Richard Ha writes:
People occasionally ask me how we came to grow bananas.
After I graduated from UH Manoa in 1973 with a degree in accounting, Dad asked if I would run the family poultry farm. I agreed and moved back to Hilo.
After running the chicken farm for several months, I was asked to manage the Hilo Egg Producers Cooperative, located on Kalanikoa Street in the building just Hilo Bay side of Hilo Lunch Shop. The co-op supplied Hilo area supermarkets with fresh eggs.
In the course of that job, I noticed that supermarkets were importing Chiquita bananas. We had been thinking about what crop to grow at the farm, where we had 25 acres of family land and lots of chicken manure, and bananas seemed to have potential.
All I had was a credit card with a $300 limit and a Toyota Land Cruiser, so when I delivered eggs to the supermarkets I started collecting their used banana boxes. I stashed them in the open area beneath my parents’ house.
To get banana planting material, I traded chicken manure with local farmers. I got some from a Mr. Kudo on Haihai Street and some from Eric Mydell, Mr. Ah Heen and Uncle Sonny Kamahele, down the beach road at Maku‘u.
We had no money to clear the land so we marked banana rows by running down the California grass with my Land Cruiser. We are talking tall California grass, higher than the Land Cruiser and with those tiny hairs that make you itchy. We used sickles to clear the grass and an ‘o’o and post hole digger to plant the banana pulapula (seedling). Mom and Dad, my three brothers and I planted all the bananas.
Having majored in accounting, I was interested in acquiring a large market share, so we needed to plant as fast as we could. Using sickles and an ‘o’o, “moving quickly” meant planting 50 plants a week. Now, with automatic planters, it takes us only six seconds to plant one plant.
Later on, to make it easier on ourselves and to speed up the process, we poisoned the grass first instead of using a sickle. But at the beginning, we had more muscle than money so we used the sickle until we had our first harvest a year later.
I cannot believe how much we didn’t know back then. It’s kind of humorous to look back at where we came from.
We were so new to banana growing that we thought the larger the plant we put in the ground, the quicker and larger the bunch we would harvest. So we took the biggest plants we could find. But now we know that a banana plant needs maximum undisturbed time to develop a large bunch, so that wasn’t a good strategy.
Some of the plants we selected back then even had their bunch halfway up the tree already. We know now that those bunches would not be saleable. But we didn’t know any better then.
At the time we were very self-satisfied, having loaded a trailer to the top with banana keiki that looked like ‘ohi‘a logs. Nowadays, the same number of small, tissue-cultured banana plants could be carried under one arm and they would make larger bunches than the giant keiki we chose back then.
We started with two acres of bananas, which was maybe 1,500 plants. After planting them, we just let them grow. We would work for two or three hours and then my brothers’ friends would come by and we would talk story and hit the punching bag or lift weights for another few hours. Then, pau work.
After a year went by, we started to harvest and pack the bananas in boxes we had stored under the house.
But customers prefer ripe bananas. So we would lay all the hands of bananas on chicken wire in one of the empty chicken houses, and pick out the riper ones to put in the boxes.
This was really unwieldy. I had heard that on the mainland people were ripening bananas with some kind of gas. But I had no idea what it was, so I inquired at Gaspro if they knew of a product that ripens bananas. The lady told me, “You mean banana gas?” I said, “Yes, banana gas.” And I took the cylinder with me.
We made a room out of plywood in which to contain the gas and treat the bananas. And amazingly, the bananas ripened uniformly in just a few days. Our first customer was Food Fair Supermarket. We took a photo with the boss there, Mr. Eji Kaneshiro, of the first box we delivered. This was a big deal, as I did not even get to talk to him when I was in charge of marketing fresh eggs.
For some reason, the individual bananas would occasionally fall off the hand. I was called down to Food Fair on many occasions, where I would always act surprised and promise I would fix it. It went on like that for too long and I was having to talk to Mr. Kaneshiro way too often.
Then I learned that banana companies on the mainland used refrigeration to control ripening. We didn’t have money, so we bought a small air conditioner. It worked and it was amazing. We were delivering maybe ten boxes a week to Food Fair Supermarket and they were perfect. We were in the big time with cutting-edge technology.
One day, when we hit peak production of 25 boxes or so, I opened up the door to the air-conditioned enclosure and smelled the unmistakable odor of overripe bananas. What could have happened?
The air conditioning unit had ice all over it. That’s when I found out that ripening bananas give off a lot of heat, and we had overtaxed the small air conditioning unit. It was a disaster—we lost all 25 boxes.
I applied for a loan to build a warehouse and we made three ripening rooms with real refrigeration. From then on, we were really in the banana business.
To be continued….