Category Archives: How It All Started

What I Learned From My Uncle Sonny Kamahele

Richard Ha writes:

I reread some of my posts about my Uncle Sonny Kamahele recently. The most important things I learned about farming, I learned from him down at Maku‘u. I thought I’d revisit some of that here.


Science is great, but there are kids now that go to the supermarket and think that’s where food comes from.

For me, it all goes back to Uncle Sonny and all the layers of technology that have cropped up since then. Wheelbarrow

When I first thought about farming, I spent hours and hours talking to Uncle Sonny Kamahele down the beach at Maku‘u.

I’ve written about Uncle Sonny here and here. He was my Pop’s cousin, and I learned the basic principles of farming from him.

I had just graduated from UH Manoa with an accounting degree. I had cost benefit volume analysis and market share on my mind.

Uncle Sonny drove to town once a week. He did not have electricity or running water, but he always had a stack of U.S. News & World Reports with the current copy on top. He made his living farming watermelon by himself.

One day he told me that he needed to open up a new plot of land because he could not stay at the same place for too long; he didn’t want to get a virus or a wilt of some sort.

Over the days and weeks, I watched him cut grass in the new plot with a sickle and pull it into a roll, and then cart the grass out of his plot in a wheelbarrow. When he wasn’t doing that, he would take a hoe and remove the roots of the grass, because he knew that otherwise it would regrow.

The other types of weed were dormant seeds of broad-leaved weeds that would germinate and pop up. Uncle Sonny would remove these with a hoe, only on dry days, without disturbing too much of the soil. After awhile the seeds would stop germinating.

Uncle Sonny knew that certain weeds could continuously regrow if the roots were not removed, and that others only grew from seed. I noticed that, after awhile, hardly any weeds grew in the new plot, and I thought about how amazing that was.

The lessons I learned from Uncle Sonny? Know what your problem is. Also: no waste time.

My grandma Leihulu lived with us for several years as I was growing up in Waiakea Uka. She grew taro and made poi, and she did the same things as Uncle Sonny. She always had a stack of California grass smoldering, even when it was raining – they were weeds she’d removed the same way he did. It was second nature to her. It was just her lifestyle.

Whenever I see a plot of ground that’s clean like that, it’s pretty obvious to me that they did that with a hoe, and that that is somebody that knows what they’re doing.

As Uncle Sonny got older, he started using pesticides, but because they cost money he was very very careful with them. It saves that part where you have to go and hoe the weeds out and go and pull the seeds out. It saved him a lot of time. It wasn’t very many years later that he started to use Roundup.

When I started farming, we were using skull & crossbones types of poisons like Paraquat. When we switched to Roundup, we didn’t have to use that anymore. It made spraying herbicides so much safer for the farmer.

When you use a chemical like Roundup in conjunction with a 100-hp tractor, you can do 1000 times more than one human can do. That means you can produce that much more food.  But now that herbicides kill everything, you start losing that knowledge; you don’t have to know what the old guys knew.

When Uncle Sonny used herbicides, he always stuck the leaf into it and saw if it worked. If not, he’d add a little more.

He followed the instructions, but he never relied on the instructions for the final result. He knew the formula, but he checked to make sure the result was what he wanted. It showed me that he knew what he was doing. He knew why that particular spreader was in there, and checked the proportions for sure. Not that he doubted, but if he wanted it to work very well, he’d check it himself.

I haven’t seen anybody, not anybody, do that. But I think it was common knowledge with the old folks.

We are so far removed from our food now that we don’t really have a connection with why we’re doing what we’re doing. But we need the basic knowledge. You’ve got to know why you’re doing what you are doing.

More about Uncle Sonny:


The New Ahupuaa, Revisited

Richard Ha writes:

This is a post I wrote back in 2007. I recently reread it and realized it's the same story as what's happening today. It's six years later, and people still don't realize we don't have time to fool around.

I'm going to rerun the post here.


October 10, 2007

I spoke at the Hawai‘i Island Food Summit this past weekend, which was attended by Hawaiian cultural people, policy makers, university researchers, farmers, ranchers, and others.

The two-day conference asked the question, “How Can Hawai‘i Feed Itself?”

I felt like a small kid in class with his hand raised: “Call me! Call me!”

I sat on one of the panels, and said that our sustainability philosophy has to do with taking a long-term view of things. We are always moving so we’ll be in the proper position for the environment we anticipate five, 10 and 20 years from now.

I told them I had a nightmare that there would be a big meeting down by the pier one day, where they announce that food supplies were short because the oil supply was short and so we would have to send thousands of people out to discover new land.

I was afraid that they would send all the people with white hair out on the boats to find new land—all the Grandmas and Grandpas and me, but maybe not June.

Grandmas and Grandpas hobbled onto the boats with their canes and their wheelchairs, clutching all their medicines, and everybody gave all of us flower leis, and everyone was saying, “Aloha, Aloha, call us when you find land! Aloha!”

I spoke about where we want to be in five, 10 or 20 years. We know that energy-related costs will be high then. And that we need to provide food for Hawai‘i’s people.

We call our plan “The New Ahupua‘a.”

In old Hawai‘i, the ahupua‘a was a land division that stretched from the uplands to the sea, and it contained the resources necessary to support its human population—from fish and salt to fertile land for farming and, high up, wood for building, as well as much more.

Our “New Ahupua‘a” uses old knowledge along with modern technology to make the best use of our own land system and resources. We will move forward by looking backward.

• We plan to decouple ourselves from fossil fuel costs by developing a hydroelectric plant, which will allow us to grow various crops not normally grown at our location.

• We are moving toward a “village” concept of farming, and starting to include farmers from the area, who grow things we don’t, to farm with us. This way, the people who work on our farm come from the area around our farm. We will help them with food safety, pest control issues and distribution.

• We are developing a farmers market at our property on the highway, where the farmers who work with us can market their products.

• We will utilize as much of our own resources for fertilizer as possible, by developing a system of aquaponics, etc.

This “New Ahupua‘a” is our general framework for the future. It will allow us to produce more food than we can produce by ourselves. It is a safe strategy, in case the worst scenario happens; if it doesn’t, this plan will not hurt us.

It is a simple strategy. And we are committed to it.

My assessment of how we came to be here and where we need to be in the future is this: In the beginning, one hundred percent of the energy for food came from the sun. The mastodons ate leaves, the saber tooth tiger ate the mastodon and we ate the tiger and everything else.

The earth’s population was related to the amount of food we could gather or catch. And sometimes the food caught and ate us. So there were only so many of us roaming around.

Then some of us started to use horses and mules to help us grow food. As well as the sun, now animals provided some of the energy for cultivating food. We were able to grow more food, and so there were more of us.

About 150 years ago, we discovered oil. With oil we could utilize millions of horsepower to grow food—and we didn’t even need horses. Oil was plentiful and cheap; only about $3/barrel. We used oil to manufacture fertilizer, chemicals and for packaging and transportation.

Food became very, very plentiful and we started going to supermarkets to harvest and hunt for our food. Hunting for our food at the supermarkets was very good—the food did not eat us and now there are many, many, many of us.

But now we are approaching another change to the status quo—a situation being called “Peak Oil.” That’s when half of all the oil in existence is used up. Half the oil will still be left, but it will be increasingly hard to tap. At some point, the demand for oil—by billions and billions of people who cannot wait to get in their car and drive to McDonalds—will exceed the ability to pump that oil.

Food was cheap in the past because oil was cheap. Five years ago, oil was $30/barrel but now it’s over $80/barrel. Now that oil is becoming more and more expensive, food is also going to become much more expensive.

In the beginning the sun provided a hundred percent of the energy and it was free. Today oil is becoming very expensive, but sun energy is still free.  The wind, the waves, the water—they are all free here in Hawaii. It’s the oil that is expensive.

For Hamakua Springs, the situation is not complicated at all. We need to use an alternate form of energy to help us grow food!

With alternate energy, we should be able to continue growing food—and maybe local food can be grown cheaper than food that is shipped here from far away.

I told the Food Summit attendees that we farmers need to grow plenty of food so that others can do what they do and so we continue to have a vibrant society. If we don’t plan ahead to provide enough food, and as a consequence every family has to return to farming to feed themselves, it would be a much more limited society. People would not be able to pursue the arts, write books, explore space. We would have way fewer choices – maybe only, “What color malo should I wear today?”

There was a feeling going through the Food Summit’s crowd that we were a part of something very important and very special. What I found different about this conference is that people left feeling that this was just the beginning.

We are going to take action.



Time Travel: Looking Back At Our Land

Richard Ha writes:

We’re planning to landscape the area around our new hydroelectric system with canoe plants, the plants that the first Polynesian settlers brought with them from their previous island homes to help them survive and thrive in their new land.

They were the original organic farmers. They had no oil back
then, of course, so no oil technologies.

And they did not just survive in their oil-free lives, but thrived and supported a large population here well (research suggests it was a
population as large as we have now).

So as we reach the age of Peak Oil, the end of easy and cheap oil and all that came with that, I want to explore how they did it. I
want to learn from them and see what, from those times, we can focus on again to improve our lives now. Our hydroelectric system is another example of what we are doing in these regards.

There are still people, of course, who have always lived
with the old ways, and who continue to do so. I met some people at the Hawai‘i Community College who are perpetuating this culture and who have offered to help me. I’ll write more about that soon.

For now I thought I’d revisit what we know happened on this
land before we started farming it. A lot of this information comes from the Cultural Resources Review of our poperty done by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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Our farm encompasses three ahupua‘a in the district of South Hilo:

1. Ka‘upakuea at the north (bordered at the south by Makea Stream).

We don’t know much about what went on in Ka‘upakuea before the mid-19th century. In the mid-1800s, both Ka‘upakuea and Kahua were government lands, which were lands Kamehameha III gave “to the chiefs and people.” Ka‘upakuea was part of Grant 872. (Read the 1882 document A Brief History of Land Titles in the Hawaiian Kingdom for more on Hawai‘i’s historical land system.)

The area was later part of a sugar plantation, and has unpaved roadways and a west-east flume. Kaupakuea Camp was within the area of what’s presently our farm.

2. Kahua (which is between Makea and Alia Streams).

Kahua is a very narrow ahupua‘a, approximately 600 feet wide. It extends from the coast to about Makea Spring, which is at about the 980 foot elevation.

Kahonu (an ali‘i who was descended from both the I and Mahi
lines of chiefs, and who was in charge of the Fort at Punchbowl ca. 1833-34) was awarded either the whole of Kahua ahupua‘a or just the northern mauka half of it (references differ) as LCA 5663.

When he died in 1851, his relative Abner Paki (father of
Bernice Pauahi and hanai father of Lili‘uokalani) held the lands “under a verbal will from Kahonu” (Barrère 1994:138). When Paki died in 1855, the lands were listed as Bishop Estate lands.

3. Makahanaloa at its southern edge (bordered by Alia and Wai‘a‘ama Streams).

The ahupua‘a of Makahanaloa (Maka-hana-loa) runs from the coast about 3.5 miles up to the 6600-foot elevation. Kapue Stream flows from the base of Pu‘u Kahinahina down through Makahanaloa. Magnetic Hill is at the southwestern corner at the top of the ahupua‘a, which is a little over a mile wide and meets the North Hilo district boundary.

In the Great Mahele of 1848, 7600 acres of Makahanaloa and
Pepe‘ekeo were awarded to William Charles Lunalilo (an ali‘i who later became king, from 1873 until his death in 1874). Upon his death, his personal property went to his father Charles Kana‘ina.

Here are a couple of interesting facts about Makahanaloa
ahupua‘a: Somewhere within this area, though the exact location is unknown, there was (is?) an “ancient leaping place for souls.”

And according to historian Mary Kawena Pūku‘i, a sacred bamboo grove called Hōmaika‘ohe was planted at Makahanaloa by the god Kane. “Bamboo knifes used for circumcision came from this grove,” she wrote.

Sugar Plantation History

Sugar cane was one of the canoe plants; it came with the early Polynesians to Hawai‘i and they used it as food and sweetener, and chewed it to strengthen their teeth and gums.

The farm sits on land that was formerly part of a sugar plantation that had its origins in 1857, when Theophilus Metcalf started Metcalf Plantation. After his death in 1874, the 1500-acre plantation was purchased by Mr. Afong and Mr. Achuck and its name changed to Pepeekeo Sugar Company. In 1879, they also acquired the 7600-acre Makahaula Plantation. By 1882, both were combined as Pepeekeo Sugar Mill & Plantation. In 1889, Afong returned to China, leaving the plantation in the hands of his friend Samuel M. Damon.

Over the years, it changed hands several more times. C. Brewer
& Co. bought the plantation in 1904, added a plantation hospital and improved housing. By 1910, plantation fields were connected by good dirt roads and harvested cane was delivered to the mill by railroad cars and stationary flumes.

Post-1923, the plantation improved its soil every year by adding coral sand (from Wai‘anae), bone meal and guano. “The sand was bagged and hauled into the fields by mules to be spread” (Dorrance & Morgan 2000:101). Eucalyptus trees were planted as windbreaks, protecting the fields near the ‘ōhi‘a forests.

Water came from Wai‘a‘ama Stream and Kauku Hill.
 Plowing was
done to 18 to 20 inches. After 1932, tractors with caterpillar tracks were used for plowing. From 1941, trucks hauled harvested cane to the mill.

In the early 1950s, lots and houses on the plantation were sold to residents.

Under C. Brewer, there were several mergers: Honomu Sugar Company in 1946; Hakalau Sugar Company in 1963; consolidation of Wainaku, Hakalau, Pepeekeo, and Papaikou sugar companies in 1971, and a final merger in 1973 with Mauna Kea Sugar (once 5 separate plantations: Honomu, Hakalau, Pepeekeo, Onomea and Hilo Sugar Company) to form Mauna Kea Sugar Company, the state’s largest with 18,000 acres of cane (Dorrance & Morgan 2000:104).

Prior to the final merger, Mauna Kea Sugar Company had formed
a non-profit corporation with the United Cane Planters’ Cooperative, the Hilo Coast Processing Company, to harvest and grind sugarcane.

The Hilo Coast Processing Company and the Mauna Kea Sugar
Company (at that point called Mauna Kea Agribusiness Company) mill shut down in 1994.

We started farming on this land in 1994.

I’m very interested in knowing more history about this place. If you or your family know old stories about this area, I would love to hear them.


Huffington & Omidyar Visit Hamakua Springs

By Leslie Lang, blog editor

Thursday was such an interesting day. Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post, and Pierre Omidyar, founder of Honolulu’s online newspaper Civil Beat (and founder of eBay), spent some time at Hamakua Springs Country Farms.

The background is that Huffington Post and Civil Beat have teamed up to start HuffPost Hawaii (and they asked Richard to blog for the new online news organization. Here’s his first HuffPost Hawaii post, by the way.)

So this week, Arianna and Pierre were making the rounds in Hawai‘i for the big HuffPost Hawaii launch. They spent Thursday on the Big Island, where they were welcomed with a big reception at ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center.

The only other Big Island stop they made was to Richard’s farm. They had asked if they could come and meet Richard and learn about what he’s doing. So that happened Thursday afternoon, and Richard invited me to join them there.

What a completely fascinating day. There’s something about being around really smart people who are doing big and really interesting things, making things happen and making a difference. Richard is completely like that, too, as you know if you’ve been reading this blog. It’s invigorating to be around that kind of energy.

Both Arianna and Pierre are very friendly and down-to-earth, and both are interested in issues of sustainability and what Richard is doing.


Richard told them about his background — flunking out of college the first time around and ending up in Vietnam, coming back and trading manure from his father’s chicken farm for bananas to start what eventually became Hamakua Springs Country Farms — about seeing prices start rising, rising, rising and wondering why; about attending five Peak Oil conferences and starting to learn what was happening. He talked about how he forces the changes needed to get to where he needs to be five or 10 years in the future.


He talked about the current threat to Big Island farming from anti-GMO bills, and Pierre asked some very salient (and polite) questions about some common GMO fears, such as of:

  • Commercial control of seeds. Richard replied that in many cases, such as with, for instance, the Rainbow papaya, virus-resistant seeds are developed by the university and not controlled by any big business at all. This, he said, is often the case.
  • Cross-pollination, or “pollen drift.” Richard responded that due to numerous studies, we know how much drift there is for different crops. Farmers work together, he says, to plan what is planted where, plant so many lines of “guard rows” and it’s completely manageable.

They asked about Richard’s new hydroelectric system, and we took a dusty, bumpy country road drive out to see where the water runs through an old sugar cane flume, and then through a turbine.



Arianna and Pierre were very interested in this, and in how, when the switch is thrown very shortly, the farm will be saving perhaps almost half of its monthly electric bill, which now averages $10-11,000.


Pierre asked about returning excess power to the utility, and was shocked to learn that due to a technicality, Richard will not be paid for the power he feeds to HELCO. Pierre kept returning to that and said, more than once, “That’s just not right.” Richard finally replied, “Well, at least it’s not wasted.”


Richard Ha, Arianna Huffington, Pierre Omidyar, Leslie Lang, June Ha

Richard talked about how they have converted the farm from growing mostly bananas to being a family of farms, which brings in local farmers who then have a close-to-home place to farm. This, in turn, means the farm produces a more diverse crop.

He told Arianna and Pierre about growing their current experiment growing tilapia, to learn how to add a protein component to the food they produce and also use the waste as fertilizer. Workers can fish for tilapia there and take some home for their families.

Arianna and Pierre both seemed sincerely interested. They paid close attention and asked good questions.

Richard told them about talking with Kumu Lehua Veincent, who was principal of Keaukaha Elementary School back in the early days of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) push. He told them that he asked Kumu Lehua, “What if we ask the TMT for five, full-ride scholarships to the best schools in the nation for your best students?” He told them that Kumu Lehua thought about it for a minute and then quietly asked, “And what about the rest?”

This was a turning point, explained Richard, who said that at the time he could feel his ears turning red. He told Arianna and Pierre that that phrase, What about the rest? gives him an “unfailing moral compass.”

It always brings him back to the rubbah slippah folk, he told them. The “rubbah slippah” folk are in contrast to the “shiny shoes” folk. When he explained this, Pierre looked down at his own shoes.

“I wore my shiny shoes today,” he said, “but I meant to change into my sneakers before coming to the farm.” He mentioned his shiny shoes a couple more times during the visit.

“I felt they absolutely got what I meant when I advocated for the ‘rubbah slippah’ folks,” Richard told me, “and completely support that idea.”


Richard’s daughter Tracy had laid out a beautiful spread of Hamakua Springs produce back by the office, where there was a tent set up, and Arianna zeroed in on the longan.

“What’s this?” she said, and Tracy explained that it’s a delicious fruit. She handed one to Arianna, along with some wipes (they are juicy and messy), and Arianna loved it.

Arianna gives the impression of being very family-oriented. “At what point did you and June get married in this long process?” she asked, when Richard was explaining how he got started farming 35 years ago. (The answer: 32 years ago, and when June joined the family she took all the farm receipts out of a big banana box and straightened out the accounting.) Arianna asked Tracy if she had siblings. When she was introduced to Richard’s grandson Kapono, she looked at him, and at his parents, and asked, “Now, are you Tracy and Kimo’s son?” (Yes.)

She gave June a copy of her book, On Becoming Fearless.


Both Arianna and Pierre are such interesting people. One of the things Richard talks about is forcing change, and that is something that both his guests are all about, too: Looking down the road and fixing things, forcing the change instead of letting things bumble along.

It is refreshing to be in the presence of such interesting thinkers and doers. Great day.

This is a video Civil Beat did with Richard recently, before Arianna and Pierre’s visit. It’s really nicely done and you get to hear a bit about some of the topics they discussed yesterday (while seeing gorgeous views of the farm).


The Wheres & Whyfors of Hamakua Springs

By Leslie Lang

The other day Richard gave some of us a tour of Hamakua Springs Country Farms in Pepe‘ekeo, and its new hydroelectric plant, and wow. I hadn’t been out to the farm for awhile, and it was so interesting to ride around the 600 acres with Richard and see all that’s going on there these days.

Most of what I realized (again) that afternoon fell into two
broad categories: That Richard really is a master of seeing the big picture, and that everything he does is related to that big picture.

Hamakua Springs, which started out growing bananas and then expanded into growing the deliciously sweet hydroponic tomatoes we all know the farm for, has other crops as well.

tomatoes.jpgThese days there are farmers leasing small plots where they are growing taro, corn, ginger and sweet potato. These farmers’ products go to the Hamakua Springs packing house and Hamakua Springs distributes them, which speaks to Richard’s goal of providing a place for local farmers to farm, wherethere is water and packing and distribution already in place.

As we drove, we saw a lot of the water that passes through his farm. There are three streams and three springs. It’s an enormous amount of water, and it’s because of all this water that he was able to develop his brand new hydroelectric system, where they are getting ready to throw the switch.

The water wasn’t running through there the day we were there because they’d had to temporarily “turn it off” – divert the water – in order to fix something, but we could see how the water from an old plantation flume now runs through the headworks and through a pipe and into the turbine, which is housed in a blue shipping container.


This is where the electricity is generated, and I was interested to see a lone electric pole standing there next to the system. End of the line! Or start of the line, really, as that’s where the electricity from the turbine is carried to. And from there, it works its way across the electric lines stretched between new poles reaching across the land.

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He asked the children who were along with us for their ideas
about how to landscape around the hydroelectric area, and also where the water leaves the turbine to run out and rejoin the stream.

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“We could do anything here,” he said, asking for thoughts, and
we all came up with numerous ideas, some fanciful. Trees and grass? A taro lo‘i? Maybe a picnic area, or a water flume ride or a demonstration garden or fishponds?

There are interesting plans for once the hydro system is operating, including a certified kitchen where local area producers can bring their products and create value-added goods.

Other plans include having some sort of demo of sustainable
farming, and perhaps ag-tourism ativities like walking trails going through the farm, and maybe even a B&B. “The basis of all tourism,” he said, “is sustainability.”

Hamakua Springs is also experimenting with growing mushrooms
now, and looking into several other possibilities for using its free

As we stopped and looked at the streams we kept coming
across, which ran under the old plantation roads we drove upon, Richard made an observation that I found interesting. In the Hawaiian way, the land is thought of as following the streams down from mountain to sea. In traditional ways, paths generally ran up-and-down the hill, following the shape of the ahupua‘a.

“But look at the plantation roads,” he said, and he pointed
out how they run across the land, from stream to stream. The plantation way was the opposite. Not “wrong” – just different.

Richard has plans to plant bamboo on the south sides of the
streams, which will keep the water cool and keep out invasive species.

At the farm, they continue to experiment with raising
, which are in four blue pools next to the reservoir.

June & Tilapia.jpgJune with a full net

The pools are at different heights because they are using gravity to flow the water from one pool to the next, rather than a pump. Besides it being free, this oxygenates the water as it falls into the next pool. They are not raising the fish commercially at present, but give them to their workers.

Everything that Richard does is geared toward achieving the same goal, and that is to keep his farm economically viable and sustainable.

If farmers make money, farmers will farm.

Continuing to farm means continuing to provide food for the local community, employing people locally and making it possible for local people to stay in Hawai‘i: This as opposed to people having to leave the islands, or their children having to leave the islands, in order to make a decent life for themselves.

The hydroelectric system means saving thousands per month in
electric bills, and being able to expand into other products and activities. It means the farm stays in business and provides for the surrounding community. It means people have jobs.

This is the same reason why, on a bigger scale, Richard is working to bring more geothermal into the mix on the Big Island: to decrease the stranglehold that high electricity costs have over us, so the rubbah slippah folk have breathing room, so that we all have more disposable income – which will, in turn, drive our local economy and make our islands more competitive with the rest of the world, and our standard of living higher, comparably.

When he says “rubbah slippah folk,” Richard told me, he’s always thinking first about the farm’s workers.

This, by the way, is really a great overview of how Richard describes the “big picture.” It’s a TEDx talk he did awhile back (17 minutes). Really worth a look.

It was so interesting to see firsthand what is going on at the farm right now, and hear about the plans and the wheres and whyfors. Thank you, Richard, for a really interesting and insightful afternoon.


The Canoes Are Coming: Te Mana o Te Moana

A couple days ago I went to breakfast at ‘Imiloa with my friends Wallace Ishibashi, of the Big Island Labor Alliance and the Royal Order of Kamehameha, and Clyde Hayashi,of Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust.

Kalepa Baybayan, ‘Imiloa’s Navigator-In-Residence, stopped by to tell us about the progress of the canoes coming up from the South Pacific on the voyage called Te Mana o Te Moana (“The Spirit of the Sea”).

From the website:

The Goal

We’re sailing across the Pacific to renew our ties to the sea and its life-sustaining strength.  The ocean is the origin of life, and it continues to give us air to breathe, fish to eat, and nourishes our soul as well. As threatened as the ocean is now, however, it soon can no longer provide us with these essential life services.

Sailing together, we seek the wisdom of our ancestors and the knowledge of scientists to keep the Pacific healthy and give our grandchildren a future.

We have chosen a motto for the whole project, which reflects the spiritual thinking in Polynesian culture about the sea, which has the same life-force running through its water as runs through our bodies, and how to treat this precious resource to not disturb Tangaroa, the God of the Sea. The following saying is a poetic way to say “be respectful and gentle”:

“Move your paddle silently through the water”

Later, I had a meeting with Patrick Kahawaiola’a and Mapuana Waipa, the president and vice president respectively of the Keaukaha Community Association, and our conversation went to the schedule for the arrival of the canoes. Patrick folks are going to arrange the ceremony.

As of Thursday, the canoes passed the equator and were in the doldrums. You can follow their progress. The first place they will arrive in Hawai‘i is Hilo harbor.

I was tickled that Mapuana was so pumped up about there being women in the crews. I thought to myself: I bet they sent equal amounts of men and woman when the first people came to Hawai‘i many years ago. How could it have worked any other way?

Here’s the most recent blog entry, straight from the vaka/va‘a/wa‘a (“canoe” in various Polynesian languages):

Day 55. This is our home. This va’a (canoe), simple with inspiration from our Polynesian ancestors, its smooth wooden platform connecting two sturdy hulls lying below- this is our island… this is our world. I heard someone say recently “our canoe is our island, and our island our canoe,” as such the lessons and practices inherent on one are reflective in the other. Gaualofa, this island which has sheltered us, transported us and looked after us all so soundly, has been able to do so only as a result of care and consideration from everyone involved. We are constantly reminded to look after her should we expect to be looked after in turn. On this va’a, all are aware of the finite nature of the resources w… READ THE REST

Learn more about the voyage here.


Kapoho, Part Two: “That’s Why You’re Dangerous”

Richard Ha writes:

When we were first getting started in bananas at Koa‘e back in the late 1970s, our farm was way out in the Wild West, where our close neighbors were the original “sustainable farmers.” Some people called them hippies. We just thought of them as fellow farmers making their own way.

Their houses were open, with mosquito netting to protect against flying insects. They had no electricity or running water.

They were on catchment water systems and we, and they, were concerned that our overspray did not hurt them. We were very conscious of their proximity and we took care to communicate closely with them. It made us very aware of how our operation could affect our neighbors, and helped us become the sustainable farmers we are today.

The neighbors occasionally had full moon parties and I went once. It was an experience walking around in the bright moonlight, in and out of the shadows of giant mango trees, running into people I’d never met before. I think the boys went to their parties frequently. I heard the people who lived closer to the ocean were clothing-optional, but I did not know that for sure. They were good neighbors and we got along very well.

The boys and I were very close. Jason and Bert danced and played music for Johnny Lum Ho, and they always won the Merrie Monarch competition. During the summers we all hung out around down the beach at Leleiwi, and when it got too cold we hung out at the Ponderosa; that was the name of my Uncle George and Aunty Agnes’s house on Chong Street in Kaumana.

Our farm grew to 55 acres in a short time and we all were very proud of what we were doing. Jerryl and I started to go to Hawai‘i Banana Industry Association annual meetings on O‘ahu, where people were very impressed we were coming up so quickly. We learned a lot by associating with the oldtimers and the University of Hawai‘i people.

On a farm tour of Kauai with some other Hawai‘i Banana Industry Association farmers once, we went to Waimea Canyon. We stood overlooking a cliff where there was a rope restraint you weren’t supposed to step beyond. One of the local guys, who was wearing brand new jogging shoes, stepped over it. We were considered large farmers and kind of leaders in the industry then, but he didn’t know us personally. I said, “I can have your shoes?” It meant: If you slip and fall, don’t waste your good, expensive shoes. Poho, give them to me before you go.

I wanted him to know we all came from the same place. You’d have to have come up the hard way to value shoes that were going over a cliff. It was so funny. His wife jerked, he jerked and then we all laughed knowingly. It was a good moment.

Jerryl’s truck could hold three people and my Opel station wagon could fit five. We had no problems with communication when everyone could fit in the two vehicles. But soon the farm and our number of employees grew too large for that, and after that we needed to make a special effort to keep everyone informed.

This was our first step into the world of big business. I realized then that it was not possible to be all things to all people. The best we could do was to be fair.

I lived in the condominiums above Hilo High School. I had a barbell set in an upstairs bedroom and that’s where I first started lifting weights. My next door neighbors and close friends were Ron and Penny Mau. Penny became a school principal and Ron is now a very, very well-known entomologist at the University of Hawai‘i College of Tropical Agriculture.

We were sending a steady amount of bananas to Oahu and our farm was growing. I had a degree in accounting, which I had studied to help me keep score. But I had no actual experience in the accounting field, and as much as I tried, I could not develop an effective bookkeeping system.

Finally I shoved all my records into a banana box and took them to an old veteran accountant. I told him I was looking to hire someone to keep the books.

I thought he might like to know that I had an accounting degree, expecting him to acknowledge that this was a good thing going forward. Instead, without looking up, he told me, “That’s why you’re dangerous.”

(To be continued….)

If you missed our story up to this point
Waiakea Uka: We first start growing bananas
Kapoho Days, Part One


How It All Started: The Kapoho Days (part one)

Richard Ha writes:

After starting a banana farm at Waiakea Uka under the corporate name Ha Bros., Inc., I decided to start another farm as a separate entity, and I started looking for parcels. But land was scarce then. It was around 1978, and the sugar industry had most of the good land.

There was one 60-acre parcel available, which was owned by Elvin and Kay Kamoku together with Bill Kaina. Elvin was my Pop’s old diving buddy and at the time he was the Big Island fire chief. Bill Kaina was the pastor of Kaumakapili Church and later of Kawaihao Church. I leased the land from them.

The parcel was located at Koa’e, which is a 40-minute drive from Hilo. The Pahoa bypass hadn’t been built yet so we drove through the middle of Pahoa on the way to work. You went towards Kapoho, past Lava Tree State Park, past old Kapoho town, which was covered by lava, to the four stop sign corner and then back toward Hilo on Beach Road. You passed the Lyman cinder cones, and then the pavement ended and the road went under tall mango trees. The farm was about a hundred yards on the left.

The land had been planted in papayas and there was no soil at all. But a foot or more of cinder, from the 1960 eruption that destroyed Kapoho town, covered the entire parcel. The lava fountain had been more than 1000 feet high in 1960, and the prevailing wind blew the cinder onto the land.

We were kind of new to farming and we didn’t know we weren’t supposed to be able to grow bananas where there was no soil.

Fortunately, the papaya farmer before us had had a D9 bulldozer rip deep rows through the pahoehoe lava, and that’s where he planted his papayas. We didn’t have any money so we planted 45 acres of bananas in those papaya rows. Luckily for us, the ripped pahoehoe allowed the banana plant roots to go down far enough to reach moisture.

Mom, Pop and I planted the first bananas. Later we hired people to help us to plant and take care of the growing farm. Our original banana crew consisted of Miles Kotaki, Jerryl Mauhili, Jason, Jolan and Jocky Keahilihau, Puggy Nathaniel, Jolson Nakamura and Bert Naihe. Most of them came from Keaukaha and Panaewa. Jerryl was the farm manager.

We planted the bananas as deep down amidst the ripped slabs of pahoehoe as we could, then we covered them up with a mound of cinder. This was all done by hand using picks, shovels and o’o bars because we could not afford a tractor. We filled buckets and walked down the rows throwing fertilizer by hand.

As the bananas started bearing fruit, the guys would harvest the bunches, bring them to the closest road and lean them up against a banana plant. When the bunches were all harvested they would come by, cut the hands off and put them in two papaya bins we had on a flat bed trailer.

We were operating hand to mouth, and one day the two papaya bins were repossessed, so we had nothing to put the bananas in. Jerryl decided to just haul them on the trailer without any bins. So they put a bed of banana leaves down on the trailer and lined up banana hands, one inside the other, from one end to the other. They put a layer of banana leaves on top of the bananas and then a second level of banana hands, then a third and a fourth and on up until there were seven layers.

The first time they passed through Pahoa town like that, heads swiveled: “What was that?!”

We would drop off the trailer at the Waiakea Uka packing house after work, around 5 in the evening, and Mom would cut the bananas up and have them packed before 6:30 the following morning. It went on like that for several months—maybe a whole year. I don’t know how we would have done it without Mom’s help.

My brother-in-law Dennis Vierra is a guy who can do anything related to construction, and he helped us build a packing house. Until then we had no shelter, no toilet—just a lot of determination.

Dennis built a structure where we could hang the bunches and roll them on a rail to a place where we could cut off the hands and place them in a tank full of water. The hands were floated across the tank, where they were cut into clusters and packed into banana boxes. We thought we were in the big time.

It turned out that nobody really wanted our bananas on O‘ahu. We had more guts than brains at that time, so we sent several hundred boxes to someone we called Uncle Chow, though we were never sure that was his real name. He took them around Honolulu and sold them off his flatbed truck for ten cents a pound. He never sent us the money, and we wrote it off as marketing and promotion.

His efforts got the attention, though, of Stanley Unten, owner of Hawaiian Banana Company, who was the main banana distributor on O‘ahu. He called and we started shipping to him.

Next we bought a large cargo van. Mechanization was coming fast and furious for us. We bought a roller conveyor to aid in loading the cargo van, which we drove to the docks. We also used the roller conveyor to unload our banana boxes into a Young Brothers refrigerated container.

Then we really hit the big time—we bought a secondhand forklift for $100. The guys called it “Fred Flintstone.” It had hard rubber tires and would go “clunk” every time the part missing from the wheel hit the concrete. But it could move pallets of bananas, meaning each one didn’t have to be carried by hand. All the guys appreciated it very much.

To be continued


How It All Started, part one

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….