Tag Archives: Hamakua Springs Country Farms

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


A Journey Back

Richard Ha writes:

We had no idea there was a stream running under the green sugar cane in the foreground of this picture. This is near our new hydroelectric plant. 


Here’s what we saw after we cleared some of the cane. Amazing!

Another great natural resource!

Awhile back I was asked to speak to students in the Hawai‘i Life Styles program at Hawai‘i Community College. The program has three tracks: hula, fishing and farming. Since then, I’ve kept in touch, and recently Keone Chin and Keali‘i Lilly came and helped clear the cane away. Keone is outreach specialist and Keali‘i is mahi‘ai (farming) support for I Ola Haloa, the Hawai‘i Life Styles program.

Though on the one hand we are using our property at the farm in a modern way, as in with the hydroelectric system, on the other hand, we are looking back at how the land was used in the past.

We have decided to plant canoe plants around the hydro area, to get a feel for how Hawaiian sustained themselves and what they used. I’ve also been talking to Gary Eoff, who’s a well-known expert in making traditional cordage, and we’re talking about planting some of those plants. Eventually we’d like to make plant materials available for others who want to use them.

Gary also grows gourds. You know what I think of when I think about gourds and cordage? I think Tupperware. You can use them to carry things around, and store food. Imagine – Hawaiians even had Tupperware back then. They really didn’t lack for much.

Everything comes down to net energy minus the cost of your food. What’s left over determines your lifestyle. It’s a little more complex than that, but it’s valuable in that it gives us a way to compare how people lived in the old days compared to now. If you use your energy efficiently, maybe you can sit around and go surfing a lot.

So we are just starting the process of figuring out how to use the land around the hydro plant, and going through the exercise with the folks from the HCC Hawai‘i Life Styles program. We are going on this journey together. It’s truly exciting.


Civil Beat & Huffington Post Coverage

Honolulu's Civil Beat came to the Big Island and interviewed Richard for this really good article on energy and Hawai‘i – and then today it was picked up by the Huffington Post. Wow. 

From Civil Beat:

Energy Prices Shock Hawaii Farmers Into Alternatives

by Sophie Cocke  8/15/13

HAMAKUA, BIG ISLAND — Lush green fields rise and dip through the rolling hills that stretch down to the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean. The verdant surroundings and tropical air suggest this farm could be one of countless others. So does the water that flows past leafy, green taro fields, stalks of corn that sway in the breeze and the sweet potato patch.

But the subtle, steady swooshing of the water signals how this farm is different. The water has been diverted from a mountain stream, down a 150-foot slope and into a small, blue shed where it sends blades spinning to generate electricity.

Yes, Hamakua Springs Country Farms has its own hydroelectric plant.

Farmer Richard Ha borrowed money to install the plant as part of a 19th-century solution to a very 21st century problem: sky-high energy rates….

Read the rest here

There's a short video interview with Richard at the end, too.

- posted by Leslie Lang


Preparing for Tropical Storm Flossie

Richard Ha writes:

We have gone into “hurricane mode” here. Tropical Storm Flossie is due to hit the Big Island around 6 a.m. tomorrow morning.

From Hawaii News Now at 8 p.m. Sunday:

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) –

Tropical Storm Flossie continues to maintain strength as it inches closer to the islands. As of 8 p.m. Sunday, maximum sustained winds were 60 miles per hour, according to the Central Pacific Hurricane Center (CPHC) in Honolulu.

Forecasters said at 8 p.m., the storm was located about 260 miles east of Hilo, or 465 miles east of Honolulu. It was moving toward the west at 18 miles per hour.  

Winds in excess of 60 mph can knock down banana plants and damage our tomato houses. Our worker safety is top priority.

We’ll see what the 11 p.m. weather report says. I’ll try to post again with an update tomorrow morning, early.


About To Throw the Switch on our Hydro

Richard Ha writes:

Our hydro is all hooked up and we are ready to throw the switch.

HELCO is meeting with whoever they meet with on O‘ahu on Tuesday, and we will get instructions for the Standard Inter Connect. We cannot wait.

We will have stable and low-cost electricity. This will give us the ability to refrigerate and consolidate produce for area farmers. We plan to expand the number of farmers and type of crops growing on our land.

portobello mushroomsWe are looking into growing portabello mushrooms, and are in the process of growing our first batch. When we get into commercial production, we will end up with compost and that will allow us to get into organic food production. The electricity we generate will help the controlled atmosphere and sterilizing process.

We are also in the process of getting into aquaponic fish production.

Lots of exciting things going on.


Farmer: “I’m Tired of Defending My Life’s Work”

Richard Ha writes:

Yesterday I testified before the Hawai‘i County Council. I was testifying against Act 79, which would prohibit GMOs not already growing on the Big Island.

Note: We do not grow any GMO on our farm.

But the point I was wanting to make is that farming used to be an honorable profession where you could make a living. Now farmers are losing money right and left, wondering whether they will continue to farm, and they are not encouraging their children to do so.

If we farmers are going to survive, we are going to need access to the most modern techniques and technologies. This Act would cut off our ability to use modified crops that are resistent to disease, if needed. It would mean foregoing potential help, like when the banana industry faced a virus 15 years ago. At that time, they started working on genetically modified techniques that would have helped the banana industry greatly, though ultimately it didn’t happen.

Genetic modification also saved the papaya industry here in Hawai‘i; without the Rainbow papaya, we would no longer have a papaya industry at all.

Jason Moniz also testified yesterday. He was representing the Hamakua Farm Bureau and requested the bill be killed, saying it threatens the “well-being” of farmers and ranchers.

“Frankly, I’m sick and tired of having to defend my life’s work,” he said.

This feeling is increasingly being discussed at dinner tables in the farming community. They are asking themselves, “Is it worth it” to continue farming?

What will happen when all our farmers get out of the business?

My testimony:

My name is Richard Ha, and I’m representing Hamakua Springs
Country Farms. 

Hamakua Springs Country Farms is a 600-acre, fee simple,
diversified Ag farm. We have produced multi-millions of pounds of fruits and vegetables over the years. We have 70 workers who work with us and have more than 30 years of experience in producing food 

1. Farmers are being pitted against each other. This is not good. We need all farmers to help provide food for an uncertain future.

2. Farmers have been losing ground, not gaining ground. Even if you give farmers free rent, it is not guaranteed that they will make money. A UHERO report shows that ag, as a percentage of GDP, has been steadily declining. Food security depends on farmers farming. If the farmers made money, they would farm.

3. Farmers are right now making plans to quit and sell their lands. They cannot tell their children with a clear conscience to carry on, when all they see is conflict and no support. 

Here is a solution. Cheaper electricity can give us a competitive edge. The mainland uses oil for only two percent of its electricity
generation. We use it for more than 70 percent. That is why farmers have a hard time doing value-added. Any food manufactured on the mainland with electricity embedded in it has a competitive edge over us. 

Seventy nine percent of the students at the Pahoa School complex take advantage of the free/reduced lunch program, and qualification is determined by family income. That means the Pahoa area has the lowest family income in the state! Pahoa is number one in the state. Ka‘u is second, and Kea‘au is third.

Our electricity rates have been higher than Oahu’s for as long as anyone can remember. That means less of our education dollar is going to actually teaching Big Island students. Yet, education is the best predictor of family income.

If we could lower and stabilize our electricity cost, farmers,
distributors and retailers would have lower refrigeration costs. Food costs would go down. Farmers could manufacture value-added food products and increase their income stream. Lower cost electricity means people would have extra spending money to support local farmers. More of our education dollar would go to kids’ education, thereby increasing his/her chance of gaining a higher family income. 

Two-thirds of the economy is made of consumer spending. If the people had extra money, they would spend it. Businesses would benefit and there would be more jobs.

There is no free lunch. Let’s concentrate on finding out where we can give ourselves a competitive advantage and go do it. We need to look at the bigger picture. Not “no can.” CAN!


Looking Back: RIP Senator Inouye

Richard Ha writes:

Senator Dan Inouye had a direct influence on Hamakua Springs Country Farms, primarily through the Rural Economic Transition Assistance Hawaii (RETAH) program. That, in turn, allowed us to be part of the Big Island Community Coalition, where our mission is to achieve the lowest-cost electricity in the state.

We continue to follow Senator Inouye’s example: It is about all of us, not just a few of us.

Mahalo, Senator Inouye—Rest in Peace.

Let me tell you a story. Nearly 18 years ago, C. Brewer Executive John Cross let me use 10 acres at Pepe‘ekeo, rent free, to test grow bananas. It was not clear then whether or not bananas could be successfully farmed in the deep soil and heavy rainfall of the Hilo Coast.

Having farmed bananas in the rocks of Kapoho and Kea‘au, I had no experience pulling a plow or getting stuck in mud. Until then, the standard way of planting bananas was by the “mat” system. The idea was to plant 250 plants per acre. Then, after the first bunch was harvested, you let four plants grow up, thereby increasing the population to 1000 plants per acre.

We decided to plant 25 percent fewer plants, in straight rows, so sunlight could hit the ground. The idea was to mow the grass in the
middle aisles in order to get traction instead of getting stuck in the mud. On that 10 acres, I mowed the grass and pulled a plow during the week to mark the lines. Then every weekend for several months, Grandma (who was 71), June, Tracy, Kimo and I, plus our two grandkids, would plant the banana plants from our own tissue culture lab.

(UH Hilo Professor Mike Tanabe taught us how to do that. And, by the way, instead of having a drop in production, the bunch size became larger, which made banana farming at Pepe‘ekeo more efficient.)

Kimo would carry a bucket of lime and dropped a handful as a marker every so many steps. Tracy or June drove the truck, and Kapono, who was around 6 years old, sat in the back and dropped a plant by the lime marker. Using picks and shovels, the rest of us set the plants in the ground. Even Kimberly, who was around 3, had a pick. She dug a hole wherever she wanted. After all the plants were planted, we took buckets and fertilized them.

At the end of that year, we felt it would work. We had a small ceremony where Doc Buyers, C. Brewer’s Chairman of the Board, cut off the first bunch of bananas. Also present were Jim Andrasick, who was then President of C. Brewer, and later Chairman of the Board of Matson; Willy Tallett, Senior Vice President of Real Estate/Corporate Development, and John Cross, who later became President of Mauna Kea Agribusiness (the successor company of C. Brewer).

C. Brewer had tens of thousands of acres and we had 10 acres – but our dreams were huge! We did not feel awkward that this group of heavy-duty corporate people were in attendance. We knew where we were going and it felt very appropriate for them to be there.

Then, a few years later, Senator Inouye, the leader of the Democratic party, appointed Monty Richards, a staunch Republican, to administer the RETAH program. That helped us expand our production at a critical time. And again Senator Inouye demonstrated that it wasn’t about a few of us, but it was about all of us.

We are only one of the tens of thousands of people who were helped by Senator Inouye.

At this special time of year, we look back at times and people from long ago and we smile. We thank everyone who has helped us along the way.

If we can continue to grow food, and if we can help our workers have a better life for their children, those are our goals.

Happy Holidays, Everyone.


Hydroelectric Project at Farm is Full Steam Ahead

Somebody asked me the other day about Richard’s hydroelectric project at the farm. I hadn’t even gotten around to asking him about it yet when I saw this Pacific Business News article.

Hydroelectric energy will power Big Island farm

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 25, 2011 AT 10:24AM

(Pacific Business News)  Hamakua Springs Country Farms plans to use the streams along the Hamakua Coast to generate electricity as early as next year and has hired a system developer to move the process forward.

The idea has been in the works since last year, and Richard Ha, president of Hamakua Springs, said development of the hydropower system is likely to begin in 2012. The farm has received the proper permits, he said, but the cost and design analysis has not yet begun. He expects the evaluation and building process to take about seven months to a year. Read the rest

Richard told me, “We cannot wait to make our electric bill predictable and stable.”


Positive Changes and Energy Solutions

A few days after the Peak Oil conference has ended, things are starting to become clear.

We have the oportunity to both make positive changes and also solve our energy problems. But we will need help from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo to analyze Big Island energy options from a holistic point of view.

The distribution curve of median family income is skewed heavily toward low income folks on the Big Island. The median family income in the state is $56,000. On the Big Island, it is $46,000.

Here on the east side of the Big Island, it is in the mid-30,000s. True aloha requires us to fix this, for all our sakes.

Last year when the oil price spiked, gasoline prices spiked as well. For the first time some of my workers asked me if they could borrow money for gas to come to work! The lower income folks were hurt bad.

It is no secret that I believe that biofuels are no solution to our energy problems, because return to the farmers would be too low.

But biofuels would also be as or more expensive than fossil fuels to the final customer. My workers would still have to borrow money for gas. What good is that?

The state of Hawai‘i legally owns our geothermal resource. So any royalties from its use must be paid to the state and to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA).

Right now, Puna Geothermal Venture pays the state $3.5 million a year, and OHA gets 20 percent of that. That’s $750,000 a year generated from geothermal en to OHA.

Also, the cost to consumers is less than that of fossil fuel and it will not go up when fossil fuel prices go up.

We need to put in more geothermal, not less. More money would go to the state and to OHA. Geothermal has low and stable costs, which results in more discretionary income left in people’s pockets. When they spend that money, businesses can hire workers, who can then take care of their families.

Taking care of people, this is true aloha. The tougher it gets, the more we need to take care of each other.

Geothermal energy is a gift of true aloha.