto the short Kumu Street (just past Ponahawai St.), and you’ll see us there. Please come and take some bananas, with our sincere mahalo and aloha for all your support over the years!

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What a Difference a Decade Makes

Back in 2002, which was a long time ago, we were doing just fine.

That’s the year we were a finalist in the Patrick Madden Award for Sustainable Agriculture, given by Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE).

SARE’s mission is to advance—to the whole of American agriculture—innovations that improve profitability, stewardship and quality of life by investing in groundbreaking research and education.

SARE’s Patrick Madden Award for Sustainable Agriculture recognizes farmers or farm families who advance sustainable agriculture through innovation, leadership and good stewardship. The award is named for SARE’s first director, Patrick Madden, who was a pioneer in the movement toward a strong, independent agriculture.

I believe the rise in oil prices starting around 2005. It had a lot more impact than is easily identified.

From the Patrick Madden Award page of SARE:

Finalist:

Kea’au Banana Plantation, Hilo, Hawaii

  • 800 acres of bananas on two plantations
  • Long-term view, minimizing agri-chemicals, erosion and water use
  • “Eco-friendly” labels; crew of 70 workers enjoy profit-sharing

“I had a philosophy that we should take a long-term view of how we affect our workers, our community and the environment. So far, this also has meant profitability for our company.”

Richard Ha

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Digital Bananas

A short look at our bananas:

And part of our hydro system:

The Hawaii Tribune-Herald had an article this morning about the farm closing. The reporter did a good job.

By IVY ASHE Hawaii Tribune-Herald
 

All things considered, farming was easy when Richard Ha first started growing bananas in Kapoho nearly 40 years ago.

“You just had to work hard and you could be OK,” Ha, 71, told the Tribune-Herald on Thursday, a day after announcing on his Hamakua Springs Country Farm blog that the banana operation — the largest on the island — would be closing down.

“The last bananas will be the ones we are bagging now, which will be ready around the end of March, and then that will be it,” Ha wrote on the blog.

The past decades have seen the banana farm grow from 25 acres in Kapoho to 150 acres in its current Pepeekeo location.

The farm survived a Kapoho windstorm that forced a move to Keaau. It survived nematodes in Keaau. It was brought back to life in Pepeekeo after banana bunchy top virus decimated the Keaau crop in 2005.

And it weathered the 2008 oil price peak — an event that imposed extraordinary costs on the farm and would have shuttered the business if Ha’s employees hadn’t proposed a solution: switch from cultivating both apple bananas and Williams (a Cavendish cultivar) to exclusively Williams.

The proposal bought the farm time….

Read the rest

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Shutting Down the Farm & What’s Next

I met with my employees today to tell them our big news first, and now let me tell you about it:

We are shutting down the farm. The last bananas will be the ones we are bagging now, which will be ready around the end of March, and then that will be it.

The background, I explained to our workers, is that when we moved the farm here from Kea‘au, we were able to offer a good profit-sharing plan, and one of the best medical and dental plans you could get. It had vision and all kinds of extras.

But after a number of years, we started having a harder and harder time. First we couldn’t keep funding the profit-sharing plan and we had to discontinue that. Then we had to start cutting some of the medical benefits.

Then last year we had to cut wages one time. That was pretty desperate, and we always intended to raise them again, but we were never able to. And now, looking down the road, we see Banana Bunchy Top Disease, which is already in the gulches here nearby.

It’s all related to the price of oil. As the oil price has risen, folks that could pass on the cost did, but farmers cannot. When the oil price dropped recently, the cost of fertilizer, plastic, all sorts of things that have oil petroleum costs embedded in their prices, didn’t come down with it. Those costs stayed up.

The oil price will go back up again, and anticipating that we had to make a decision. It’s not that we’re going bankrupt – we’re not. We just need to do what we need to do before it gets to that point.

What Now?

We do have an option, as I explained to the workers.

A group that’s applying for a license to grow and distribute medical marijuana is interested in leasing some of our land, as well as the hydroelectric. Although I already knew we were shutting down when they first came to talk with me, I didn’t take it very seriously. But in the last few weeks, it’s become pretty serious.

My main concern is my workers. I told this other group that before I even considered leasing to them I’d need assurance they would give my workers first shot at jobs. They said they would. I also made some conditions regarding security. It’s not a sure thing, but on the outside chance they are granted a medical marijuana license, they will also have to take care of the community, especially in terms of security, so I can ensure that the community feels safe.

They are interested in me participating with their group because they know I know what I’m talking about when it comes to growing things, and about energy. We are talking but we haven’t signed any agreements about any of it yet.

I told my workers today that they can do whatever they need to do. If they want to take a layoff because feel they need to go out right now and start looking for a new job, they can. Or if they want to stay until the end of March, that’s okay too. They all said they will stick it out to the end.

I just heard the Alexander & Baldwin announcement that it’s transitioning out of sugar at its 36,000-acre sugar plantation on Maui. A&B’s Executive Chairman Stanley M. Kuriyama said, “The roughly $30 million agribusiness operating loss we expect to incur in 2015, and the forecast for continued significant losses, clearly are not sustainable, and we must now move forward with a new concept for our lands that allows us to keep them in productive agricultural use.”

“Transition” is the right word for what we’re doing, too. We don’t know exactly what the transition will look like, but we’ll still be around. The land that was in bananas is going to go into corn. A dairy that already leases land from us to grow corn is going to take the rest of that land and plant more.

We’ll see what happens with the rest, whether it’s the medical marijuana group or something else. There are options. Stay tuned.

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Yes, We’ll Have No Tomatoes

Richard Ha writes:

I haven’t mentioned this yet, but we have been phasing out production of our tomatoes.

This came about because of what I’ve been saying here for years: The price of oil has raised farming costs substantially. The pluses of growing our hydroponic tomatoes were no longer exceeding the minuses.

When we started growing tomatoes back in 2002, we had been banana growers. Oil prices were low and banana prices were also low; it was hard to make a living that way. We needed to diversify, which is one of the reasons we went into tomatoes. It was a good decision.

But costs have been increasing drastically, and our tomato growing infrastructure is getting old and will start falling apart soon, so we had to make a decision. Do we take it apart and rebuild the tomato houses? Or do we replace them? Replacing them would cost an eye-opening three times what it cost 12 years ago when we put them up.

It’s a real-life consequence of what I keep saying here: The price of oil is four times higher than it was 10 years ago and there are significant consequences. Everything costs so much more now. We are in the middle of major changes and most people don’t even realize it.

We took into account that our customers are under increasing economic pressure, as well—meaning they have less disposable income—and that our tomatoes are a high-end product. We also knew, as we made this decision, that oil and other costs are expected to keep rising.

Our plan had always been to take our tomato farming to the next step, which would have been to leverage our excess hydroelectricity in a controlled environment that allowed us to exclude insects and optimize light and temperature. Unfortunately, it just took too long to get our hydro plant operating.

It’s been a very difficult decision, and one that we’ve been carefully considering and making for quite some time, taking not only all these conditions into account but also our next generation. As hard as it’s been to make this decision, we all agreed it was the right thing to do. It allows us to continue farming. 

We’re definitely not closing up shop; just refocusing our farming efforts based on economic factors.

We will stay in bananas. They do well in our rain and deep soil and other conditions. The banana infrastructure we have in place, such as the coolers and concrete, is good for another 20 years. The pluses exceed the minuses.

I continue to be very interested in producing a cost-effective protein source here on the farm, such as tilapia and other fish. We are currently working on the problems of protein feed and oxygenation of water, which we can do with gravity and electricity. We’re always thinking about where we need to be in 10 or 20 years.

And I’ll let you know what other interesting projects crop up along the way. 

In the meantime, you’ll see our Hamakua Springs Country Farms tomatoes until the end of November; that’s when the last of them will come off the vines, go through our packing houses, and hit the supermarkets.

We thank you for supporting, and enjoying, our tomatoes all these years.

Hamakua Springs tomatoes

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Spotted: Banana Bunchy Top Virus

Richard Ha writes:

We are seeing a real problem with Banana Bunchy Top Virus, which I wrote about here.

The number of cases we are seeing around town is alarming. This is on Kawailani Street in Hilo. The Department of Agriculture has been notified.

Kawailani

This is on Komohana St. in Hilo.

Komohana

If you see the virus, call the Department of Agriculture.

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Lynn Richardson: Large Increase in Banana Bunchy Top Virus

A guest post by Lynn Paul Richardson:

Pressure on banana farmers, due to the Banana Bunchy Top Virus (BBTV), has been steadily increasing over the past four years in East Hawaii. At first, we would rarely see an infection. One infection every three months at our farm in Kurtistown was manageable. There were no cases visible from the main public roads between Kurtistown and Hilo.

Williams with BBTV

Two years ago I began to notice infections in the Kea‘au village area. Most were on the edges of papaya farms, with a few in nearby yards. Papaya farmers often grow a few banana mats on the edges of their fields for home use. We have been educating these farmers about the importance of treating and destroying the infected plants. 

Since the beginning of this year, 2014, there has been a large increase in infected plants in homeowners' yards in Kurtistown, Kea‘au and Hilo. These infections also are increasing in subdivisions such as Paradise Park.

BBTV 10-5-10

WE NOW FIND AND TREAT THREE TO FIVE INFECTIONS ON OUR FARM EVERY WEEK.

BBTV was discovered in Australia 100 years ago. Their method of control is the ONLY successful BBTV control program that exists today. Government inspectors monitor for the disease on a continuous basis. They are allowed to treat BBTV whenever and wherever they find it.

Homeowners are only allowed to plant bananas where they can be seen from the public roadways. All persons must obtain certificates stating that banana plants are disease free before they can be moved to new locations. This keeps the disease pressure low on farmers and hobbyists. Wild bananas are destroyed to prevent them from becoming reservoirs for BBTV.

If Hawaii fails to create an effective BBTV control program, only farms with large buffer zones will be possible in the not-too-distant future. Backyard patches will fail at increasingly higher rates until they no longer produce. 

BBTV SYMPTOMS

As farmers, we think it would be wise to copy what Australia has been doing successfully. We do not need to reinvent the wheel and risk failure.

It may be possible to create a genetically modified banana that can resist BBTV. The drawback would be the loss of the many cultivars Hawaii currently enjoys, as the economics would dictate that only a few varieties could be saved through GMO technology. Banana farmers would prefer the non-GMO method.

Lynn Paul Richardson

200 Kanoelehua Ave.
PMB 215
Hilo, Hawaii 96720
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Disturbing Banana Bunchy Top Virus Trend

Richard Ha writes:

We've noticed an uptick lately in the number of banana plants in and around Hilo town that are affected with the banana bunchy top virus (BBTV). Banana farmers are constantly watching for this, and lately we are seeing more of it.

bunchy top.jpt

We brought up this disturbing trend with Scott Enright, who is chair of the Department of Agriculture. Kamran Fujimoto had been concentrating on BBTV, but recently he has been focusing on fire ants and coconut rhinocerous beetle and traveling to O‘ahu.

Banana farmers have a tradition of being proactive. Lynn Richardson, who is a veteran banana farmer, had made a BBTV page on Facebook.

We would much rather be proactive and keep the disease under control than need to seek a GMO solution. Australia has a successful BBTV control program going, but it does have a law in place that allows inspectors to go into a person's yard to eradicate infected plants.

Our banana farmers report new infections as they see them, but we have been losing ground lately and it is a big concern.

Scott Enright listened to the banana growers and he immediately assigned two people to work with Kamran. Scott is not one to fool around. He moves fast.

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