Tag Archives: Bananas

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


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.


This is on Komohana St. in Hilo.


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


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


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. 


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

Biotech Solutions to Bad Problems

Richard Ha writes:

Dr. Michael Shintaku shared this article with me. It’s about a biotech solution to a blight that was threatening the American chestnut. 

American chestnut set for genetically modified revival

16:30 30 May 2014 by Andy Coghlan

The near-extinct American chestnut looks set to make a comeback. Genetically modified trees, which are resistant to a deadly fungus that has decimated the species, have produced the first resistant chestnuts. From these seeds, countless resistant trees could be grown in the wild.

An estimated 4 billion American chestnut trees (Castanea dentata) once covered the US, accounting for a quarter of all US hardwood trees. But in around 1900, a lethal fungus called Cryphonectria parasitica was accidentally imported in chestnut trees from Asia, and by the 1950s it had almost completely wiped out the American chestnut….

Read the rest

Hopefully, here in Hawai‘i we can be prepared in case a fungus starts killing off all our ‘ohi‘a trees.

The rose apple trees in East Hawai‘i are currently all dying from a fungus; have you noticed? The dying trees are everywhere.

All the mai'a maoli and popoulu cooking bananas, which came from the south way back when with the Polynesian settlers, are gone now, because they got Fusarium Wilt.

Don't we want to have tools that will help us preserve our heritage and other valuable plants?


Around The World on a Wa’a

Richard Ha writes:

The Polynesian voyaging canoes Hokule‘a and Hikianalia departed Hilo a couple days ago, headed for Tahiti on the first leg of an around-the-world voyage. Kalepa Babayan is captain of the Hokule‘a, and he melds ancient ways with modern technology and education. He is one of the most solidly grounded person I know. 

Hokule‘a crew member Na‘alehu Anthony blogged about leaving Hilo in It Takes a Community to Launch a Canoe:

Literally thousands of members of our ʻohana waʻa (canoe family) have come to see the canoes.  School groups by the busloads have come to share mele (songs) and hoʻokupu (offerings) to the canoes and crew. But if one looks a little closer, they can start to really notice how well this community still understands the sense of aloha. Every day for the past 10 days this community has come out to feed the crew three meals a day.  Cars have been dropped off to help with last minute runs to the store. People have come without any expectation of personal gain to give of their time to just help us prepare for this 47,000 mile journey. Just this morning after sunrise, one of the uncles from nearby came to drop off a dozen or so lei, that he personally strung together with flowers from his yard, just to “Aloha” the canoes.  He didn’t even ask to come aboard, rather, he left them in the care of one of our watch captains to bless the canoes with the sweet fragrance that reminds us all of Hilo.

We did our small part by supplying bananas and tomatoes, and feel very privileged to be able to support Hawai‘i's voyagers, along with hundreds of others. We learned, early on, that the voyaging crews like fresh fruit, especially longer into the trip, so we do this as much as we can on the voyages out of Hilo. We do our best to stage the ripening at different times, and try to see how far into the voyage we can get the bananas to last. We once got a batch to last until the crew reached the equator. 

Keaukaha was the host community for the wa‘a and their crews, and its president, Patrick Kahawaiola'a, was in charge of coordinating. June and I went to Palekai to see the canoes the other day.

As we walked down to the water, we ran into Bruce Blankenfeld, the captain of Hikianalia. I knew he had lots on his mind, so I introduced myself by saying we had supplied bananas on previous trips, and that they should "try keep the bananas separated so they no all go off at one time." He knew exactly what I meant. I gave him the thumbs up and we kept on going. 

To me, the voyage of the Hokule‘a and the Hikianalia represents hope for mankind. It is about the spirit of aloha. It is about using the resources available, modern and ancient, in a smart way. But mostly it's about attitude. There are a thousand reasons why no can. We need just one reason why, CAN.

From www.hokulea.com:

Island Wisdom, Ocean Connections, Global Lessons

Hōkūle‘a and Hikianalia, our Polynesian voyaging canoes, are sailing across Earth’s oceans to join and grow the global movement toward a more sustainable world. Covering 47,000 nautical miles, 85 ports, and 26 countries, the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage will highlight diverse cultural and natural treasures and the importance of working together to protect them. The Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage began in 2013 with a Mālama Hawaiʻi sail around our archipelago, and will continue through 2017 when our new generation of navigators take the helm and guide Hōkūle‘a and Hikianalia back to Polynesia after circumnavigating the globe.

The Hawaiian name for this voyage, Mālama Honua, means “to care for our Earth.” Living on an island chain teaches us that our natural world is a gift with limits and that we must carefully steward this gift if we are to survive together. As we work to protect cultural and environmental resources for our children’s future, our Pacific voyaging traditions teach us to venture beyond the horizon to connect and learn with others. The Worldwide Voyage is a means by which we now engage all of Island Earth—practicing how to live sustainably, while sharing, learning, creating global relationships, and discovering the wonders of this precious place we all call home.


Might We ‘Have No Bananas?’

Richard Ha writes:

My friend Nate Hagens forwarded me this story yesterday. I’d been aware of this peripherally, but now this is serious and we are putting the issue front and center. 

The gist of it is that a massive Chiquita banana plantation in Mozambique has a deadly banana disease that will likely spread, and probably already has.

From Popular Science.com:

Has The End Of The Banana Arrived?

Researchers fear that a relentless and virulent fungus could cripple the world's banana monoculture.

By Dan Koeppel Posted 05.13.2014 at 8:30 am

Two weeks ago, at a conference in South Africa, scientists met to discuss how to contain a deadly banana disease outbreak in nearby Mozambique, Africa. At fault was a fungus that continues its march around the planet. In recent years, it has spread across Asia and Australia, devastating plants there that bear the signature yellow supermarket fruit.

The international delegation of researchers shared their own approaches to the malady, hoping to arrive at some strategy to insulate Mozambique and the rest of Africa: a continent where bananas are essential to the lives of millions. They left the Cape Town-based meeting with an air of optimism.

Only days after the meeting, however, a devastating new survey of the stricken Mozambique farm was released. Scientists at the conference assumed that the fungus was limited to a single plot. The new report suggested the entire plantation was infested, expanding 125 diseased acres to more than 3,500. All told, 7 million banana plants were doomed to wilt and rot.

“The future looks bleak,” says Altus Viljoen, the South African plant pathologist who organized the conference. "There’s no way they’ll be able to stop any further spread if they continue to farm.” Worse, he says, the disease's rapid spread endangers banana crops beyond Mozambique’s borders…

Read the rest

The Mozambique banana plantation has what veteran banana farmers know as “Panama Wilt.” Long-time banana farmers in Hawai‘i remember when “Race 1, Panama Wilt” killed off Hawai‘i’s Bluefield bananas, the main variety grown here back then, as well as the banana varieties that the ancient Hawaiians brought in their canoes.

This disease in Mozambique is a variant of that one, called “Race 4, Fusarium Wilt.” This one affects and kills many banana varieties, including the Cavendish varieties, which are the main bananas in the world trade.

What’s most disturbing in this story is that Chiquita seems to have done a lot of things wrong when it started its new banana plantation in Mozambique. The company sent workers back and forth from Mozambique to Central America, when this disease easily spreads by soil on boots and clothing. The writer speculates that the disease is probably in Central America right now! As a long time banana farmer who knows about banana diseases, I too believe that it is probable.

The possiblity of this disease arriving here and decimating Hawai‘i’s banana industry is very real, and very scary. Our local banana industry is working closely with the University of Hawai‘i’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. I sent them this article, and the wheels are turning. This is no longer business as usual!

This same thing happened in Taiwan. They have the Race 4 disease there, and all their farmers now source their new plantings from Race 4-free tissue culture. They are selecting for resistance as they go along. The director of Taiwan’s lab is a graduate of UH Manoa and we visited that tissue culture facility once.

I’m debating whether I should start up our tissue culture lab again. In the meantime, we are relying heavily on the College of Tropical Ag. This is a very, very serious situation and it’s bigger than any of us alone. But I’m optimistic.


NYT Article: ‘Lonely Quest for Facts on GM Crops’

Richard Ha writes:

The New York Times just ran an excellent, balanced and well-received article on Hawai‘i Island’s recent GMO ban. It was written by Amy Harmon, a national correspondent for the Times who covers the impact of science and technology on American life. She’s won two Pulitzer Prizes for her work.

A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops


KONA, Hawaii — From the moment the bill to ban genetically engineered crops on the island of Hawaii was introduced in May 2013, it garnered more vocal support than any the County Council here had ever considered, even the perennially popular bids to decriminalize marijuana.

Public hearings were dominated by recitations of the ills often attributed to genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.s: cancer in rats, a rise in childhood allergies, out-of-control superweeds, genetic contamination, overuse of pesticides, the disappearance of butterflies and bees.

Like some others on the nine-member Council, Greggor Ilagan was not even sure at the outset of the debate exactly what genetically modified organisms were: living things whose DNA has been altered, often with the addition of a gene from a distant species, to produce a desired trait. But he could see why almost all of his colleagues had been persuaded of the virtue of turning the island into what the bill’s proponents called a “G.M.O.-free oasis.”

“You just type ‘G.M.O.’ and everything you see is negative,” he told his staff. Opposing the ban also seemed likely to ruin anyone’s re-election prospects.

Yet doubts nagged at the councilman, who was serving his first two-year term. The island’s papaya farmers said that an engineered variety had saved their fruit from a devastating disease. A study reporting that a diet of G.M.O. corn caused tumors in rats, mentioned often by the ban’s supporters, turned out to have been thoroughly debunked.

And University of Hawaii biologists urged the Council to consider the global scientific consensus, which holds that existing genetically engineered crops are no riskier than others, and have provided some tangible benefits.

“Are we going to just ignore them?” Mr. Ilagan wondered.

Urged on by Margaret Wille, the ban’s sponsor, who spoke passionately of the need to “act before it’s too late,” the Council declined to form a task force to look into such questions before its November vote. But Mr. Ilagan, 27, sought answers on his own. In the process, he found himself, like so many public and business leaders worldwide, wrestling with a subject in which popular beliefs often do not reflect scientific evidence…. Read the rest

Hawai‘i County Councilperson Margaret Wille, though, refers to this article as “Hogwash!”

She’s the local councilperson who spearheaded the Big Island biotech ban, and her comment on the New York Times article kind of says it all. In her second-to-last paragraph she lumps farmers in with “GMO apologists,” which makes us the enemy. We are not the enemy.

Her comment follows the New York Times article:

Margaret Wille

Hawaii Island Hawaii

The underlying message in this article is that pro-GMO is pro-science and those opposed are anti-science. Hogwash! It is the biotech corporations that politically obtained the USDA “political” exemption from being required to do premarketing health and safety tests. This political decision was based on the claim that GMO crops are “substantially equivalent” to the corresponding non-GMO crops. Instead of government required health and safety testing, uncontrolled “open field” testing is occurring right here in Hawaii on Kauai– where all the evidence points to immune disruption of the young and unborn , as well as harm to the soil and adjacent aquatic life.. At the same time these same corporations obtain patent rights based on the distinction of their GMOs, allowing the intellectual property laws to function as the barrier to obtaining the information independent scientist needed to do long term studies.

And whenever an independent study is underway, the GMO offensive position is to discredit the scientist or buy out the organization, as occurred in the case of the international organization doing studies on the adverse affects of associated pesticides on bee populations.

The bottom line is that we passed Bill 113 despite all the opposition from Big Ag GMO proponents and their on island mouthpieces.

Hopefully in the future, the New York Times will curb its biased approach to coverage of GMO related issues. 

Contrast Councilperson Wille with Councilperson Ilagan. What a difference.

At this point, it’s really not a matter of who can yell the loudest, but of sitting down and deciding where we want to end up, and how we’re going to get there. We have a very serious food security issue (I’ll be writing more about this next time) that, with our Peak Oil situation, is only likely to get worse.

We are not looking at a First Amendment situation here, where everyone’s opinion matters. Everyone is welcome to his or her opinion, but at this point, when it comes to making important policy for our people and our food security, we need to sit down and form the best policy we can, using the best science.

What was not covered in the New York Times article was Big Island farmers’ concern that the ban on biotech solutions only applies to Big Island farmers, and not their competitors on other islands or on the mainland.

The president of the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association asked why only papaya farmers are beng required to register their crops and pesticide usage. He said that papaya farmers feel like they are being treated like sex offenders.

And why is there a blanket ban on open air testing? With bananas, flying pollen makes no difference, because they don’t have seeds.

Fusarium wilt killed off the mai‘a maoli as well as the mai‘a popoulu, two banana plants that came to Hawai‘i on the canoes. What if we could bring them back?

What if a virus threatens to kill off all our taro? Would we want to be able to try and save it? What would the ancient ones do?


Busy Week: Speaking, Sponsoring & Aerial Photography

Richard Ha writes:

It’s been a busy week.

It started out with my being part of a panel discussion for the Ulumau IX class.

This was the 9th class of the Hawaiʻi Island Leadership Series called Ulumau, which was founded by Mark McGuffie in 2003. It has its roots firmly planted in the core values of Hawaiian Values, Community and Servant Leadership.

Unlike a traditional “leadership” class, where attendees are usually taught how to “manage” people, Ulumau expands the ranks of community leadership by providing a broad range of leaders (both existing and emerging) who have the knowledge and incentive to confront the needs of our specific community.

There were five of us on the panel. Jeff Melrose gave an overview of agriculture and what different types of farming are happening where on the Big Island. Everyone should see his presentation, which gives the context in which agriculture exists on the Big Island.

Nancy Redfeather talked about the school garden network and the many other outreach events she is involved in. She touches a large group of people. Other speakers were Elizabeth Cole, deputy director of the Kohala Center, and Amanda Rieux, who leads the culinary garden, the Mala‘ai Garden, at Waimea Middle School.

I talked about agriculture and energy, and how they are inextricably tied together. I also explained about how food security involves farmers farming, and that if the farmer makes money the farmer will farm.

I am helping to sponsor students in the Sustainable Hawaii Youth Leadership Initiative (SHYLI). This group’s mission is “to inspire young people to envision, plan and create a more sustainable future for their lives and their island.”

The students I’m sponsoring are Sherry Anne Pancho and KaMele E. Sanchez, who were both Big Island delegates to the Stone Soup Leadership Institute's 9th Annual Youth Leadership Summit for Sustainable Development conference on Martha’s Vineyard this summer. They came by the farm a few days ago to give a presentation of their project on hydroponic food production.

This is something I can help with, and I will track and write about their progress. I am very interested in supporting our next generation leaders as they work on ways to continue and improve our food security through changing and difficult times.

A crew from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo came by the farm to test an unmanned aerial vehicle. “Flight Control” was in the back of the pickup, where the screen was, so we could see what the camera was viewing.

Banana Survey 4

They set up a GPS coordinate, and the little six-bladed chopper flew the route as directed by the program. It was set up to fly parallel, overlapping camera runs until our whole banana field was filmed. Then they will make the recording into one large map.

Besides doing a photographic imaging, they ran a light spectrum recording. The value of seeing our banana plants from the air in different light spectrums is that we will be able to see where plants are stressed and take corrective action. The possibilities are immense. This is so interesting to me.

All three of these things that happened this week had to do with the future. I’m not only thinking of our farm and profit from day-to-day; it’s much bigger than all that. It’s the future – of Big Island farming, of our people, of our island.

Sometimes looking forward is actually about looking to and learning about how we used to do things, and I will continue to write posts about what I’m doing in those areas. And sometimes, it’s looking at new technologies and ways. Always it’s about talking with the young people coming up, so we can share what we know and discuss some of the challenges they are going to be facing.


Day In The Life Of Real Farmers

Richard Ha writes:

There’s a farming emergency in Costa Rica. Scale insects and mealybugs there are threatening more than 100,000 acres of export bananas. This is brand new information that’s just hit the news.

It’s the stuff farmers deal with, day in and day out. Could this hit us here? Could this take out the Big Island’s banana industry? Are we in danger?

The Big Island Banana Growers has sprung into action. We’ve already sent word about this to the University of Hawai‘i plant experts, as well as the state Department of Agriculture. We already have reports back, and everyone is watching this closely. All the right wheels are turning.

Note that it’s not our Hawai‘i County Council that we alerted for help. They have no idea things like this happen in farming, and wouldn’t know what to do about it if they did know.

From ThinkProgress.org:

Banana Emergency Strikes Costa Rica

by Joanna M. Foster on December 12, 2013

In 2012, Costa Rica exported more than 1.2 million tons of fresh bananas worth $815 million according to the Foreign Trade Promotion office.

This year’s crop could be substantially less thanks to an outbreak of scale insects and mealybugs. Currently the pests have spread across 24,000 hectares of plantations in the country’s Atlantic region.

…Costa Rica’s immediate response to the outbreak has been to import more plastic bags impregnated with the pesticides buprofezin and bifenthrin. The bags are wrapped around individual banana bunches to protect the fruit from the destructive pests…. Read the rest

Note, too, that unlike Costa Rica banana farmers, we don’t use any chemicals in the bags we wrap around the banana bunches while they are on the plant. Farmers in Costa Rica use heavy chemicals in their bags in order to keep their bananas blemish-free.

We have always kept our bags completely chemical-free and are willing to accept the blemishes that result. We do this in the interest of worker safety.

I’ve seen what’s happening in Costa Rica several times before. Chemicals kill off the good insects as well as the bad, they become immune and you get a spike in their population. We don’t allow any of that to happen. Our philosophy with bugs is: Don’t hurt the good guys, and give the bad guys a hard time.


Room With a View

Richard Ha writes:

This is the view from my “office” window.


I took it from the air-conditioned cab of my bulldozer, where I can even charge my iPhone. I was on a conference call yesterday while I was in the middle of clearing some brush that we are going to replace with something more productive. Not bad, huh?

We’re busy putting our marginal lands into production. While we’re at it, we need to provide safety barriers using dual-use plants and trees. We need to protect the streams by preventing erosion and runoff over the long term. If we can accomplish this with plants that provide food, so much the better.

On the land surrounding the hydro generator, we want to highlight the modern and the ancient. The hydro generator represents the modern, and the plants the Polynesian navigators brought with them in their canoes are of particular interest to me.

Being a banana farmer, I am familiar with the cooking bananas, the mai‘a maoli and the mai‘a popoulu. The mai‘a maoli produced a large, heavy bunch. I remember thinking, I would have put that in the canoe as well. The mai‘a popoulu was probably a backup. It was susceptible to wind and not very strong, relative to competition from grasses, etc.

Anybody have those varieties? I don’t see them aroundanymore. They succumbed to the fusarium wilt, like the Bluefield bananas did in the 50s. That caused the world banana trade to shift to the Cavendish type of banana, which are starting to succumb to another race of the fusarium wilt. That is the biggest threat overhanging the world banana industry today.

More pictures from my bulldozer. That’s bamboo in the distance. It’s less than three years old, and I’m guessing it’s 60-plus feet tall and 5 feet in diameter now. That’s with only two applications of fertilizer.

We have ‘opae in this healthy stream on our farm.

All the rose apple trees on Wai‘a‘ama Stream succumbed to a fungus a short time ago. We are going to plant other trees here, which will keep invasive species down and also help to keep the river cool.

This soil was fallow after a banana crop, and as I was walking along I saw earthworms. Healthy soil.

(I videotaped an earthworm!)

I am fascinated by our Hawaiian ancestors’ ability to survive, well, in a world without draft animals and metals.

I’m planning to write more about all this from a farmer’s point of view.